Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Curtain Call for Theatre? Drama Group Sets Stage for Campaign

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Curtain Call for Theatre? Drama Group Sets Stage for Campaign

Article excerpt

Byline: David Whetstone Arts & Entertainment Editor

AYOUTH drama group which has launched several glittering careers has begun a campaign to "save" an historic theatre.

First Act Theatre was set up in 1992 and has been based at the Jubilee Theatre, which is part of St Nicholas Hospital, Gosforth, ever since.

Famous former members include actresses Jill Halfpenny, Donna Air and Katharine Monaghan, who starred in Footballers' Wives, former Emmerdale actor Dale Meeks and singer Cheryl Cole of Girls Aloud.

Ant and Dec helped out with First Act Theatre's first production at the Jubilee Theatre, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, before going on to join TV series Byker Grove. Both the hospital and the theatre are owned by the Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Trust, which was created two years ago and specialises in the care of people with mental illnesses or disa bility.

On their website, First Act Theatre claim the Trust is "considering a recommendation that all users of the Jubilee Theatre should be served with notices to quit in the theatre (sic) so that it can be adapted for other, non-theatrical uses - probably as office space".

The Trust have countered the claim but admit that the St Nicholas Hospital site, which includes the theatre, is part of an on-going review about the use of accommodation across its sites, numbering about 150. First Act Theatre bosses set up an online petition - Save the Jubilee Theatre - asking people to register if they believe the theatre should remain as a community resource and that First Act should stay on as resident theatre company.

Stuart Bagnall, chairman of First Act Theatre, said: "We don't want a fight with the Trust because over the years they and their predecessors have been very good to us. Originally we were invited into the theatre. We believe that we have contributed much to their own aims and objectives to challenge the stigma associated with mental health."

He estimated that over the years First Act had brought almost 60,000 people into what was previously seen as "a daunting Victorian psychiatric institution". This was in addition to the 3,000 young people who had taken part in shows or drama workshops.

Mr Bagnall said the Trust had originally told First Act not to take any bookings beyond October, which had led them to cancel a planned production of The King & I. He said: "They do seem to keep changing the dates because they have now told us we can continue up until January."

First Act was established by Barry Wilmot, a former police officer who used to run the youth theatre at The Journal Tyne Theatre.

"I had heard about the Jubilee Theatre and was invited to look around by the management at the time who had been using it as warehousing," he said. "At the time it had fluorescent lighting on the ceiling and wasn't equipped for theatre shows. …

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