Colchester’s Mercury Theatre has re-opened after two years away and is already thrilling those passionate about the arts
When Mercury Theatre, led by executive director Steve Mannix, and executive producer, Tracey Childs, announced its opening season in the company’s extensively refurbished venue to great fanfare, it was the culmination of two years of closure following the Mercury Rising transformation, a three-year campaign which raised over £11.3 million to reimagine the theatre and improve accessibility throughout.
The season opened in July with Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville, directed by the company’s creative director Ryan McBryde, and will be followed in October by the UK premiere of Merlynn Tong’s Antigone directed by Dawn Walton OBE. Also launching this season is Mercury Originals, a programme of ground-breaking new plays, showcasing the voices of local writers. The first production is a world première of Sirens by award-winning playwright, Kenny Emson, with future productions to be announced. The year concludes with the return of pantomime, Aladdin by Andrew Pollard and directed by McBryde, with Great British Pantomime award-winning Antony Stuart-Hicks and Dale Superville in the cast. The Mercury also have commissioned Joel Horwood to write an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Green Mile which will receive its world premiere on the Colchester stage in 2022, ahead of a national tour.
Visiting the Mercury Theatre today, it’s astonishing just how different it looks and feels. The refurbished venue includes a transformed bigger, brighter foyer space that is open all day with a new café bar, redeveloped main auditorium with additional seats, new rehearsal room, revamped and extended backstage facilities, improved interval experience by doubling the number of loos, and most importantly for the first time the building will be accessible throughout.
The new community space and dance studio is equipped to support the best new talent, and in addition, the company continues its commitment to sustainability including through the introduction of a ‘bring your own cup policy’ to reduce single-use plastic, as well as increasing the building’s energy efficiency with the expansion of LED lighting, converting to 100% renewable electricity and the implementation of solar panels.
Talking to Steve Mannix about the long journey to this day, he says: “Having come so far in such a challenging period, we are beyond thrilled that we are so close to welcoming our audiences and returning to making a vital contribution to the local economy of Colchester. We are extremely thankful to our funding partners and we look forward to working in partnership with Colchester Borough Council, other local arts and heritage organisations and the local business community to help the town’s economy recover from the devastating impact of the pandemic. The public have been incredibly generous in their support of our fundraising efforts throughout our Mercury Rising campaign, for which we truly thank them. We continue to value this wonderful support and will need our local community behind us more than ever as we open our doors and provide a true Mercury welcome.”
Talking about the shows themselves, creative director Ryan McBryde adds: “We can’t wait to put on a show and welcome everyone to come and see all of our new facilities and events. We’re looking forward to reinventing old stories and conjuring up bold, new ones. Stories that electrify, stir and enrich; stories from fresh voices that demand to be heard; stories that enable us to identify with one another.
“It’s not just about the shows,” he continues. “We want to breathe life into our spaces all day long. We want to see parents enjoying coffee and cake in our café bar whilst their toddlers enjoy morning story-time, we want to see our senior citizens learning to Lindy Hop in our brand new dance studio, school choirs singing their hearts out on the terrace, families picnicking in the Roman wall garden, professionals hot-desking in our office, and our young company rehearsing in the creative learning space.”
Amy Vaughan, director of East of England, Arts Council England, was also present to add her thoughts. “The Mercury has gone through an absolutely amazing transformation thanks to National Lottery funding,” she says. “I’m excited by its reopening plans, which really help establish it as much more than ‘just’ a theatre – creating a welcoming hub for the community to enjoy, whether they are seeing a performance or not. I look forward to seeing the space come to life with visitors from near and far.”
The revitalisation has enabled the Mercury Theatre to expand its community and engagement work with its Taking Part activities, including a 10-week acting programme, an inter-generational community choir, a musical theatre dance class and family sing-a-longs. They also launch Senior Social Club, a weekly inclusive space, for those over 55, to forge new friendships whilst participating in creative classes. Mercury Young Company (MYC) returns with an additional age group, 18-25, and they introduce new activities for young people including tots classes, weekend drop in sessions and summer school opportunities. In addition, the company’s Artist Development Programme continues with How To, monthly masterclasses led by professional theatre practitioners; Connects providing a regular space for is art professionals to connect; and Reads, supporting new writers, and providing a platform to share new work.
The building has been converted by Phelan, and is designed by Colchester Borough Homes and Purcell. Supported by Arts Council England, Colchester Borough Council, Essex Country Council, South East Local Enterprise Partnership and European Regional Development Fund, plus generous public and private donations. Colchester Borough Council has been a key partner in the success of the Mercury Rising project providing £1.5 million towards the initiative, securing £4m of Arts Council Funding and working with the Design Team from Colchester Borough Homes, who also managed the delivery of the improvement works. Additional support from other funders included Essex County Council (£1 million), South East Local Enterprise Partnership (£1 million), the European Regional Development Fund (£978,000), NESTA (£400,000), over £600,000 from national and local Trust and Foundations and £665,000 from local residents, audience members and sponsors. The project has also benefitted from support from the Government’s Kickstart Cultural Recovery Fund (£864,000).
A real community effort for what will undoubtedly become the centre of Colchester’s creative output for many years to come.