When the £27m Shakespeare North Playhouse opens in Prescot in summer 2022 it will stand as an -inspiring- example for the whole country of the value of culture-led regeneration.
That is the clear message from Melanie Lewis, Chief Executive of the theatre which, despite the impact of the pandemic, remains on track to welcome the first of its expected 140,000 annual visitors in just a few months’ time.
“This will be so much more than just a theatre,” explained Melanie. “It represents a significant change for Prescot and its economy. When you talk to people working on the project and when you listen to people living in Prescot and small businesses, you can see they believe it is going to be something really special.”
Main contractor Kier started work on the main build of the Shakespeare North Playhouse in February 2020. Everyone involved in the development had to adapt quickly when the COVID-19 pandemic, and subsequent lockdowns, hit just a few weeks later.
In September, Liverpool City Region Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram joined Melanie, and Knowsley Council Leader, Graham Morgan, to see the final brick laid for the main structure of the building. Melanie said the scheme was on track for completion in spring 2022 ahead of the planned summer opening.
Once complete the Playhouse will also boast an inclusive education programme, gallery space, visitor centre and additional performance spaces including an outdoor performance garden. It will be a key highlight of Knowsley’s year as Liverpool City Region Borough of Culture in 2022.
The centrepiece of the building will be a 350-seat theatre, modelled on the cockpit-in-court design popular during the Elizabethan era. Melanie said: “The cockpit-in-court theatre will be incredible and it will be able to stage wonderful Shakespearian productions.
“In addition to that there will be a number of performance spaces and studios – a thriving hub where people from the entire community will be able to explore their creativity. We will host great contemporary theatre productions, music and comedy.”
Thanks to the support of the Ken Dodd Foundation, there will also be an outdoor performance garden. Melanie added: “We are a Northern venue so comedy will play a central role in the theatre. Whichever the space or stage we want to offer productions and performances that are as diverse as possible.
“We will also have a bar, cafe and restaurant. It will be a place people will be able to come to at all times of the day, especially our local community who will be our beating heart. It will be different things to different people. There will also be a big community outreach learning programme where we will look to support and inspire as many people as we can.”
The economic impact of the Playhouse is already evident. It is estimated the facility will boost Knowsley’s annual GVA by £5.3m, including employing 85 people directly. Already, said Melanie, entrepreneurs have started to invest in the town with a number of businesses, including restaurants and cafes, already opened.
One restaurant is Pinion, opened by high profile chef and restaurateur, Gary Usher. His project to open the town’s first new restaurant for years was chronicled in a Channel 4 documentary, The Rebel Chef. According to Melanie, Pinion already has a pre-theatre dinner menu, which she says is “delicious”.
“There is a real sense of Prescot pulling together to help regenerate the town,” she added. “And it is so important to us that we work with businesses in the town and across the city region.
“We have already engaged with organisations such as Knowsley Chamber and we want businesses to get in touch to see how we can work with them. That could be through sponsorship opportunities at the theatre or joining our supply chain.”
Melanie arrived at the Shakespeare North Playhouse with decades of experience working in the culture and visitor attraction sectors, overseeing a number of capital projects. She worked at both Blackburn Rovers and Everton football clubs and, most recently, she was the director of commercial and visitor experience at National Museums Liverpool.
She said: “I absolutely loved working at National Museums Liverpool and it would have to have been something really special that would have persuaded me to leave. The Playhouse is that special thing and everyone involved in it has said the same.
“I have worked on a number of capital projects over the years and this has to be the best one. I have been overwhelmed with the work of the amazing team. From Knowsley Council, to Kier the main contractor to architects Austin-Smith:Lord and Helm Architecture, their fortitude and dedication has been incredible.
“COVID presented the kind of challenges that none of us could have foreseen. They had to adapt quickly to the pandemic. They worked out what needed to be done and they just got on with it. They have done a superb job.
“We have not had to change the design at all due to COVID. The Playhouse is a facility that already has plenty of space in it and it will give us the capacity to be flexible and agile and respond to different challenges in the future.”
On the importance of the project, Melanie added: “Knowsley’s Council’s strategy to regenerate a town through culture is inspiring. People will come here from across the north and they will see that big attractions such as this do not have to be in city centres.
“I walk through the town and I speak to people and everyone is so excited and can’t wait for the Playhouse to open. I have always believed in the power of collaboration and enjoyed bringing people together through culture and art. That is where my passion lies.”