Last month the Two Sisters Theatre, which is the main hub of the Hever Festival, had to close due to being badly damaged in a storm. Eileen Leahy spoke to the event’s Director Ailsa Molyneux about how she and her team managed to keep the popular arts festival afloat in this, its 40th year, and discovers the exciting performances still left to see on the summer 2023 bill…
On Saturday July 15, very high winds resulted in a branch from one of Hever Castle’s oldest and most majestic trees breaking off and crashing into the venue’s main al fresco Two Sisters theatre, damaging it beyond repair.
It was – quite literally – a terrible blow for Hever Festival’s organisers who were halfway through another successful summer programme of comedy, musicals, children’s dramas and specialist talks at the theatre – and were also celebrating the event’s milestone 40th anniversary.
Dubbed the ‘West End in the Garden of England’, Hever Festival was established by Ron Palmer. It now runs from the last weekend of May right through to the end of August and boasts an eclectic bill that really does offer something for everyone. But when the theatre roof was ripped off last month the event’s future was very much thrown into doubt.
At the time of the incident Hever Festival’s Director Ailsa Molyneux, who took over the reins in 2018, said: “We are heartbroken…but we are not giving up.”
That ‘show must go on’ sentiment is most definitely what got Ailsa and her team through. Amazingly only one performance – Swinging at the Cotton Club – had to be cancelled because the main theatre was out of action for a few weeks.
“We were devastated to have to do that but the heavy rain was splashing onto the temporary stage and would have been dangerous for the performers dancing if we’d continued,” explains Ailsa.
Other performances were moved elsewhere on site and also to nearby Chiddingstone Castle and St Peter’s Church, while a temporary theatre was set up on Anne Boleyn’s Walk.
“We thought we might have to cancel lots of shows, but the estate staff at Hever Castle have been so accommodating. We are also lucky that our festival is owned by the team that run Visual Elements, who provide creative technical solutions, so they were able to build us a stage on Anne Boleyn’s Walk in just four days to accommodate the rest of the season.
“The temporary stage has been a wonderful interim performance space and despite not having shelter from the rain and having to bring their own seats audiences have loved it. But despite all this we are in jeopardy,” Ailsa states.
“Ticket sales have reduced to a third of our projected sales. That’s why we need audiences’ support now more than ever, so we can secure the future of the festival.”
On a happier note, Ailsa goes on to say that the Two Sisters Theatre has now reopened and there will be plenty to enjoy there until the end of this month.
“Many great shows are still to perform in The Two Sisters Theatre as part of our 40th birthday season, including tribute artists, Just Floyd, The Dolly Show and The Greatest Hits of Motown. There’s also jazz from Ronnie Scott’s All Stars, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and it wouldn’t be a season without The Last Night of the Hever Proms!
“There have had to be some changes to make the theatre safe. Its famous white roof for example has had to be removed over the centre tier, but the covered seating remains in the east and west tiers. We are also moving the new stage we built in there so we are very excited to see it up and running again!”
And despite the unseasonal weather and audience numbers being lower than in normal years, Ailsa says the event’s loyal supporters have been utterly amazing.
“We wouldn’t be here without them. They could have all asked for their money back but they haven’t so that gives us a fighting chance of survival. The feedback on the temporary stage was incredible. It worked so well for our concert shows ELO Again, Beyond the Barricade and 1974 ABBA. The atmosphere at every [event] has been wonderful with audiences dancing amongst the trees!
“It’s been the toughest of all our 40 years, but we won’t be broken. So please, if you can, do join us as we have a good few weeks of the season left. Bring your friends and family and tell them to do the same. You are the reason we do this, there is no point in any of this without you.”
HOW TO BOOK TICKETS:
Call the Box Office on 07379 488477
(Open Mon-Fri 10am-2pm) or visit: heverfestival.co.uk