Community groups make last minute appeal as crunch theatre vote looms
26th September 2019
CLOSING the Assembly Hall could sound the death knell for the town’s orchestra and mean the end of nearly 100 years of performing, its chairman has warned.
It would also cast doubts over the future of Tunbridge Wells Operatic and Dramatic Society [TWODS].
On Wednesday, councillors decided to adjourn a vote on whether to press ahead with plans to build a new theatre and civic centre on the edge of Calverley Grounds.
If the proposal is finally rejected by councillors then moves will be made to renovate the Assembly Hall which could shut for several years.
The Calverley Square development has been on hold since an extraordinary meeting in June when councillors agreed to look at possible alternatives to replace the ailing theatre and Town Hall.
A cross-party group of councillors has looked at other potential schemes and come up with only one possibility which is to ‘repurpose, redevelop and refurbish’ the existing theatre and Town Hall buildings on Crescent Road.
The Council estimate this could cost up to £95million to bring them up to the same standards as Calverley Square.
And if this happens, the site on Calverley Grounds will still not be saved from future development as it will either be sold off or earmarked for other projects.
The plan will see the existing theatre close for a number of years, which local musical and drama groups are warning could put an end to their organisations.
Current Chairman of the Royal Tunbridge Wells Symphony Orchestra [RTWSO], Giles Clarke, told the Times that closure of the Assembly Hall would be ‘very damaging’ for the orchestra, which has been putting on performances in the town since 1922.
“The Assembly Hall has been a good home for us with a big enough stage to fit as many as 90 players needed for some of the larger orchestral pieces, and an auditorium big enough for almost 1,000 people to hear the music and to pay for the expense of putting on the event.
“But it is the only hall big enough to host live performances of this scale within a 30-mile radius,” he warned.
He admitted their current home, which is subsidised by taxpayers to the tune of £479,000 a year, a figure that is only set to increase next year, was ‘coming to the end of its natural life’.
“Although the seats have been refurbished recently, its back stage facilities are small, scruffy and inadequate,” he added.
He continued: “Our favoured solution is to go for a new modern hall large enough to house big events and, importantly, with good acoustics that do not rely on amplification.
“Tunbridge Wells deserves a decent venue to live up to its cultural aspirations and which is flexible enough in its specification to host a wide range of events over the course of the next 100 years.”
While the Council chamber is divided over plans to build a new venue on the edge of Calverley Grounds, nearly all councillors agree that the town needs a community theatre in addition to the 300-seat Trinity Theatre.
But Mr Clarke warned if councillors opt to refurbish the Assembly Hall, there would be no community groups to use it when it re-opened as the symphony orchestra could have disappeared.
He said: “Sticking with the status quo is not an option, so what can be done?
“We could either try to extend and re-equip the existing Hall, or we could build a custom-designed new one.
“From the RTWSO point of view, putting the Assembly Hall out of action for some years while we try to drag it into the 21st century would be very damaging as we would have no venue large enough for our repertoire.
“Our players would disperse and we would not be able to keep up the level of musical excellence that we currently achieve.”
He went on: “Our loyal audience would get out of the habit of coming to concerts and would have to be rebuilt from scratch after the re-opening.”
He added that the RTWSO’s current musical director, Roderick Dunk, will be appealing directly to councillors when they finally discuss whether to press ahead with Calverley Square in a bid to prevent this from happening.
The orchestra will not be alone in seeking assurances from councillors that they do not leave the town without a large capacity theatre for several years.
Tunbridge Wells Operatic and Dramatic Society (TWODS), one of the oldest amateur societies in the country, are also worried about their fate.
Kevin Denman, current Chairman of the organisation, which celebrates its 130th anniversary this year, told the Times that the society is ‘neutral’ as to whether the town needs a new theatre.
But he added: “We do not believe the Assembly Hall is currently fit for purpose and have clear views on the approach to any redevelopment there.
“I’ve seen suggestions of a two to three year closure, which we believe will jeopardise the existence of TWODS.
“We are therefore strongly opposed to it.”