Monday, 23 July 2018

Search on for site of new 600-seat venue

THE Mayor of Henley has revealed his vision for an arts centre in the town.

THE Mayor of Henley has revealed his vision for an arts centre in the town.

Martin Akehurst wants a venue with up to 600 seats that could be used by professional and amateur theatre groups, for concerts and school events and to host large exhibitions.

He says local arts groups support the idea and he is confident of obtaining funding but that finding a suitable site is a challenge.

Councillor Akehurst, a former actor who appeared in The Catherine Tate Show and Love Actually, said he first began pursuing the idea in 2011 and it has developed gradually.

He told the Henley Standard: “Talking to a number of groups in Henley, there’s a need for an arts centre. I think there’s the support among residents as well.

“I’ve floated the idea with a number of people in Henley and I believe I could get funding from a number of them. They are colleagues of colleagues who are very supportive and were supportive when the previous plans came up 10 years ago and they would still be interested.

“I’ve got two willing architects who will be happy to pitch in and a person and support people who would be willing to manage it.”

The Mayor said King’s Arms Barn and the Old Fire Station Gallery are too small to stage large exhibitions.

“We could do with having something a lot bigger than that and the more flexible the better. It has to have that flexibility to make it financially viable.”

He said the site would need to be a “couple of acres” with room for front of house, back of house and for a stage, bar, green room and costumes and props store.

Cllr Akehurst said that a site close to the centre of Henley had been identified at the end of last year. He said: “It was offered but it is jointly owned by many members of one family and when it was put to the family as a whole the vote didn’t go my way.”

The former Henley Youth Centre site in Deanfield Avenue was also considered but ruled out for being too small. On the cost of the development, the Mayor said: “It depends totally on the site and what could be made of it. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Cllr Akehurst, who recently joined the Conservative Party after leaving Henley Residents’ Group last year, said he would like to pursue the idea after the elections in May.

“I’d love to get re-elected to push it forward,” he said. “Everyone I’ve spoken to has been very positive. I’ve not heard from anyone who’s against it.

“It’s getting the land that’s the problem. Ideally it would be central Henley but I don’t honestly think there are plots likely to come up there now.

“If it’s further out then you’re looking at car parking as well which puts up the price. Once we can identify a plot then we can cost it.”

Cllr Akehurst insisted the venue would not be in conflict with the Kenton Theatre in New Street.

He said: “The Kenton is superb and hopefully this would complement it. The Kenton is really buzzing and I would be mortified if this had an adverse effect on it.”

Julie Huntington, chairwoman of Henley Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society, said she would welcome a venue for larger events, such as concerts.

But she added: “We have to think about the heritage of the Kenton, which is beginning to come into its own and is a national treasure, being the fourth oldest working theatre in the country.

“A proper feasibility study ought to be done to make sure this would not have a negative impact.”

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