Saturday, 15 December 2018

Theatre’s campaign gains supporters

PRESSURE is growing for the historic Kenton Theatre in Henley to be allowed to install an illuminated sign.

PRESSURE is growing for the historic Kenton Theatre in Henley to be allowed to install an illuminated sign.

A petition urging South Oxfordshire District Council to grant permission has attracted more than 800 signatures, while celebrities including Cilla Black, Paul Daniels and Phillip Schofield have joined a number of peers in supporting the campaign.

The trustees of the New Street theatre have applied for a 3.7m x 60cm burgundy aluminium sign to be placed above the canopy, supported by decorative brackets in the same colour.

Town councillors have recommended refusal following a complaint by a neighbour and a final decision will be made next month after district councillors have made a site visit.

Magician Paul Daniels, who lives in Wargrave, said: “Councils seem to be blissfully unaware that unless a theatre is easily seen and it’s easy to see what’s on there, it can’t do business.

“A theatre is for the public and certainly the Kenton Theatre, which is owned by the people of Henley, is for the people of Henley.

“But there’s a big passing trade going past it and when I’m driving past, even though I know it’s there, I don’t see it.

“You have to have signage on a theatre saying ‘come and enjoy yourself, this is a good place to be’ but the town council doesn’t seem to understand that at all.”

Daniels said illuminated signs were now commonplace, adding: “If anything should have that kind of attraction it’s got to be a theatre. Whatever the Kenton can do to get people inside, it should be doing it and allowed to do it. Without live theatre, Henley would start to die off.”

Reading FC chairman Sir John Madejski said: “It’s a shame they can’t light up such a lovely building as it’s one of the oldest theatres in the country.”

Sara Lord, daughter of Deep Purple founder Jon Lord, who lived near Henley until his death last year, said: “Knowing how fond my late father was of the Kenton Theatre and what it represented to him, I would like to say on his behalf ‘we support you’.”

Ian Paice, the band’s drummer, has added his name to the campaign.

Lady McAlpine, who lives at the Fawley Hill estate, pointed out that a district council conservation officer had raised no objection to an illuminated sign on the Kenton, which is the country’s fourth oldest working theatre and in a conservation area.

She said: “Conservation officers never seem to support adding anything new to an old building but this one has the sense to realise that there cannot be another theatre in the whole world that does not have its name ‘in lights’.

“If the lights are switched off by 11.30pm, what is there to annoy the neighbours?

“I really like our Mayor and those council members I know and am saddened by their very strange attitude to something as logical as a theatre having a sign to announce its presence, especially after such a long battle to save the theatre.”

Lady McAlpine said she had been contacted by Jeremy Paxman, Lady Mortimer, Lord Bragg and new BBC director-general Lord Hall all offering support for the Kenton.

TV presenters Phillip Schofield, who lives in Fawley, and Cilla Black, Henley racing driver David Brabham and Lady Marcia Fitzalan-Howard, an actress from Fawley, are also backing the campaign.

Wendy Bowsher, managing director of the Kenton, said: “It’s absolutely fantastic having the level of support we’ve had from the whole community.

“It’s great having the support of the lords and ladies but we are equally as thankful to the ordinary members of the public.

“People have stopped me in the street to say ‘what’s this about?’ and many of the traders are very supportive because they recognise the contribution that the theatre brings.

“We have 40,000 people come here every year and that brings a contribution to the economy of the town, which is very important during these economic times. It’s important to keep the town alive.”

Nansi Diamond, who has volunteered at the theatre for more than 50 years and appeared in shows there, questioned the neighbour’s objection.

“Surely when you buy property near a theatre there would be an expectation of more noise and light than a normal domestic dwelling,” said Mrs Diamond, who lives in Thames Side.

“The theatre, after all, has been there for many years longer than the current neighbours and if the light spillage is kept to the minimum, or the sign moved as suggested by the conservation officer, it should not cause too much inconvenience.”

Derek Gilbert, from Lower Assendon, said: “Would the council please advise details of any other theatres of more than 200 seats in the UK that do not have an illumimated sign outside? I don’t know of any.”

Artist Bill Mundy said: “Being one of the oldest theatres in Britain and a self-funding charity run by volunteers, the Kenton deserves to be properly visible from the road by means of the proposed new sign.

“Being an artist myself and a regular patron of the Kenton, I cannot agree with the town council’s objections as the sign blends artistically with the facade of the theatre.”

Kay Bryant, from Fawley, said: “It would be a huge loss to the Henley street scene and to the cultural life of the town if the Kenton was to disappear as a working theatre. I sincerely hope that the council will reconsider its position.”

Julie Huntingdon, chairwoman of the Henley Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society, said: “The continued existence of the theatre depends solely on audience numbers.

“I used to hold regular Saturday morning coffee sessions in the theatre foyer in order to help raise funds and I despair at the number of times that people wandering by who popped in said ‘I have lived in Henley for X number of years and had no idea that there was a theatre here’.

“The new sign would draw the attention of passing motorists and pedestrians without being overpowering.”

The application is opposed by the Henley Archaeological and Historical Group, which says the sign contradicts the town’s shop front design guide and is unsuitable for a listed building.

In a letter to the district council, honorary secretary Ruth Gibson said: “The character of this part of the Henley conservation area is that of a domestic Georgian street.

“If permitted, the proposed sign would have a detrimental impact on the plain, early 19th brick facade of the Kenton Theatre building itself.

“It would furthermore have a detrimental impact on the surrounding listed buildings, which make up the Georgian domestic street scene and which greatly contribute to the special character of this Henley heritage asset.

“This is not London theatre land, where every venue has to compete with its neighbours for the attention of visitors.

“The six glass globes under the glass canopy are a very effective way of drawing the attention of visitors to the solitary theatre in this domestic street with its unlit exteriors.”

Mrs Gibson suggested that hanging signs on brackets would be more fitting.

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