A year after the death of its pioneering artistic director Jill Fraser and 18 months after it was put up for sale (See News, 10 Jun 2005), the Berkshire-based Watermill Theatre’s future looks more secure with news today that the trust set up in its name has secured the required funds to purchase the premises and thus safeguard the theatre.

According to Ralph Bernard, Chairman of the Save the Watermill appeal: “Over 2,600 donors have helped us to raise a fantastic £1,770,000 in only 18 months, and this successfully completes the first stage of the appeal to secure the theatre’s future.”

The trustees of the Boris Karloff Foundation are backing the theatre with a loan of £750,000 so that the Watermill’s Board of Directors could meet the deadline and commit to purchasing the theatre before the end of December 2006. The theatre is now focusing all efforts on raising the remaining balance of £1,230,000 to enable building work to commence in April this year as planned.

The first stage will be the crucial work to extend the cramped offices and provide additional rehearsal and meeting space. The next stage will be to refurbish the lily pond area adjacent to the restaurant to improve facilities for the theatre’s audiences. The building programme will complete phase two of the appeal to establish a firm foundation for the future of theatre.

James Sargant, executive director and current owner of the premises said: “It is absolutely wonderful that the trustees of the Boris Karloff Foundation have been able to help us in this way. My wife Jill Fraser, who ran the theatre for 25 years and who died last year (See News, 13 Feb 2006), always had the ambition that the theatre should be able to continue long into the future and this wish has now been granted. As a family we are all delighted.”

Converted in 1968 from a mill beside the river Lambourn in Newbury, the 220-seat Watermill achieved an international reputation under Fraser’s direction, not least as the home of Edward Hall’s all-male Shakespeare ensemble Propeller (including Rose Rage, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Winter’s Tale) since 1997 and as the launching pad for associate director John Doyle’s actor-musician led musicals (The Gondoliers, Fiddler on the Roof, Sweeney Todd, Mack and Mabel) since 1998.

Associate director Edward Hall - who has been helping to steer the theatre since Fraser’s death ahead of the appointment of a new artistic director in October 2007 – will return to the Watermill with three productions over the next six months.

First off, Hall will direct his wife, actress Issy van Randwyck (currently in the West End in Dirty Dancing), in W Somerset Maugham’s 1932 “anti-comedy” For Services Rendered, running from 7 March to 14 April 2007. Set in the picturesque Kentish village of Rambleton, the play poignantly dramatises provincial middle class English life in the depression after the Great War. It’s designed by Francis O’Connor.

Hall’s Propeller productions of The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night, which open at London’s Old Vic this month (See News, 9 May 2005), will then have limited seasons in rep at the Watermill from 6 to 30 June 2007. The Taming of the Shrew was first seen at the Watermill last September. Both are directed by Hall and designed by Michael Pavelka.

The new Watermill season opens with a revival of Ben Travers’ 1928 Aldwych farce Plunder, about a suave thief keen to relieve a nouveau riche lady of her jewels. Directed by Heather Davies, who was an associate director for Hall on Propeller’s The Winter’s Tale, Plunder runs from 31 January to 3 March 2007. Other highlights include a revival of Jim Cartwright's 1993 Olivier Award-winning comedy The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, from 25 April to 26 May 2007. The play later became a film with its original star Jane Horrocks mimicking the singing voices of golden age divas.

- by Terri Paddock