Regional powerhouse Bristol Old Vic (pictured) will close on 1 August 2007 to undergo an 18-month, £7 million refurbishment. While renovations have been planned for some time, staff were only informed last night that work would begin so immediately. The quick closure date has already resulted in the cancellation of the scheduled September run of Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings - which jeopardises the overall project, a co-production between Headlong Theatre, the Lyric Hammersmith and Bristol – as well as the resignation of artistic director Simon Reade, who will leave in just three weeks’ time, and the likelihood of substantial redundancies amongst the venue’s 70 staff.

A theatre spokeswoman told that the speed at which things has happened was much “quicker than anticipated”. In addition, a recent survey has shown that the necessary work will take “longer to rectify” than previously realised. A statement issued by Rupert Rhymes, chairman of the theatre’s trustees, explains: “Of course the decision to close the theatre is a difficult one, but at the end of the day we had very little option given the deteriorating state of the building, issues of health and safety and the need to improve the comfort for audiences in the future. There is much work to be done and unfortunately this cannot be carried out while the theatre is in operation.”

Rhymes continued: “Due to the length of closure, we are going to have to reduce our current team to skeleton staff who will be overseeing the refurbishment and a number of possible outreach performances throughout the period. We do, therefore, envisage that some redundancies will need to be made but we hope to keep the numbers affected to a minimum and intend to consult about these proposals over the next few weeks with staff, providing as much support as possible to those that we will have to let go.”

Built in 1776, Bristol Old Vic is one of the country’s oldest working theatres. Its last refurbishment was in 1969, when it shut for three years. Work on the new renovation was made possible thanks to a £1 million donation from the Linbury Trust. That - combined with £1 million from Bristol City Council, £2 million from Arts Council England and other bodies’ contributions – brings the total raised to date to over £5 million. A public appeal will now be launched to raise the remainder.

Essential structural work on the Grade I-listed building will include addressing electrical and plumbing issues to ensure the theatre complies with health and safety regulations. The refurbishment – due to be completed in December 2008 - will also comprise new seating, a new air cooling system, lifting of the stalls floor levels for improved stage visibility and installation of disabled lift access.

However, last night’s press release makes clear that changes in Bristol will not stop with the architecture. It states that management “will be using the refurbishment period to look at a new organisational model for the theatre in order that it can respond flexibly to the changing 21st-century arts environment and deliver a sustainable business plan”.

Reade’s sudden departure was announced simultaneously. He took over as joint artistic director of Bristol in 2003 and has been running it solo since 2005 when his colleague and long-time collaborator David Farr left to head up London’s Lyric Hammersmith (See News, 19 Oct 2004). The theatre’s national profile has been significantly raised during Reade’s tenure, with award-winning productions including his own adaptation of Michael Morpugo’s Private Peaceful.

Although unavailable for comment today, the wording of his issued statement suggests that Reade is worried about the organisational and artistic rethink on the cards. “I am honoured to have played a leading role in this latest act of Bristol Old Vic’s long history… When the theatre emerges from its refurbishment with a new vision, I hope it will continue to produce works commensurate with the theatre’s history, that entice a future audience and that will continue to develop the national theatre culture.” He went on to thank his wife and children for “their patience and understanding throughout all the highs and lows of the business of running a subsidised theatre in Bristol”.

Like its staff, Bristol Old Vic’s partners were given no notice of the closure announcement. Henny Finch, producer for Headlong, told that they too only learned the news last night. Headlong’s adaptation of Rough Crossings - directed by Headlong artistic director Rupert Goold and timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the end of slavery in Britain - was due to premiere at Bristol, a city built in large part on the back of the slave trade, running there from 7 to 22 September 2007, before visiting the Lyric Hammersmith, Liverpool Playhouse and the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.

While they are still hoping to come to an agreement, possibly staging the play elsewhere in Bristol, Finch has been informed that, in addition to not housing the production, Bristol will no longer help fund. While Headlong and the Lyric Hammersmith promise that the production will still go ahead – and have already been approached by other interested partners - Finch admitted that she was “very concerned about the future of the project” and saddened that “Bristol may miss out” on such an important production. Headlong commissioned American poet and novelist Caryl Phillips to adapt Schama’s 2005 non-fiction bestseller, sub-titled Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution, for the stage (See News, 29 Aug 2006).

Regarding Rough Crossings, Lyric Hammersmith artistic director David Farr commented: “All the co-producers are extremely disappointed that Bristol have reneged on a clear agreement to do the show – it’s in their brochure and they’ve sold tickets.” As the Old Vic’s former co-artistic director with Read, Farr said that, in hearing the news, “my main emotion is huge disappointment but also concern” regarding the apparently “short-term, panicked decision-making” – “it makes me worry that there’s more to this than meets the eye”, he said. He also expressed concern for the theatre’s “ordinary, passionately committed” staff, who have been “very harshly treated”.

Production company Scamp, which has also been working with Bristol Old Vic, has confirmed that its projects will go ahead regardless. Jennifer Sutherland and Louise Callow from Scamp said that the theatre’s closure “in no way affects our plans to co-produce Aesop's Fables and Private Peaceful”. The two Michael Morpurgo adaptations will open at the Assembly Rooms in August as part of this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2007 and will then embark on UK regional tours in the autumn. They added: “We highly value both our personal and professional relationship with Simon Reade and will remain in constant touch with him and continue our professional collaboration.”

According to Bristol’s press release, the theatre are now contacting ticket-buyers for Rough Crossings to arrange refunds. Amongst the other shows that were expected to figure in the theatre’s unannounced autumn/winter season were a revival of Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood, co-produced with Birmingham Rep, and two co-productions with Cornish company Kneehigh, whose adaptation of A Matter of Life and Death premiered last night at the National.

- by Terri Paddock