Newbury’s Watermill Theatre (pictured), home of Edward Hall’s Propeller Theatre company, faces an uncertain future following today’s announcement that it has been put up for sale.

Converted from a mill beside the river Lambourn in West Berkshire, the venue is all of 220 seats. Despite its size, it has achieved a national reputation for its work, not least Hall’s all-male Shakespeare productions and associate director John Doyle’s actor-musician ensembles.

Over the past five years, the Watermill has successfully toured and transferred to the West End numerous productions, including Propeller’s Rose Rage and Midsummer Night's Dream and Doyle-directed musicals The Gondoliers and Sweeney Todd. The last is now preparing for a Broadway run.

The Watermill is currently run by artistic director Jill Fraser and her husband James Sargant, who bought it 23 years ago. The couple now wish to retire so have put the theatre up for sale. In addition to the change of ownership, Fraser’s retirement means the theatre will be appointing a new artistic director in 2007/8.

The Watermill Theatre Trust has been set up, along with an Appeal Board, to try and raise enough funds to take over the theatre and its grounds, including a house, restaurant, actors’ accommodation, offices, car park and gardens. The target for the appeal is £3 million, which covers the £1.7 million to purchase the Grade II-listed building as well as £1.3 million required for urgent refurbishment and expansion work. New sewage systems and mains drainage also need to be installed and the theatre’s electricity supply increased.

Ralph Bernard (executive chairman of Gcap Media), who heads the Appeal Board, said: “It is an imperative that we save this theatre, not only for the local community but also for the wider world of theatre. So many great productions have started at this West Berkshire powerhouse and moved on to entertain thousands of people, young and old, from Newbury to New York.”


Meanwhile, Rose of Kingston – a new £11 million theatre modelled on the Elizabethan Rose and operated under the artistic direction of Sir Peter Hall – has been given the go-ahead to open for business in summer 2006 (See News, 2 Jul 2004). Although fundraising is ongoing, the local council has guaranteed the project through the establishment of a property company to attract further substantial outside investment.

The main Kingston auditorium is housed within a modern building, designed by architects Michael Holden Associates, but follows the ground plan of the Rose, which was built in 1587 and premiered many of Shakespeare’s early plays. Archaeological remains of the actual Rose were discovered in the London borough of Southwark in 1989 and are still being excavated (See News, 29 Jan 1999). Like the Elizabethan original, the 1,100-capacity Rose of Kingston comprises a promontory stage surrounded by three tiers of seating and a pit for audience ‘groundlings’.

The space was inaugurated last December with a special “In the Raw” season of Hall’s production of As You Like It, performed in the unfinished shell and featuring gala evenings hosted by Judi Dench and Jimmy Tarbuck (See News, 17 Sep 2004).

Upon completion of building work at Kingston, the plan is to establish a permanent 20-strong company, presenting a repertory of eight plays, running annually from September to June and complementing a programme of education work alongside Kingston University’s two-year Master of Fine Arts post-graduate course. Students – actors as well as directors and designers - will join the theatre company in their second year of study.

The first director of both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre’s South Bank complex, Peter Hall celebrated 50 years as a professional director last year. In 1977, he was knighted for services to theatre and, in 1999, was presented with an Olivier for Lifetime Achievement. In a statement released this week, Hall said: “Rose of Kingston is the most important part of my professional life and over the coming months I will be working alongside my colleagues to put together an acting company and a repertoire which will I hope excite and enthral our audiences.”

- by Hannah Kennedy & Terri Paddock