The new Waterside Theatre, built at great expense (£42 million) by the council and managed by the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), had its head wetted by some of the great and good of the theatre world at a gala opening ceremony. Ultimately, it will form part of a massive regeneration project but for now it stands alone on the outskirts of the town centre.
Cilla Black cut the ribbon, Simon Callow and David Suchet blessed the place with a few lines from Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Northern Ballet’s Swan Lake did the honours as the first official production on the new stage (though the Buzzcocks had put the venue through its paces the preceding week).
Aylesbury’s aristocracy and ATG’s top brass all looked rightly proud of the stunning new theatre, which has easily trumped the Local Authority tower block and Bank of Scotland call centre as the town’s most noteworthy architecture. It’s as though some eco aliens have beamed down in the middle of Buckinghamshire in a spaceship carved from wood, glass and slate.
The launch was well attended. In addition to Ms Black, who will star in a £1million pantomime, Cinderella, Bill Kenwright popped in to see where some of his touring shows will berth. Suzanne Shaw played MC for the shivering crowds outside and Tony Christie bombed down the motorway from his Litchfield home to see what all the fuss was about.
Of course, building and launching a spectacular new venue is the fun part. Now comes the mundane task of having to fill the 1,200-seat main house every night and that is not a given. Aylesbury (population circa 59,000) itself is not much to write home about and the town’s largest employers are shedding staff at a frightening rate but the surrounding countryside is peppered with affluent villages so there should be a decent catchment.
A bigger problem might be the proximity of other, very good, theatres. Making a success of Aylesbury will involve luring Buckinghamshire’s cultured classes away from ATG’s other theatres in Milton Keynes and Oxford and competing houses in High Wycombe and Watford, none of which are more than a 45-minute drive away.
Programming will therefore be key, and here ATG has got off to a good start with a mix of touring plays and musicals, stand-up comedy, gigs and the aforementioned mega-panto.
Strategically, the panto is important. The Christmas camp-fest is often the first or only annual experience many people have of attending their local theatre. If Cilla can drag-em-in off the streets, the locals can’t help but be blown away by their new cultural hub and will hopefully be encouraged visit more frequently.
David Dobson is managing director of Whatsonstage.com and an Aylesbury resident.