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Chester cultural centre counts down to its 2016 opening

Chronicle editor Michael Green is joined by Chester Performs artistic director Alex Clifton for a tour of the new £37m development

My first experience of visiting the cinema as a child was walking up the steps inside the art deco building that was the Odeon in Chester to attend one of the late lamented Saturday morning picture shows which featured everything from old Flash Gordon serials to dreadfully acted productions from the Children’s Film Foundation.

More than 40 years later, I found myself walking up those same steps which have been stripped back to the bare concrete and are currently at the heart of a massive building site which, by the end of this year, will be transformed into the city’s new cultural centre housing an 800-seat main theatre, a 100-seat independent cinema, a 150-seat studio theatre and become the new home for Chester’s library.

At the moment, the structure is a mass of cables, steels girders, unfinished brick work, scaffolding as far as the eye can see and, right in the middle of what was once the Odeon’s main cinema auditorium, a gigantic crane.

For someone who has sat in that cinema hundreds of times, it was a disconcerting but somehow still exhilarating experience watching its metamorphosis into what Chester Performs artistic director Alex Clifton proudly describes as ‘a unique venue’.

The main entrance area of the new Chester cultural centre which will provide access to the new library and cinema facilities. Picture by Mark Carline

He said: “I have been all over the country and travelled abroad to look at other venues but I have yet to find anything that will match what we are trying to achieve here.”

The good news for those of us who, like me, look back at their visits to the former Odeon with nostalgic fondness is that key art deco features of the old building are to be retained including the distinctive plaster light fittings and the ceiling coving in what was the main cinema.

“We have also had other features which have been taken away and put in storage but which we will be bringing back. Coming through the entrance doors will be like stepping back to the 1930s,” explained Alex.

It is, of course, also fitting that the design of the cultural centre has taken care to ensure that the new cinema - which will show up to four films a day ranging from new releases to arthouse offerings and classics - will be constructed in the same area of the building where movies were enjoyed by generations of film-goers, an area that will also feature a large digital screen which will have public showings of major sporting events and possibly even TV highlights such as The Great British Bake Off final!

The interior of the old main screen of the Odeon showing some of its original features which are going to be retained in the new Chester cultural centre. Picture by Mark Carline

This is the part of the building that will also provide the new home for Chester Library which will be intricately weaved through the entire centre as the foundation of Alex Clifton’s desire to make storytelling the dominant element of the whole complex.

Downstairs will be a specific children’s library area where Alex says the message is to ‘Be Loud’ while on the first floor, there are places for quiet introspection but at all times you are surrounded by books with even the main bar being built on top of bookcases!

Anyone who has wandered down Hunter Street recently will be able to see that right now, the cultural centre is actually two separate buildings - the second one is a new creation on the site of the much-despised former Commerce House which was levelled to make way for what will be the main theatre backed up by a studio theatre on the top floor.

Eventually a second entrance will be created to allow specific access to these performing arts areas while joining up both halves of the centre. At the moment you have to brave the elements to make your way to the embryonic main theatre space but it is a journey worth taking to see what currently looks like a scaffolding sculpture or a Rubik’s Cube of metal complete with makeshift staircases which allow access to all three levels of the venue.

The mass of scaffolding which currently dominates the area that will become the main theatre at the new Chester cultural centre. Picture by Mark Carline

Look carefully, though, and you can seen where the main stage will be and how the three tiers of seating will surround it although Alex explained the finished result will almost be two theatres in one.

“I want it to feel distinctive depending on whether we are staging our own productions or it is a visiting company. When it is our own production, we will take out the stalls, increase the performance space and surround it with benches so it will have a similar feel to the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre,” he said.

The area where the least work has so far been completed is the studio theatre but one of its main attractions is already very apparent - with it being on the top floor, there will be stunning views from the bar area outside the performance space of the Town Hall, Chester Cathedral and across the Welsh hills.

The top floor of the new building part of the Chester cultural centre where the studio theatre will be based and where patrons can enjoy stunning views of Chester and the Welsh hills. Picture by Mark Carline

So having been treated to this rewarding and eye-opening glimpse behind the scenes of a project so many people have been eager to see created in Chester for so many years, one burning question remained: when will the cultural centre be finished and open to the public?

Alex said the plan was for the building to be officially handed over to Chester Performs some time during November but the timescale from that point onwards remains unpredictable for the moment.

He said: “We are hoping to open before the end of the year. We are saying we want to open with a Christmas show. It won’t be a panto, it will be along the lines of Wind in the Willows or The Secret Garden which we have done at the open air theatre. And we are in talks with a number of visiting companies but nothing has been signed yet.”

The new building which will house the main and studio theatres at the Chester cultural centre. Picture by Mark Carline

However, the artistic director was able to reveal a partnership between Chester Performs and the University of Chester which will see a joint head of education appointed to coordinate courses between the university and the cultural centre.

Alex is hoping this will be the start of a successful relationship with the university and its students: “I would love to see lots of students around here, opening their Mac books and having a coffee.”

But there is another milestone to look forward to which we do not have to wait too long for - the announcement of the name for the new cultural centre is due to be unveiled in March.

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