With the future of Chester’s new performing arts centre looking bleak, JO HENWOOD goes to the Forum Studio at the old Gateway Theatre to see what the city centre’s only theatrical venue has to offer
Talent scouts would have had a field day at Jigsaw Music Theatre’s production of The Invisible Girl. Except they would have been unable to get a seat.
People were being turned away at the box office for the sell-out performance by the self-funding children’s theatre group at the Forum Studio Theatre.
It is a travesty that 120 audience members were squeezed into the small studio theatre in the base- ment given that a 460-seat theatre space lies dormant upstairs.
Jigsaw members are aged between seven and 16 and they regularly take on challenging issues but the theme of the current production, based on a little-known fairy story, was particularly poignant for the people of Chester.
A town is divided by planners’ development plans and councillors agree to split the town in two. The traditionalists, the ‘Greens’, don’t want change and take up residence on one side of the valley. The ‘Blues’, on the other hand, welcome the new supermarket, bowling alley and retail development and position themselves on the other side.
Stuck in between is a girl called Annie, played by Penny Mitchell, 11, of Bishops’ High School. Caught in the crossfire, she takes the brunt of the bad feeling created by the split.
The play is full of energy and the 50 or so youngsters sing, dance, act and play musical instruments. There is never a dull moment as they become see-saws, swings and roundabouts, climb on top of one another as tenpin bowling pins and set dastardly traps for their enemies on the opposite side of the valley. The town’s problems are eventually solved when Annie becomes invisible.
Particularly poignant for the audience were the words of one of the songs composed by Matt Baker and Erin Elston. As the children sing “Did you hear what they said they are doing to our town?”
I couldn’t help but look at these enthusiastic and creative youngsters and wonder where they will get their inspiration from.
If the new performing arts centre ever gets built, some of them will already have grown up and left Chester. For the younger members, their teenage years will be spent in a city without a theatre or cinema.
Matt, who is composing the score for this year’s Chester Mystery Plays, said: “Jigsaw is just one of many groups in the area producing high-quality work and Cheshire has always had an excellent reputation for its drama services in education.
“It is such an irony that the county town doesn’t have a venue to produce this work.”
Two former members of Jigsaw are studying acting at top drama schools. Tom Hughes is at RADA (Royal Academy for Dramatic Art) in London and Joe Mann is at Rose Bruford College in Kent.
Matt added: “My dream has always been to create a professional community theatre company to attract Chester’s homegrown talent back to the city. With no venue this is not possible and they will look elsewhere.
“If Chester Performs, the organisation responsible for the development of the performing arts centre, is not able to see its exciting plans for the venue come to fruition, I may well have to channel my energies in projects away from the city.”
Whoever decided to shut the Gateway such a long time before the new build was mad. If the performing arts centre doesn’t go ahead, that will be mad. And Chester’s performers may become invisible, just like Annie.