As the early Autumn sun plays on the splendid frontage of the new, very welcoming entrance to the Bristol Old Vic theatre, you cannot but be struck by the contrast between past and present. With the original façade of The Coopers Hall used as the entrance, box office and communal areas since the 1970s, there has been a shift to the side to provide something which is far more inviting.
During the 10 year re-design, hoardings have masked much of the frontage and access to the theatre has been through a makeshift back entrance in recent times. With an eye to making the theatre a place for the many and not just the few, the re-build offers open doors and even a sign saying ‘COME ON IN’
The changes have hardly affected the auditorium which has been surrounded by chaos and has remained as regal as it has ever been since 1766. It will come as something of an intensely joyous and unexpected treat for the new visitor to the Old Vic as they make their way to their seats through the 21st Century foyer.
The red rimmed glass doors at ground level are topped with high windows incorporating sun-shades featuring words from David Garrick’s inaugural speech at the opening in 1766 and poetry from Bristol-based, Miles Chamber. It is an arresting sight. Through the door into the foyer, look up and the ceiling seems to grow further into the distance. A preponderance of wood is supplemented with copper counters at the Box Office and the Bar all brought into relief by the rough brickwork of the original building with windows from which you can look down on the diners, drinkers and audience members a-gathering.
The marriage of old and new is everywhere and the two sit very well together. In the daytime, light pours in from the front windows and the rear skylights. At night, there are well placed spotlights and a projector. The light-coloured wood offers its own glow as well as a warmth which some modern theatre foyers lack. But this is a place to come for a coffee, a drink, a bite to eat as well as somewhere for theatrical entertainment and the buzz from the patrons on this opening day offered a welcome all of its own.
There are other treats to be had as well. The Coopers Hall is now an impressive function room with its original period features and a cracking and colourful mural telling the history of the theatre adorns the curving wall around the outside of the stalls.
Artistic Director, Tom Morris and Chief Executive, Emma Stenning have overseen this £26m project from the start and have shown incredible resilience in the process. The work by Stirling prize-winning architects, Haworth Tompkins is both sympathetic and innovative and should be rightly praised. Without funding from the National Lottery, Arts Council England, Bristol City Council and many trusts, foundations and individuals, what had become a tired, shabby and poor experience for the audience would still be so.
What has been achieved is an exciting and genuinely welcoming place for people to gather and if that helps boost the audiences to the tremendous programme of productions the Bristol Old Vic provides, then we should all applaud long and hard.
CORMAC RICHARDS – 24 SEPTEMBER 2018