Curtain goes up on reborn theatre – and sets the scene for city's rejuvenation
Adrian Vinken bounds up the stairs of the new-look Theatre Royal Plymouth like a joyful child heading to the panto.
As he takes the stairs two and three at a time he drops in his wake gems of information about the regenerated city venue.
"That sign there glows, fading in and out like its breathing," the chief executive says, with a wide smile.
"This carpet must have been the subject of more emails in a day than NASA gets in a year. Doesn't it look fantastic?"
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If he were any more upbeat he would burst into song. Over The Rainbow or Always Look On The Bright Side of Life would match the mood.
Instead he sticks with happy talk, and the facts and figures come thick and fast.
They all add up to one thing: after five months of closure and £7 million spent, the sun will come out tomorrow and for many, many days after that.
"The building is good to go for another 40 years before any major intervention," he says.
"I have seen two new regional theatres that have opened in Britain in the last 18 months and this knocks them into a cocked hat. This has put us 10 or 15 years ahead of the game," he adds.
So what? That's all very good for the Theatre Royal.
But Adrian Vinken believes that the rebirth of the venue is only one sign of the huge strides being made throughout the city. He points to the transformation of the Royal William Yard, the regeneration of Millbay and the plans for Plymouth Pavilions and the Civic Centre as evidence that the city is at last fulfilling its potential.
But first, back to the theatre. On Friday night the venue reopened fully for the first time since work began in April. The main stage – now named The Lyric – is back with a bang with a First World War epic, the hottest show of the last decade, War Horse.
Continuing the mood of unbridled joy, the multi-award-winning National Theatre production secured a happy ending long before it began: the two-week Theatre Royal run sold out months ago.
The redevelopment has been achieved at break-neck pace. The build-up to the finalisation of the project was similarly speedy.
The Theatre Royal went public on the scheme only in January last year when plans were put to the city council.
But the idea behind the plan was about seven years old.
The start was the completion of the previous large-scale regeneration of the building, a £2.5-million update carried out in 2005.
That was focused mainly on the auditoriums and included new seating, carpets and technical facilities.
So why was there a need for a second regeneration, even larger than the first? And why pile the pressure back on?
Mr Vinken's answer gives a clue to his mindset, management style – and taste in music.
"I'm always saying, 'He not busy being born is busy dying'."
The quote is from a Bob Dylan song, It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding).
"The work in the theatres was always of the highest quality but outside the auditoriums (after the 2005 work) the theatre had a tired feel," he says. "There was a sense of decline creeping in. The experience was that the building was looking tired, a bit rundown.
"The building was brilliant of its time but there were problems. The disabled access was a bit of an embarrassment. You dropped down steps to get to the main doors, then immediately went up some more once you were inside.
"We'd done a tremendous amount to reduce our energy use but there was a limit to what could be done because of the fabric of the building – it was single-glazed.
"If you were in the bar and wanted a coffee you had to go upstairs, and you could only get a programme downstairs. It was a bit of a mess."
Mr Vinken continues to tick off a long list of niggles and further embarrassments, including having to entertain sponsors in a windowless basement room.
"So I asked the staff for their wish list, of everything that they would like to have done to put right the things that were wrong, from their point of view, the audience's point of view, the artists' point of view and the sponsors' point of view."
The wish-list was edited as to what was realistic and what wasn't, priorities were drawn up and a programme was set out for what could be done over two and a half years when money allowed.
It seemed unlikely that much would be done quickly – and little prospect of all the work being done.
"Then the Arts Council announced for the first time in many, many years a capital funding programme.
"We had all that planning done, so we put in an application combining all that work.
"We thought there was no chance that we would get what we wanted because it seemed like most of the money would go to the big London venues."
Against the odds, the Theatre Royal was one of the few regional venues to have a plan approved.
But there was a catch: the Arts Council would only release £5 million if the theatre could raise the other £2 million itself. The next breakthrough came when the city council brought forward three years of annual grants to secure the Arts Council money.
In effect, the theatre then had to make up what it had "lost" in current expenditure from the city council. With about £500,000 in the theatre's reserves, that left £1.5 million to find. So far about £1.4 million has come in.
The theatre's glowing reputation for education and complete community engagement, including working with people with disabilities and the socially excluded proved an important asset when approaching charitable trusts. All but one of the leading national bodies gave money.
"It has been harder generally to get commitments from businesses this time than in 2005 because of the state of the economy," he says. "But we are delighted and surprised by the support.
"Pennon sponsoring the new hospitality suite, the Akkeron Group, Bond Dickinson, The Herald sponsoring a door into the auditorium – many, many have come through."
Turning to the response from the public, Mr Vinken says he feels "humbled" by the many individual donations. They have ranged from pensioners offering £5 a month to one couple who gave £50,000, the biggest single private donation the theatre has ever had.
But arguably the city council's support is the most significant and it marks a remarkable shift in attitudes.
The local authority was heavily divided in 1981 over the issue of whether to fund the theatre.
"It was approved by three votes," says Mr Vinken.
"And for many years after we opened (in 1982) there was a lot of criticism from the public, from councillors and from the media.
"But that has changed in the last five or six years. We have had nothing but cross-party support."
There is recognition that the Theatre Royal is one of the best in Britain and arguably the most successful producing venue outside London. One academic study of the economic impact of theatres in the UK put the Theatre Royal third, bettered only by two that are world famous, the National in London and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford.
Perhaps more importantly there is a sense of pride and a feeling that the theatre is fully part of the city.
More significantly, Mr Vinken senses that the city is now quite different, too.
"The word you always used to hear was 'potential' – 'the city has got lots of potential'.
"That is changing. There is a vibrancy about the city. That potential is being realised."
He says that 2020, the 400th anniversary of the departure of the Pilgrim Fathers, is a unique opportunity for Plymouth.
"It can reposition itself nationally and internationally, transforming its image.
"The cornerstones for that are falling into place, and for that to be happening, particularly during a particularly difficult recession, is remarkable.
"Confidence is building and investment is building. It is a virtuous circle.
"To be part of that, in this theatre, is just wonderful."