A new chapter... we take a look around Chester's £37m Storyhouse as it opens to the public


Matt Warner

It's been years in the planning and creating, and now Chester's new theatre is open for business, whether it be for entertainment, coffee or books.

Matt Warner makes a visit to see for himself what £37million can achieve...

Storyhouse in Chester has opened its doors and – as the sign says above the red carpet leading to the entrance – it is “open for good times”.

For the first time people have been able to explore the library, restaurant and independent cinema that are housed within the streamlined Art Deco shell of the former Odeon cinema.

Storyhouse brings to an end a decade long absence of a city centre cinema and theatre in Chester – but as soon as you step through the doors you realise that it is so much more than that.

This week marks the end of the two and a half year construction phase of the £37 million facility. But this is not the end of the story or even the opening chapter.

Storyhouse is a blank page on which the people of Chester and the surrounding areas, individually and in groups, will write their own stories. It is an eclectic building with something different around every corner.

One moment you feel like you are in a modern New York university campus, the next a cosy bistro within the laden bookshelves of a library before climbing the stairs of an Art Deco movie theatre.

And of course there is the already famous “secret room” but you should go and find that for yourself.

There are self-service stations where people can check out a book from the library up until 11pm, next to an original sofa from 1936 and an Art Deco monkey lamp.

But it is not the walls or the fixtures and fittings by which Storyhouse should be judged or appreciated.

Artistic director Alex Clifton said: “We are delighted that we will soon be opening the door of Storyhouse to the public who will finally be able to enjoy a range of incredible theatre, literature, performance, and art every day of the week in Chester.

“Libraries are a place where we share and make stories and where communities can gather to ask and answer the big social questions: who are we? how shall we live? what kind of community do we want to build for ourselves and for our future?

“The library sits right at the heart of Storyhouse because its philosophy sits right at the heart of all the work we will be making.”

While watching rehearsals in the 500-seat wrap-around “Storyhouse Stage”, Alex added: “This is a place for people to come and gather to share stories and somewhere to play and, of course, get a good cup of coffee.”

Michael Hemmerdinger, 77, said Storyhouse will bring something to Chester that had been missing for some time.

He was looking forward most to seeing productions of Shakespeare plays, the first being the brutal political thriller Julius Caesar, directed by Loveday Ingram.

He said: “So far so good. There seems to be a real mixture of things to see and do with the library, restaurant, theatre and all the other places. It might take a bit of getting used to.”

Storyhouse has been carved out of the Grade II listed shell of the former Odeon cinema – and now people will be able to see films on the big screen in the city once more.

The cinema is small compared to most multiplexes, but it will be showing a much wider range of films. Filmgoers will still be able to see summer blockbusters such as Wonder Woman but there will also be opportunities to independent and world cinema and classics such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Woody Allen’s Manhattan.

Sitting in the plush red seats in the cosy cinema, Nancy Davies, Storyhouse’s PR and marketing manager, said: “We are not looking to compete with the city centre multiplexes.

“We want this to be a destination cinema where people can see a wide range of films.”

Nancy added there will also be lots on offer for younger film fans, with storytelling, craft and dressing up sessions being held after popular children’s films at the weekend.

Sisters Janet Jones and Sue Walker were enjoying a cup of coffee and a chat in the cafe surrounded by bookshelves.

Janet is a volunteer but for Sue it was her first opportunity to have a look around.

“There is a really friendly and relaxed atmosphere here. It feels quite creative when you walk in – you can just come in and enjoy what’s here.

She said: “The Gateway theatre was such a loss and it it great for the city to have a theatre again and a small cinema.

“I have got grandchildren and there is a lot for the kids to do here. We are already wondering when we will come and see Alice in Wonderland.”

Friends Rona Cookson, of Frodsham, and Alison Cole, of Chester, had brought their young children to see the new reading den for younger children.

Rona said: “It looks brilliant. The kids love it.”

She joked the bookshelves probably weren’t designed to be climbed on as her two-year-old daughter Eilidh explored the colourful room packed with colourful tiles featuring favourites such as Peppa Pig and the Gruffalo.

But the den is as much about play and exploration as it is about reading. There were older children reading to their younger siblings, mums reading to their children while other children let their imagination run wild as they took it all in.

Alison added she thought she would be bringing her three children to Storyhouse often and the family were already looking forward to seeing Alice in Wonderland at the theatre.

Designed by Bennetts Associates and principally funded by Cheshire West and Chester Council and Arts Council England and substantial funding from credit card expert MBNA, Storyhouse is the largest public building ever in Chester.

Graham Lister, project director, Cheshire West and Chester Council, said: “It has been a remarkable journey. We have created something truly special for the borough.

Storyhouse has been made possible by the unique partnership with Cheshire West and Chester Council.

“Collaboration and partnership is at the very heart of its establishment.”

Storyhouse opens with a run of four home-produced shows, performed in rep, by a new repertory company that is the largest in the UK outside the RSC and National Theatre, with 26 actors, two trainees and three musicians making up the gender-balanced company.

The theatre launches with a riotous new musical based on The Beggar’s Opera, directed by Alex Clifton with music and lyrics by Harry Blake.

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