'A building full of energy': Theatre boss delighted to return

Artistic director of Queen's Theatre in Hornchurch

Artistic director of the Queen's Theatre in Hornchurch, Douglas Rintoul, has spoken about the return of live theatre this week. - Credit: Queen's Theatre

The week of May 17 was always set to be significant for the Queen's Theatre in Hornchurch.

While every milestone out of lockdown has been met with excitement, theatres across the country - including the Hornchurch venue - have been waiting for step three.

Ahead of tonight's in-person preview of Neville’s Island, the Recorder caught up with artistic director Douglas Rintoul to discuss what it's like to be back.

“It has been great. The building opened on Monday and we’ve already had a couple of performances in our second space which have been fantastic," he said. 

"Just to have a building full of energy has been amazing. The theatre is for the community; without the community it has felt a bit ghostly.”

Rehearsal picture Neville's Island Hornchurch theatre

Performers are feeling a sense of 'excitement' about performing once again, and are also 'moved' by the prospect. - Credit: Mark Sepple

According to the artistic director, two communities are at the heart of the theatre's return.

The first of these is local, with Douglas very mindful of the public service his venue provides: “We sit within our community. People live around the theatre, it’s a densely populated area.

"It is just so important that when we could open our doors, we did so straight away.” 

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He explains that the moment the building opened, initially solely to sell tickets, people came in: "They didn’t even need to be told.

"Because we have been very active during the pandemic, we’ve stayed in people’s consciousness."

Acknowledging that feeling safe in venues once again is a "journey", the artistic director is keen to help people become comfortable as quickly as possible.

Adopting a policy of "the longer we leave it, the harder it will be", Douglas says the theatre's layout is "perfect for social distancing" because the foyer wraps around the auditorium. 

“I don’t know any other regional theatre that is built in this way," he adds.

Rehearsal picture Neville's Island Hornchurch theatre

Rehearsals taking place for Neville's Island, which is set to preview at Queen's Theatre on May 20 - Credit: Mark Sepple

This sense of safety is seen in the returning numbers.

Crediting the "brilliant" box office for keeping in contact with customers during the pandemic, Douglas estimates that more than 90 per cent will be coming back soon, with only a few electing to wait until next year.

Beyond Hornchurch and Havering, the theatre's return is set to service a second community: performers.

This is a group close to Douglas' heart, and he confesses concern over the long-term impact of the pandemic: "This career was vulnerable before; it’s even more so now.” 

Admitting that he's seen people - largely from working-class and underrepresented backgrounds - leave the industry, the artistic director fears performing could become "more elitist".

"If that happens, it becomes a poorer industry because theatre is meant to represent different voices," he warns.

Losing performers from a variety of backgrounds would be "damaging for authenticity", he argues.

Beyond this, performers face other consequences from having such a long break: "It is a very specific type of life – being an actor. For some, not being able to perform for a long time can make them feel like they don’t know who they are anymore.”

Though these issues do exist, Douglas beams when describing the mood among performers: "There’s excitement, but they’re also moved by the prospect of returning.” 

Rehearsal picture Neville's Island Hornchurch theatre

Neville's Island is one of many plays set for the theatre over the coming months, with Douglas promising a summer of 'really enjoyable productions'. - Credit: Mark Sepple

Starting tonight, Neville's Island - starring Shadowlands' Beruce Khan, Sean Verey from BBC Three’s Pramface, School of Rock production star Stephen Leask and Philip Cairns, who performed in Cyrano De Bergerac - will run through until July 3. 

This production is only the start, promises Douglas, who says this summer is set to be one of its "really enjoyable productions".

Among these is Love Letters, a musical intended to celebrate the best of Essex, featuring the hits of Alison Moyet, Billy Bragg, Billy Ocean, Blur and Depeche Mode (among others). 

Noting how other regions are celebrated for producing successful artists, Douglas resolved to do the same for Essex when installed as artistic director five years ago.

Opening on July 30, tickets for Love Letters are already on sale.

To book tickets for Neville's Island, call 01708 443333.

For further information, visit www.queens-theatre.co.uk/.

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