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OCTAGON THEATRE: £23m upgrade given the final go-ahead

OCTAGON THEATRE: £23m upgrade given the final go-ahead

Image: LDRS

A £23M upgrade of one of Somerset’s main theatres has been given the final go-ahead – though it may not be enough to secure a concert by Adele.

South Somerset District Council announced in late-December 2020 its intention to upgrade the Octagon Theatre in Yeovil, boosting its capacity and technical equipment so that it can support larger shows.

The government announced in March that it would be providing £10M towards the project as part of the Budget, as well as allowing the council to claim back all the VAT associated with the project.

The full council has now unanimously approved the upgrade, with the majority of the remaining money being loaned to the council-owned theatre and repaid through ticket sales.

Adam Burgan, manager of the Octagon Theatre, told the council on Thursday evening (March 25) that the upgrade would lead to a rise in ticket sales as a result of increased capacity and the ability to attract bigger productions.

He said: “One of the questions I’ve been asked a lot is: how would this make a difference in terms of the programme – who would we be getting?

“I probably can’t promise Adele – but I can promise that across the programme there would be a significant uplift in ticket sales.”

The upgrade will cost a total of £23.01M, of which £10M will come from the government through Arts Council England over the next 12 months.

The theatre is aiming to raise £250,000 through its own fundraising campaigns, with a further £50,000 expected to come from local housing developments.

The remaining £12.76M will be loaned to the theatre by the council, and will be repaid over a period of years through a levy on all tickets.

This levy will start at £1.50 for the first five years, and will then rise by 50p per year on top of any inflationary rise.

Mr Burgan also gave assurances that any levy raised from the Octagon Theatre’s ticket sales would not be funnelled into the Westlands entertainment venue, which is also owned by the council.

Councillor Lucy Trimnell raised concerns about how the theatre would appeal to low-income families who were not traditional theatre-goers.

She said: “I really support this – the theatre is a superb way for people to enjoy an evening out together, and it obviously brings in a lot of money to the local economy.

“However, theatre is a very middle-class activity, and I wondered whether there were any plans to do some outreach work for people who are unable to afford tickets?

“We’re a family of five and we’vee gone as a whole family to the theatre – and we’re not poorly off. Is there anything we can do in order to give other families, who can’t afford the price of a family ticket, the chance to go to the theatre and be able to enjoy the experience?”

Mr Burgan responded: “Theatre needs to do a lot more to reach poorer audiences.

“I hope anybody looking through our programme would find something affordable – we have tickets starting from £5 each, which feels very affordable.

“In terms of making sure all children have access to it – to me, that’s why the pantomime is so important.

“When the schools come to see the pantomime, we always work to try and keep those prices as affordable and low as possible, because it’s such an important experience that all those children should get to receive.”

Councillor David Gubbins asked whether the upgraded venue would take every possible step to incorporate green technology, including generating its own energy.

He said: “Have we made sure that we’ve looked at every opportunity to run with any renewable energy source? Is there the potential of looking into solar panels – anything to keep our carbon footprint to a minimum?”

Clare Pestell, the council’s director for commercial services and income generation, replied: “We’re looking at how all of these design features can be built in. Wherever possible we will incorporate better, greener energy options.”

The council announced in October 2020 that ten of its buildings would be overhauled as part of its aim to become carbon-neutral by 2030 – including both the Octagon Theatre and Westlands.

Councillor Mike Best, portfolio holder for health and well-being, said the project would be a huge boost to Yeovil and the entire south west.

He said: “For the Octagon to stand still  as it is today, it would need a considerable amount of money spent on it. It’s some 30 years ago that it last had an uplift.

“This is a big project. I think by going forward with the changes to the Octagon in what it offers, it will give it a sound future.

“It will end with the theatre reaching a point where subsidy is not required, and it will put it on the map in the south west, without a doubt.”

Words: Daniel Mumby, Local Democracy Reporter


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