Lytham’s Cinderella Shall Go To The Ball!
Alan Veale grew up in Lytham during the Sixties. His lifelong interest in the arts has prompted him to reflect on the changing circumstances around the Fylde Coast, concluding that a brighter future is on the horizon
I once performed during a summer season at St Annes’ Ashton Theatre. This was in 1977, in a dreadful play that alternated with a variety show. While audiences recognised that the script was mediocre, our director would laugh loudly at the back of the auditorium to encourage a warmer response.
But there was no money at all within a few weeks when the theatre – a lovely feature at the entrance to Ashton Gardens – was burned to the ground.
This was the second St Annes theatre to be lost to a fire, the first being the stunning Sultan’s Palace at the end of the pier three years earlier. Losing the Ashton seemed especially sad, as in the early Seventies it played host to many big stars of stage and screen including Dirk Bogarde, Irene Handl and Wilfred Brambell. But audiences had become complacent, and the theatre struggled financially.
As the decade came to a close, the Lytham St Annes arts scene was dying. While Fylde Borough Council initially vowed to rebuild the Ashton, economic realities soon struck home – with an alternative plan coming to the surface. Or, as we theatricals would say: “the plot thickened”.
If those two St Annes theatres were reimagined as pantomime characters, their glamour and beauty might be unkindly represented as the Ugly Sisters. Just down the road in Lytham was their Cinderella-like cousin – the neglected and dowdy Lowther Pavilion. Of timber construction, the building remained largely unaltered over fifty years – except for decay. Only a year before fire number two, the council held an emergency meeting to discuss its fate, after a car accident revealed major structural issues. But now, as the last theatre standing (the one at Lytham Baths was already earmarked for redevelopment), Lowther would benefit hugely from new investment.
With the exception of the barrel-vaulted roof and maple auditorium flooring, the entire building received a brick and concrete makeover in 1982, while keeping to the original footprint of the sixty-year-old structure. Finally, Cinderella had her ballgown!
When I visited Lowther in October, the outside appearance was a little shabby – peeling paintwork and stained concrete. Cinderella had lost her glass slipper and resumed her rags. But wait! By the time you read this, her transformation will have begun…
Five million pounds is to be spent over the next few years to convert the entire building into a multi-space complex, complementing the beautiful gardens in which the theatre stands. The first phase is underway, with a steel frame being erected behind the stage and dressing rooms. The shell will be ready for fitting out by the end of April 2024, and once completed, it will house a performance studio accommodating 150 seats. Intended for both theatrical and educational use, one side can open up to connect with the gardens.
Will Cinderella live happily ever after? Well, I suppose I could continue the analogy and ask Prince Charming, but the man with all the answers is Tim Lince, Lowther’s Artistic Director and CEO. He admits: “It’s exciting to see a theatre come back from the brink.” So, how did Lowther Pavilion make such a dramatic turnaround?
Tim applauds a decision made by former owners Fylde Borough Council in 2011. By that time the theatre was losing a quarter of a million pounds a year, but public support in the shape of The Friends of Lowther Pavilion, born three years earlier, led to the formation of the Lowther Gardens (Lytham) Trust, a registered charity. Ownership was transferred to the Trust in 2012 and their efforts since have brought results that exceeded expectations.
It has taken years of hard work, team-building and wise investment to bring Lowther to a point where others seek to follow. For example, £50,000 was spent on a state-of-the-art Line Array sound system. Why? Because that kind of spec attracts A-list performers and those are the names that put bums on seats. The strategy has worked well, seeing a 40 per cent increase in advanced ticket sales year on year.
Even Covid-19 contributed to Lowther’s success. While other theatres closed their doors, the team here were determined to keep going. Where else could you find a complete panto being performed on the back of a lorry in a car park? Rehearsals were filmed and then streamed to rooms at a local care home. By the end of the pandemic, 10,000 more were online every week.
But panto’s biggest audience comes from the other end of the age scale, and Tim explains what he sees as an ordinary day at an extraordinary venue: “Coming out of the pandemic, there was a massive increase in the number of children not attending school. Bringing young people into Lowther for creative workshops and other educational events encourages them to discover what a theatre has to offer. These youngsters will be our audiences – and performers – in the future.” Another wise investment.
I began this article last month reflecting on the apparent disparity in fortunes between Lytham and St Annes. While it is clear the pendulum has swung in favour of Lytham in recent years, what I found at Lowther Pavilion sets a beacon for others to follow, and perhaps St Annes will also benefit from an optimistic future.
The pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk opens at Lowther on Monday 4th December.