The old Broadway has certainly seen interesting times. Originally built in 1937, Peterborough’s much-loved Odeon cinema closed down in 1991, only to undergo a total transformation in 2001 when local businessman and philanthropist Peter Boizot converted it into a state-of-the-art theatre complex
Since then, in addition to triumphs, it’s suffered financial problems and long periods of closure – much to the frustration of Peterborians for whom the potential of the place was always abundantly clear. Finally, that potential seems set to be realised. In September 2019, Sellador – a company with international experience touring shows and managing venues – took over the keys, renaming it the New Theatre to signify a new chapter in the life of this magnificent building. The Moment talked to newly appointed theatre director Richie Ross about overcoming the frustrations of the past and getting set for the future.
How did your appointment come about?
I was the General Manager of the Regent Theatre in Ipswich, which is 1,500 seats – the biggest theatre in East Anglia – and I’d got to know the guys at Sellador by taking their shows, Flashdance, Fame, Avenue Q, Madagascar and so on. I happened to be with them at a meeting in London last year and they mentioned they were going into venue management, and jokingly said: ‘One day when you’re working for us…’ I just laughed it off, as you do! But I also remembered the Broadway Theatre from years ago, because I used to tour shows here and was here for a couple of weeks with the Rat Pack and a show called Dancing in the Streets. I’d followed its ups and downs over the years, and when Sellador announced that they were taking it over, I got invited to meet their director of venues. I thought, to be honest, that it was just a chat, but at the end of it they said: ‘So how do you feel about it?’ I said ‘Feel about what?’ And they said: ‘Taking this on…’
Even though this is a fresh start, are you having to overcome negative perceptions of the place?
I’ve been in post now since 1 June and I’ve had that discussion with perhaps a dozen people. But the majority are just really glad that it’s open and glad to see it’s bringing big shows back to the city – and that has been reflected in ticket sales. Because I remember it how it used to be, I know that the building itself has never let anybody down – it’s just been the team running it. I remember standing on that stage with a full house and what a great atmosphere there was, so I know it can work. And with my experience from Ipswich and having worked in the industry for 20-odd years, I was well up for the challenge. We’ve built a really strong management team here – all industry professionals with bags of experience running venues – and it’s the first time in many years that it’s really had that. My response to those people who still aren’t sure is ‘Come in and meet us!’ I’m quite happy to sit down with anybody and show them what we’re about, and people have taken me up on that a couple of times. The kettle’s always on!
Tell me a bit about that 20 years in the business…
I’ve tour managed shows for most of my career but even when I wasn’t working in theatre I was running bars and nightclubs – pretty much since I’ve left school, really. I’d been around the world working on some really big arena shows – 9,000-10,000 people a night – but when I got fed up of living in hotels came back to the UK and got into theatre management, as it brought together all the experience I had in the industry. So I’ve basically spent the past 20 years giving people a great night out!
People have occasionally been dismissive of Peter Boizot’s redevelopment, talking of it as a kind of vanity project. Is that unfair?
Peter was very emotionally attached to it, and even though he’d never been involved in theatre before he made a huge commitment to the venue and the city by investing the £50m that he did. And when you walk around it, you can see he did it right. That’s partly why it has remained in such great condition – he put the best of the best in when he did it. Like I said, the building has never let anybody down. We are making our own financial commitment to the infrastructure, too, bringing it fully up to date and making it fully capable of hosting big shows. That involves refurbishing the hospitality areas – including what was called the ‘Broadway Suite’ but which is being renamed the Boizot Lounge in recognition of Peter’s achievement. We also need to acknowledge the work of The Dawe Charitable Trust, effectively now our landlord, who have kept the doors open and the lights on, so there have continued to be some shows here.
What does Sellador bring to the table that is different?
The good thing with Sellador is that in addition to being theatre producers in their own right, they have an excellent reputation with other producers. So, the conversations with the likes of Bill Kenwright are really positive, because the lines of communication and trust are already there. It’s really been great recognition of the venue and the city that Bill Kenwright wants to keep coming back. When it hit trouble last time, Sellador itself also ended up being owed money, so everyone is well aware of the past problems, but I think everyone feels now that they just want to move forward and make it the success we all know it can be. One of the first things I did when I started was to reach out to the other theatres and to say to them: ‘There’s enough business here for all of us’.
How is the programming shaping up?
At the moment we’re putting a lot shows into the programme that we know will be popular. There’s a massive demand for live music, so we’ve had the Four Tops here, and we’ll be having Lulu, Paul Carrack, Nathan Carter. We also know the Bill Kenwright shows are a big hit. There’s a clear demand for panto with a star name, such as Katya Jones, who we have this Christmas. Beyond that we’re just seeing what works and what doesn’t, and at the end of the first year we’ll know exactly where we are in the market place. Some of the national tours for musicians and comedians are put together 18 months to two years before tickets go on sale, so it will actually take a couple of years for the venue to fully catch up – but we will now be on those tour schedules for 2020-2021. And this means we’ll have acts that have never come here before. At the Regent in Ipswich we had sellout shows for Kim Wilde, Alison Moyet, Erasure, Bananarama, OMD… Those artists would never have been able to come to Peterborough before with the scale of show they have, but the new infrastructure we’ve put in makes that possible. All in all, exciting times!