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What will the new £37 million Storyhouse cultural centre bring to Chester?

PUBLISHED: 22:32 29 August 2016 | UPDATED: 22:32 29 August 2016

An view of the what the Storyhouse interior will look like

An view of the what the Storyhouse interior will look like

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This charming, historical city is turning a new page with exciting plans to transform its centre, as Emma Mayoh discovered

An impression of the new Storyhouse building An impression of the new Storyhouse building

When Chester lost its Gateway Theatre in 2007, it left a huge void. Over the years the small producing and receiving theatre had played host to several top names and been a cultural outlet any city would be proud of.

Now, almost ten years on, plans are coming to fruition for a new £37 million Storyhouse cultural centre in the former Odeon cinema in Northgate Street. The new centre will include an 800-seat theatre, a 150 theatre studio, a small cinema, a café and library. It is expected to have a soft launch in the New Year with a formal launch in spring.

Alex Clifton, artistic director of Storyhouse, said: ‘Everyone knew the Gateway was going to shut. The opportunity we now have is something very important. It’s something that’s come together as an idea from the whole community. The council knew we needed something and have given most of the money for the project and it’s been developed by the people of Chester.

‘Culture is the shared identity of a place and wherever there is culture there are shared values, shared beliefs, shared language and a shared identity. We can challenge and celebrate these things with the new cultural centre. It’s somewhere to celebrate the community and to be a part of it.

Cestrian Alex is the ideal person to be involved in the project and jumped at the opportunity when it was first mooted seven years ago. It is a homecoming for the 36-year-old former Christleton High School pupil who studied English at Oxford University. He has worked with theatres and opera companies across the UK including the National, the Old Vic, English National Opera, has his own community theatre company, has worked at RADA and has twice been awarded Time Out Off-West End Production of the Year. He’s also a published author and has worked with top industry names including actor Tom Hiddleston. But it is Chester and the Storyhouse project he is now focussed on.

‘It is going to be a very special centre,’ he said. ‘Being a Cestrian I am even keener for it to be an incredible place for people to come. I can’t confirm yet what things we might have on our programme as we’re still signing contracts. But you can expect the kind of calibre of events you get at places like The Lowry in Salford.

‘It’s a very exciting time for us. Having worked on this project for a few years now, it is such a thrill to see it coming together. It’s a big project in a massive building. It has taken a long time but it is going to be very worth it.’

Alex, 36, is also responsible for Moonlight Flicks and he founded Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre which has been a mainstay of the city’s cultural calendar for several years. It was launched under the former Chester Performs name but has now been renamed under the Storyhouse banner. Over the summer Alex, along with an army of talented actors, has been staging As You Like It, Stig of the Dump and The Gentleman of Verona.

He said: ‘The open air theatre has been an incredible success. When we set up in 2010 we did two productions for three and a half weeks and we had around 5,000 people. Every year it has grown.

‘This year there will be between 28,000 and 30,000 for the three productions. That’s a lot of people. It’s something we’re all very proud of.’

Chester’s new Muse

Phil Mayall, Development Director sat within the Carriage Shed Phil Mayall, Development Director sat within the Carriage Shed

Another development in the city’s business district is already making waves. Muse Developments has recently completed the first phase of a 10-year project. One City Place is the first of seven office buildings and, according to Muse, it is one of the city’s most significant business developments in recent years. It is linked to the station by the Grade II listed Carriage Shed, a new public space which is used as a waiting area and event space for passengers and visitors. It has already been used as a regular location for the Cheshire Pop-Up Artisan Fair, business networking events. It is also hoped it will be used for other events including open air theatre and art installations.

Phil Mayall, development director at Muse, said: ‘City Place marks an important chapter in the new Central Business Quarter which will play a major role in the renaissance of Chester’s commercial offering. We’re at the gateway to Chester and set the standard.

‘As an integral part of the business quarter, City Place will help to drive economic growth, bring new businesses and jobs into the city and set new standards for first class, sustainable business space.

‘Carriage Shed is a superb space that so many people are already using and enjoying. It’s great to see it full of people and we hope more and more will start to use it.’

Trek of a lifetime

Sarah Ballam Sarah Ballam

Sarah Ballam will be putting her best foot forward in October to raise money for a charity for premature or sick babies. The 35-year-old, a reception manager at the Chester Grosvenor Hotel, will take on an epic adventure walking 80km along the Great Wall of China for Bliss. She will climb 120,000 steps during the 10-day challenge when she will be walking for up to eight hours every day. Sarah has been doing many training walks like the Wirral Coastal Walk as well as walks up Moel Famau and around the Delamere Forest

Sarah, who lives in Elton, decided to take on the challenge because of the experiences of family and friends. Her cousin, Wendy Davies, delivered baby Thomas 12 weeks early and her friend Jude Byrne’s daughter, Emily, was born five weeks prematurely. With the help of Bliss both children have thrived. Sarah is hoping to raise £3,000.

‘My friends have been surprised,’ she said. ‘They think I’m a bit crazy. I’m definitely more a five star hotel kind of person, sipping cocktails and enjoying the sunshine. So this will definitely be a challenge for me and I will be way out of my comfort zone. But I think you have to be.

‘Two people who are important to me have both been affected by premature births and have been through the trauma and stress associated with it. They had such wonderful support. Thomas is now a healthy, handsome 16-year-old and Emily is a healthy, beautiful 18-month old. I’m doing this for them and their families so that many other babies are given the opportunity to fight.’

To donate visit Sarah’s fundraising page at www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Sarah-Ballam.

Ian White (Domestic Bursar and Director of Hospitality and Residential Services at the University of Chester) with Darren Boddy (Head Chef), Frank Dace, Richard Williams and Lesley Barnes (Head Chef) Ian White (Domestic Bursar and Director of Hospitality and Residential Services at the University of Chester) with Darren Boddy (Head Chef), Frank Dace, Richard Williams and Lesley Barnes (Head Chef)

Educating our palates

If you think university dinners are all about beans on toast or sausage and mash piled high, you have never dined at the University of Chester. Chefs who work at the university are putting themselves on the city’s culinary map with the dishes they create for students, guests at functions, staff and visitors. But they have now taken it a step further. Handbridge residents and invited guests enjoyed impeccable service and superb food at a pop-up restaurant at the De Gaulle Brasserie at the Queen’s Park Campus in the village across the River Dee.

‘It was a fantastic evening,’ said Ian White, domestic bursar and director of hospitality and residential services. ‘I have been approached so many times during my 30 years here by people who have enjoyed dining with us and who have asked to book a meal privately. A pop-up restaurant was a logical step.

‘We have award-winning chefs who work for us including Frank Dace and Richard Williams who have both been named Chef of the Year. We had such wonderful feedback from the diners at the first pop-up restaurant which really gave us encouragement to do some more.’

And there are now plans for another pop-up restaurant at Senate House, a boutique hotel provided for university guests, in the heart of the city centre. Members of the catering team have ambitions to open it to the public and become a part of the city’s renowned dining scene.

Ian said: ‘We have a fantastic team who should be able to be seen outside of the university environment. Diners should also be given the opportunity to sample their amazing food.

‘People are surprised that we have restaurant standard chefs here, so more people need to know what we are doing here. We are extremely successful and it’s time more people knew that.’

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