Octagon plans will bring investment to Yeovil

HUNDREDS of people from Yeovil and the surrounding area showed their backing for the Octagon Theatre at a meeting at Westlands entertainment centre on 10th October. The Yeovil Town Council was called to discuss a possible partnership with Somerset Council to ensure the future of the project to refurbish the Octagon Theatre and enable it to host bigger touring shows, bigger audiences and to support more small scale and local productions and companies.

The Arts Council has promised £10 million towards the “cultural hub” scheme but Somerset Council has now put the £30 million project on hold because of the impact of rising interest rates.

After strong statements in support from council leader Graham Oakes and the majority of councillors, with a small minority criticising the potential impact on council tax and calling for the theatre to “just reopen,” the town council voted by 12 to two in support of Cllr Oakes’ motion to work with Somerset Council to get the project back on track.

There were emotional speeches from the floor, from representatives of some of the many local theatre, dance, music and other groups who use the theatre and from people whose lives are enhanced by the theatre and its many activities. The mother of a severely disabled girl said the Octagon “helped her to dance again.” Her daughter’s life “revolved around the theatre,” she said.

Yeovil-born Liz Pike has been a leading light in the town’s arts scene for many years and is one of the founders of the successful Yeovil Literary Festival (based at the Octagon and this year at Westlands). She recalled that the original Johnson Hall had been opened in 1974, at a time when inflation was running at 23 per cent and mortgage interest was 14 per cent. The small hall was expanded into the Octagon and has been even more important since the closure of the arts centre in 2002. She strongly supported the new plans to refurbish and expand it: “Our theatre is there for our wellbeing and for the future of Yeovil,” she said.

Founder and artistic director of Project Dance, 19-year old professional dancer James Bamford, said his early experiences in musicals and dance shows at the Octagon had formed his career. The plans to refurbish and redevelop the theatre were necessary to attract bigger companies and productions. The project would be “an investment in education, culture and the local economy. It is time to be more ambitious,” he said, to great applause.

The planned work includes additional seating – expanding the main auditorium from 622 to 900 seats – back-stage improvements and the construction of a fly tower to accommodate bigger sets. The aim is to transform the Octagon into a flagship cultural hub for Somerset. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra has already announced its plans to make the reopened theatre its home in Somerset, enabling more concerts and more education work.

After hearing that the original business case is no longer affordable, Somerset councillors have asked for alternative plans to be drawn up. Even if construction costs stayed the same, the four-fold rise in interest rates would increase the costs over the many years of repayment. It was anticipated that the council would borrow £16.3m from the Public Works Loan Board at 1.5%. But with the increased interest rates, there would be a rise in interest rates from £245,000 to more than £1m a year, for the first few years.

With tight government restrictions on local government spending, Somerset Council is anticipating an overall £26.1m overspend for the current financial year. This has led to a review of all spending, including capital projects, to ensure that core services for those most in need are protected.

The motion before Yeovil Town Council is a first step, as explained by Graham Oakes. He proposed: “This council seeks the opportunity to work in partnership with Somerset Council to ensure the future of the Octagon Theatre project which will enhance culture and arts within Yeovil and Somerset. The council wishes to financially support the plans outlined by Somerset Council (originally agreed by South Somerset District Council) and ensure that it progresses in accordance with the support of the people of Yeovil and Somerset as a whole.”

Bill Revans, the leader of Somerset Council, told the town councillors and public (estimated to be around 400 people) that the unitary authority was seeking to work in partnership with the town council and other bodies to keep the Octagon project alive as a “flagship venue for Yeovil and Somerset.”

Independent town councillor Tareth Casey, who is opposed to the Yeovil Refresh town centre regeneration scheme and the Octagon refurbishment, claimed the budget was under-estimated. But he raised an important question about why two of the three original prospective developers had withdrawn from the tendering process.

Adam Burgan, who is Somerset’s entertainment manager and has been at the Octagon for 15 years, said: “I love that building.” He explained the particular need for improved back-stage facilities for all the groups and companies using the theatre. Somerset Council wanted to explore the opportunities, he said. “Please have a bit of patience.”

Graham Oakes said the Octagon had become regionally important, thanks to Adam Burgan’s leadership. Many audience members “came over the border from Dorset – perhaps Dorset Council should be asked to contribute,” he suggested.

The refurbished and enlarged theatre would attract a wider range of acts and companies, putting on shows which currently require a trip to Bristol or Southampton.

‘If you can put on the big shows, you can afford to put on the local shows – you need one to keep the other going.”