Many happy returns to Derngate

Posted 31st July 2023

Northampton’s Derngate is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2023. Pulse’s Sammy Jones takes a little peek back at some of the milestones to date as the venue looks towards the future…

The venue was designed by RHWL architects, who were also responsible for delivering other leading arts and culture hubs including the Crucible in Sheffield, the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells Theatres in London, and the Aylesbury Waterside.

Northampton’s Derngate opened its doors to theatre-hungry residents in 1983, with the American singer and actor Jack Jones the first name in lights, on April 4.

The Northampton Borough Council initiative was launched as a multi-use venue from the get-go, and its significant space can accommodate a maximum audience of 1,500 for classical concerts.

The Derngate was built at the rear of The Royal Theatre, occupying the space formerly held by the town’s bus station, and while coaches still pull up regularly, these days they are tour buses.

The Derngate is perfectly placed on the circuit and the programme is always packed and variable; Want a ballet? Done. Fancy some rock n roll? You’ve got it. Are you partial to a modern play, or something Shakespearean? It’s there.

As the new millennium approached, the Derngate became a combined organisation with its older neighbouring venue, and the Royal & Derngate union was born.

The Royal had been designed by esteemed Victorian theatre architect Charles J. Phipps and opened its doors on May 5, 1884 with a performance of Twelfth Night.
Aesthetically, it’s the perfect pairing of the old with the new, and The Royal – with its 450 capacity – caters for a smaller audience, allowing the union to bring the best of established, and rising acts to the spotlight for keen supporters.

While this is a peek into the history of the Derngate, we can’t not mention that Errol Flynn delivered some of his earliest performances on the Royal stage, and in 1933 he spent several months in the ranks of the Northampton Repertory based at the venue.
Audiences flocked to the Royal & Derngate until 2005, when the curtains came down for an 18 month redevelopment to be completed, at a cost of £14.5 million.

The extensive improvement and refurbishment saw the orange décor of the Derngate – which I still remember – being replaced, new more comfortable seating being introduced, and air conditioning installed.

When it reopened in late 2006, Royal & Derngate stepped up to the mark and became the leading venue for entertainment in the county. Annually some 300,000 people take their seats to indulge in one of the many performances at those venues, and the smaller Underground venue, which can take a capacity of 90.

Royal & Derngate doesn’t just host touring productions though; it produces its own. The 2022/23 programme of Made in Northampton began last summer with Mog The Forgetful Cat, and also saw R&D partner with Shakespeare’s Globe and Headlong to bring Henry V to the fore.

As the venue celebrates its special milestone, it has launched the Derngate 40 campaign with the hope of raising £100,000 from the theatre loving public; some of the money will go to sprucing up the seats once again.

Since that earlier refurbishment we mentioned, more than six million visitors have attended shows at the venue. That’s a lot of bottoms on seats, and a lot of wear and tear!
A portion of money will also be spent providing pathways for burgeoning young creatives to develop their passion, and the continuation of works to ensure the theatre is an accessible venue for everyone.

“The Derngate, over the last 40 years, really has hosted the biggest and best of touring theatre from across the globe,” Chief Executive Jo Gordon told me, “Many of the biggest acts from these four decades have joined us here in Northampton, not least, the brilliant Tina Turner, who we all have been remembering so fondly with her recent passing.

“We are thrilled to be inviting audiences to help us celebrate this milestone year… for many, it was the first theatre they ever attended – perhaps for a pantomime, for music or for dance. The team have curated a brilliant season – not only are we taking one of our biggest Made in Northampton productions to date, onto the Derngate stage in September with Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None but we’re welcoming back so many companies to Derngate from its rich history – including Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, both of whom performed here in Derngate’s very first year!

“The other really special thing about Derngate is that it has seen so many local people perform on its stage.. it is home to many thousands of young people and adults every year, showcasing all the brilliant talent our region can rightly be so proud of.”
Here’s to the next
40 years!

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