The curtain is coming down on the Epstein Theatre today – potentially for the final time.
Since 1913, the Grade II listed 380-seat theatre based within Hanover House has staged thousands of productions under various guises. As financial support provided by Liverpool Council is coming to an end, the lights are going out on the city centre stage.
The decision has been widely criticised by theatre lovers and activists, with local authority officials saying it needed to “deliver value for money for the taxpayer.”
In 2018 an agreement was struck between Epstein Entertainments Ltd, Liverpool City Council and a commercial property landlord that owns the lease to the building but subleases the theatre back to the entertainment company. As part of the management agreement, the council was to cover a proportion of the rent, service charge, utilities and maintenance work.
The local authority has financially supported the venue since the 1960s and its most recent expenditure on the Epstein was in excess of £100,000 per year. However, this funding has now come to an end, along with the management agreement.
Cllr Harry Doyle, Liverpool Council cabinet member for health, wellbeing and culture, told Radio Merseyside this morning it had been a “difficult decision” for the council to move away. He said, “We’ve been expecting this day now, it’s a tough day for the team at the Epstein, it’s a tough day for the city and theatregoers.
“It’s been quite a sad week, they opened up the doors on Monday and Tuesday, I popped along myself to say my own little farewell, I’ve got a love of the theatre as well. It’s a difficult decision that has been made, it was made a few years ago, and we as a council had a very, very, very complicated relationship with the building.”
Cllr Doyle said the relationship “made no sense” and said the council had been caught acting as a “middleman.” He added how under the watch of government appointed commissioners, the city’s property dealings were under further scrutiny, including its arrangement with the Epstein.
Earlier this week, Anthony Proctor – who manages the theatre – wrote to Cllr Doyle asking him to meet with officials to help broker a new future and described the council’s best value description as “hurtful” to staff and performers. Responding on the airwaves earlier today, Cllr Doyle said, “On Tuesday, when I had that open letter from Anthony, one of things I was gutted about was the message about the staff.
“Best value can mean so many things to so many people, at this moment in time, we’re looking at the financial aspects, we’re looking at the property deals the council has made previously. From a perspective of spending public money, and what you get out of that, the Epstein and the staff there have done an amazing job, but the structure of that company, if it was a charity or community group, it would be very different.
“I can’t control decisions that have been made in the past, I wasn’t even born, but what I can control now is the future of the building, potentially.”
All productions after Friday 30 June, Epstein Entertainments Ltd has said it will be aiming to transfer performances to other Liverpool City Region venues, adding that ticket holders for cancelled performances will receive an automatic refund.
Despite the immediate future for the theatre looking bleak, Cllr Doyle didn’t rule out a return for productions. He said, “It’s not so much the council is withdrawing funding, it’s the fact we’ve not renewed that lease, that property deal.
“We’re determined, we’re on the same page, we want to see the doors back open again, we want to see the theatre back in there.”