Theatre boss hits back at council’s value for money assessment

The manager of a Liverpool city centre theatre on the brink of closure has hit back at the claim it no longer offers value for money for the taxpayer.

Earlier this month, the city council confirmed it was bringing its financial support for the Epstein Theatre to an end.

Should no arrangement to replace the funding be found in the coming days, the curtain will come down on the arts venue for the final time this Friday, ending more than a century of productions.

In its rationale for ending the financial support, Liverpool Council said providing cash was “unsustainable” and ultimately the authority needed to “deliver value for money for the tax payer.”

In an open letter to Cllr Harry Doyle, cabinet member for health, wellbeing and culture, Anthony Proctor, theatre manager and programmer, said how staff found such a description “hurtful.”

The letter said, “We write to you in this final hour to again request that we may find a time to meet face to face so that we can express to you the true cultural value of the Epstein Theatre.”

Mr Proctor’s letter said the request had been met by “76,000 audience members who had booked tickets to see performances at the Epstein Theatre since December 2021” and a further 12,000 signatures on an online petition to save the venue.

The letter added how the theatre had received backing from “thousands of actors, playwrights, directors, dancers, musicians, comedians, producers and creative artists who we engage with on a daily basis to enrich the cultural life of Liverpool by attracting the best names to the city or by developing new work from Liverpool’s rich talent pool.”

The Grade II listed 380-seat theatre is based within Hanover House and has operated as a performance space since 1913. It reopened as the Epstein Theatre in 2011 following a £1.2m refurbishment, taking its name from the celebrated manager of The Beatles. 

Mr Proctor wrote how he felt the council’s decision “does not take into account how important this venue is to the cultural life of the city” and sought to meet with Cllr Doyle to discuss it further. The theatre manager said a meeting was owed to the many children and community groups who used the theatre and had gained “the brilliant educational experience of performing on a professional stage.”

He added how language used by the council in its explanation for the funding cut had impacted theatre workers. Mr Proctor said, “We would like you to know that the line the council has used over and over again in your rebuttal of our press story, that the Epstein does not represent value for the taxpayer is hurtful to our staff who work tirelessly to serve the people of Liverpool, and it is hurtful to the artists that give blood, sweat and tears to create excellent art and entertain our community day in, day out.”

In a tweet, Cllr Doyle said, “I absolutely see the value of the Epstein Theatre within out cultural offer, but the current model doesn’t work and the landlord needs to reflect on costs. I’m more than willing to facilitate discussions on setting up a theatre cooperative which will open the doors for funding.”

All productions up until Friday 30 June 2023 will go ahead as planned. 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.

Commenting on the closure earlier this month, a spokesperson for Liverpool Council said, “It was decided in 2021 that the cost of more than £100,000 a year in financial support for the Epstein Theatre was unsustainable and, after careful consideration, both the landlord and theatre operator were informed that the Council would be unable to continue this beyond 2023.

“That was not an easy decision. The council is a huge supporter of the city’s cultural sector and continues to annually invest millions of pounds supporting dozens of venues and organisations, but that support needs to deliver value for money for the tax payer.

“The council paid for the Epstein Theatre’s restoration and has supported it on an annual basis since 2011. It was hoped that given both the operator and landlord had had more than 18 months to negotiate a new lease arrangement, an amicable solution would be found, between the two parties. It is a huge shame that has not materialised.”

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