One of the first buildings I went into in Andover was Cricklade Theatre. The local Conservatives had hired it on the evening of November 21st 1995 to select a new candidate. After appearing on the stage there, for the first and only time, I spent a nervous half hour back stage in a dressing room while the membership, filling the seats and standing in the aisles, debated the merits of the various candidates.
Since then, I have spent many happier evenings there. I am a member of the popular Andover Music Club, who arrange quality recitals and chamber concerts in the theatre. I remember a marvellous production of Iolanthe by the Andover Operatic Society a couple of years ago. Brian Page and Andover and District Age Concern have put on great entertainment there, enjoyed by Andoverians young and old. Test Valley Brass are regular performers there; the Friends of Cricklade Theatre 25th Annual Drama Festival was held there last week, prior to the closure; Terry Trevett has organised some wonderful electronic organ concerts; and so I could go on.
Without Cricklade, there is nowhere for local artists and groups to present their work. All our professional actors, dancers, comedians, singers, musicians, writers and composers have experienced their first taste of performance in public in a theatre like Cricklade and this is where our country’s talents have been nurtured.
And now all this is under threat. Cricklade has closed for refurbishment, but unless serious funding can be found, it is unlikely to re-open to the public. I have enormous sympathy with all the organisers who have made bookings in good faith, and now find the theatre is unavailable. They are now having to frantically search the town for alternative venues – what has happened to them is impossible to explain or defend.
On a broader front, our growing, confident town - twice the size it was when the theatre opened - is to lose its 270 seat theatre, (having lost all its three cinemas); and this, according to the Press Release from Cricklade College, is apparently because a Government funding agency says that its money is being misapplied. The funding body for colleges such as Cricklade, the Learning and Skills Council have, again according to the College, informed the college that they will not allow LSC funding to maintain, develop or run the theatre. Having spoken to the LSC, they deny having issued such instructions.)
If current rules indeed prohibit the use of the theatre located in a college by the wider community, then those rules need to be changed. For the last 28 years, it has been the primary community venue for entertainment and has been kept going by an enthusiastic team, some paid but most volunteers. Our schools and colleges should not be narrow, introverted organisations focussing just on the needs of pupils; but confident, outward looking institutions at the heart of the communities they serve, making the best use of their social capital, and bringing the wider public inside.
What is happening in Andover is unacceptable. As the local MP, I pledge myself to work with all parties involved to ensure we have the facilities we need to entertain Andover and the surrounding villages, and to act as a showcase for local musical and artistic talent. I have raised the issue of the theatre and the role of the Learning and Skills Council in the House of Commons today.
I believe we need a two stage response to the challenges that confront us. First, a short term one to enable Cricklade to continue to be used for the purposes I have outlined. Second, a longer term and more ambitious vision to provide a larger and better facility than the one we currently enjoy. As the town grows, as the arts organisations become stronger and more confident, so the appetite will grow for good music and drama, but in a better setting. I will be asking the Minister what role the Government might play in this, along with other funding agencies such as Test Valley Borough Council, with whom I am in close contact.
I welcome the leading role of the Advertiser in this campaign to secure for our town the cultural facilities it needs. I am with it, shoulder to shoulder