Time was, New Brighton was a seaside leisure resort to rival anything Britain’s coastal towns had to offer (there’s a clue in the name). With its own pier, promenade, bathing pools, a huge tower that was the tallest building in the country when it opened in 1900 – and plethora of ballrooms, theatres and pavilions – New Brighton serviced the middle classes of Merseyside, Wales and Lancashire for 100 years and beyond.
Post-war, as with many of Britain’s seaside holiday destinations, New Brighton’s star started to wane. The great Victorian leisure resorts lost their glamour and end-of-the-pier shows became bywords for sad, old-fashioned entertainment – a medium whose time had passed.
In the early 20th Century New Brighton had seven theatres. Seven. By 2000 it had just one and within six years it too was nearing closure. Faced with destruction, the Floral Pavilion Theatre was rebuilt from scratch as part of an overall scheme to redevelop the New Brighton promenade. It reopened in 2008 with a performance from Ken Dodd, who had previously appeared there in 1940.
With a packed schedule and two performance spaces, the Pavilion stages acts as diverse as music and musicals, comedy and theatre, children’s shows and festivals. As part of our exploration of Merseyside’s theatres beyond the city centre’s confines, we talked to Gareth Williams, the Floral Pavilion’s Marketing Manager, to discover more about this reborn Wirral landmark.
SevenStreets: Why the Floral Pavilion?
Gareth Williams: The theatre began its life in 1913 as an open-air pavilion and bandstand within Victoria Gardens on the New Brighton promenade. Over the years, the pavilion has gradually grown into a full theatre through various improvements such as new roofs, dressing rooms and an expanding auditorium. Now the building occupies the entire Victoria Gardens site – but has always been referred to as the Floral Pavilion because of its siting in the old park.
SS: Can you sum up the recent history of the Pavilion?
GW: By the 2000s the old theatre, mirroring the resort of New Brighton as a whole, had declined considerably. As part of a general local regeneration project, the old building was demolished and rebuilt from scratch in 2007. The new modern theatre was re-opened with a performance by Ken Dodd on 13 December 2008, and later officially opened by Her Majesty the Queen on 1 December 2011. More recently we opened a second venue, the Blue Lounge, which focuses on smaller-scale live music, comedy and studio-style theatre events.
SS: What kind of acts do you have one?
GW: Our flagship events are West End musicals – we’ve had Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Cabaret and Blood Brothers – and our popular annual family pantomime. We also have week-long runs of Horrible Histories and the Agatha Christie Theatre Company as regular features in our programme. We have family shows to coincide with school holidays, monthly comedy nights and a guitar festival every November.
SS: What does the venue consist of?
GW: The venue comprises three main zones or areas. There’s the main auditorium, which has a capacity of just over 800 seats. Secondly there’s the Plaza and Panoramic Lounge, which is a café and restaurant and is the setting for regular (mostly free) lunchtime concerts by pianists, folk musicians, jazz ensembles and string quartets. Finally, there’s the Blue Lounge – a music, comedy and grassroots theatre venue as well as doubling as a conference, meeting and wedding space during the day.
SS: What’s the mission statement for the Pavilion?
GW: The short-hand mission statement we use is ‘A Theatre For Anyone and Everyone’. Primarily we’re a commercial receiving house, and we’ve had great success bringing a number of large touring West End musicals, plays and family shows (such as Peppa Pig) to Wirral when, in the past, live entertainment on this scale would have only been possible in Liverpool city centre locally. All of this happens within the context of a modern, fully accessible and family-friendly building with free parking.
SS: How does the Pavilion relate to other venues in the region?
GW: We see ourselves as related to the live entertainment scene in Liverpool but always as a New Brighton or Wirral theatre as a core part of our identity. The seaside location sets us apart from many of the other destinations in Merseyside; New Brighton is growing as a place to go with numerous bars and restaurants, a casino and a cinema opening within the last 18 months.
SS: How do you work with local people?
GW: We are lucky to have a loyal local audience who continually support the theatre and visit us regularly. We have a number of long-standing relationships with local theatre groups and amateur dramatic societies who use the venue to stage their own productions as well as attending as individuals. We also have great partnerships with many local schools.
SS: What’s your typical audience profile?
GW: Our most frequent visitors come from Wallasey and Birkenhead, but the overall audience comes from anywhere within about a two-hour drive away. That includes Liverpool, Warrington, Chester and North Wales. If we have a special performance we attract people from much further afield, even as far as Europe.
The variety of shows and performances naturally attract a wide cross-section of people so the theatre can really become a different place from day to day depending on what’s on. Most of our visitors tend to be families or people who just want to have a great night out and a meal.
SS: What’s coming up next?
GW: The Summer season is underway so we’ve got plays like The 39 Steps and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest; regular comedy nights, burlesque, lots of dance in July and August and plenty more. We’ve always got something for everyone.
Floral Pavilion Theatre
New Brighton Promenade
Read our Fringe Theatres profile of Runcorn’s The Brindley