NO sector has been harder hit by coronavirus than our creative and cultural industries.

Performances of all kinds have been cancelled and most venues have been mothballed for more than a year.

But at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester, work has been going on behind the scenes on as it puts the final touches to its Mercury Rising project.

The town’s famous theatre, which is run as a charity, is undergoing a desperately need £11 million revamp.

Inevitably delays have affected the timescale of the project, but now as works are almost complete, the theatre, along with the industry, is preparing to rise from the ashes.

Steve Mannix, executive director, said: “The pandemic has been a nightmare but we have got through it.

“It has been absolutely catastrophic for our industry.

“I was on holiday when we first heard we had to close.

“We were set to reopen in September so I thought I’d take a holiday abroad in March.

“I just received a text saying ‘We’re all going home’.”

Reborn - Steve Mannix and Tracey Childs inside the Mercury Theatres big tent

Reborn - Steve Mannix and Tracey Childs inside the Mercury Theatre's big tent

In a normal year the Mercury receives around a quarter of its funding through grants with the rest, about £3.5 million, coming through income from the paying public.

This has completely disappeared during the pandemic.

Mr Mannix said: “It has been extremely difficult but we were able to retain all of our staff, whereas some other theatres have had to make huge redundancies.

“In adversity the new partnerships we have formed have been amazing and the support we have had from residents has been incredible.

“In the last year 460,000 people have seen our online programme.

“Our panto at Christmas was seen across the country and even the world. We streamed it to children’s homes and care homes and we were able to offer it to schools at a low price.

“We were able to quickly learn a new way of working and engaging with people.”

Sadly though, there isn’t an online workaround for construction, and so the Mercury Rising project has faced inevitable delays.

Mr Mannix said: “We could only have 25 per cent of people on site. There were problems with supply chains and there was a national shortage of concrete and plaster.

“We even had to send someone to Leeds at one point to pick up some plaster, that is how bad it was.

“The impact was extreme in terms of getting the job finished.

“The costs have also gone up and, of course, we had to meet them. There is no precedent for Covid and we couldn’t claim on insurance.”

Thanks to grants from the likes of Arts Council England, the theatre has been able to meet those costs, but the impact of not opening as planned has been severe.

A lot of determination and commitment from a lot of people has got them through it, Mr Mannix says, and he is quick to praise the work of all the contractors who worked on the project.

Now, the end is in site, with the public set to get their first glimpse of the finished new building at the end of June, when tours will be available.

Shows will restart the following month, as long as Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives the go-ahead.

Revamp - the Mercury Theatres £11 million regeneration is nearly complete

Revamp - the Mercury Theatre's £11 million regeneration is nearly complete

Mr Mannix said: “It has been a real team effort and I am extremely proud.

“There will be more space front of house where you can sit down and have a drink. It is going to be a lot easier for disabled people and those with limited mobility and there will be three lifts.

“We are reclaiming the garden at the back and the whole area around the theatre will be regenerated

“The outside will be a civic space the community can use. It is going to be something that I know people will be proud of.”

The project has been five years and £11 million in the making. It is also one of only five new arts buildings which are set to be complete this year.

Once finished, it will create 52 new jobs for Colchester too, something Mr Mannix is particularly proud of.

“We have just started recruiting for some of the new roles,” he said. “There will be 12 posts available specifically for young people who are in need of work.

“There will also be apprenticeships available to train people in skills which the industry desperately needs.

“When we are fully open there are 100 people employed so we are one of the biggest employers in the town centre.”

The renovation is the first serious work which has been done to the Mercury in almost five decades, and Mr Mannix said the team always had the future in mind when completing the project.

Mr Mannix added: “This is being done for the next generation. We hope it will last for another 40 years.

“There is a covenant on the area so it has to be used for the arts. You won’t see homes built here.

“Town centres are changing and arts and culture are becoming more and more important. Colchester has so much to offer in this respect.

“We are a charity, and we are run by people of Colchester for the people of Colchester.”

A special gala will be held on September 5 to celebrate the completion of the Mercury Rising project.

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