It was the opening night, a fortnight ago, of the project-and-production which has been Kiss Me Quickstep. Eastbourne’s Winter Garden was lush with ballroom splendour, and one chance remark had Theatres director Chris Jordan beaming.
“I’ve just spoken to a couple from the audience,” said Chris, “and they told me - apart from loving the show - that they have lived in Eastbourne for forty years, but had never before set foot in the Winter Garden! There must be quite a lot of other local folk out there like them, who have literally walked past the door and never been inside.
“We have this wonderful building, a central part of Eastbourne’s history, and Kiss Me Quickstep has renewed our vision for it. Now, with the eighteen-month redevelopment imminent, we are relishing the further opportunities that the Winter Garden opens to us.”
Kiss Me Quickstep has emerged, butterfly from cocoon, to become one of the successes of the year for the town’s theatres. Sublimely blending the dance with the drama, Amanda Whittington’s play grows on you.
Enhanced by the unique Winter Garden setting, and with lovely effects of sound and lighting, it draws it audience into the story and creates - in the quite intimate Floral Hall arena - a real sense of rapport.
Plenty of other shows, musicals and movies have used dance as their starting point or central theme, but few have the human dimension which makes KMQ stand apart. The acting is top-notch, and the dancing just dazzles. Closing this Sunday, local theatre-goers have just a few more chances to catch Kiss Me Quickstep.
And that redevelopment? The Congress Theatre has served the town splendidly for over half a century, but in some respects it shows its age. A listed building, it has already undergone a lengthy reconstruction of the façade, and theatre-goers breathed a collective sigh last year when the scaffolding and tarpaulins finally came down.
Now the Congress will close in the New Year for surgery which is radical and not merely cosmetic. New seating, and massive upgrading should greatly improve the audience experience.
Perhaps the biggest single change will allow visitors to enter the auditorium at what is currently the level of the stalls/raised stalls, avoiding the climb up the stairs from the foyer - or the lengthy queue for the lift for disabled visitors.
Much of the project - and especially the heavy-duty rebuilding - is predicated on new facilities for the conference business, potentially worth millions to the town. The Congress Restaurant will be entirely replaced by a new Conference Welcome Centre, with exhibition space and refreshment and meeting facilities.
There should be new vistas, too, across the freshly landscaped Devonshire Park itself, and eighteen months, everyone will be feeling thrilled to bits and pretty relieved. But in the meantime, where will our theatrical fix come from? Well, the major touring musicals of Bodyguard dimensions will have to by-pass Eastbourne for that year or so. But there is a Plan B.
“This an opportunity as well as a challenge,” says Chris Jordan. “Firstly, it means a busy schedule at the Devonshire Park Theatre, which itself has ongoing improvements but not major or disruptive building works. And secondly, it is a chance to put our lovely Winter Garden to new exciting uses. As Kiss Me Quickstep has shown, this is a unique performing space: beautiful, atmospheric and flexible.
“Those first-time visitors are surely typical of many Eastbourne folk. Instead of being simply tucked away and overlooked, the Winter Garden can come into its own in the year-and-a-half ahead.”
Challenge and opportunity: vision and hammer-and-nails resourcefulness. Yes, there are exciting times ahead at the Theatres. By Kevin Anderson.