Speaker for 5th March 2019

President John McGlade seen here with Jeremy Lewis

Coleraine Probus go behind the scenes at the Riverside Theatre

The University and the town have recently been celebrating the 50th anniversary of ‘The New University of Ulster’ (NUU). One of the first additions to the Uni buildings, was the Riverside Theatre. The guest speaker for a recent club meeting was Jeremy Lewis, the theatre manager for around 40 years. Jeremy came along to tell the members all about the early years of the theatre and how it came to be built.

Jeremy described the NUU’s ‘full and vibrant social life’ in the early 1970s which included many musical events and a five nights a week film show. Added to this mix was the energetic and ‘formidable’ Mrs. Burges, wife of the provost, who became very keen on raising the funding for an on campus theatre.

The job of bringing together ideas for, as well as costs of, a theatre on campus was given to David Elkin, while the formation of a theatre steering committee, was overseen by the Registrar, Willy Ewing. Unfortunately, the two didn't really get along. The committee took a couple of years to come up with a proposal, and as there wasn’t a Northern Irish Architect with any theatre design experience, commissioned Peter Morrow from London, to prepare some innovative plans and a costing for the Riverside.

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With the plans agreed and a budget of £173,000, John Hunter was then given the task of supervising the project. Jeremy remembers the foundations being laid, as he was a post-grad student of the Uni at that time. Much to his (and many others) surprise, and despite a couple of minor problems, the theatre was completed in about six months, all-be-it at an increased budget, which slipped from £173K to £350+K. All this may sound a bit excessive, but you couldn’t get a house with a sea view in Portstewart for that price, let alone a 400 seat, state of the art theatre.

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The Theatre opened in 1976 and incorporated a flexible stage area, an auditorium with unrestricted views, a control booth for sound and lighting, a foyer with delightful views of the river, a restaurant, a green room, five dressing rooms, a laundry room, rehearsal room, costume store and office accommodation. The first production was to be Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder” starring James Ellis. Unfortunately this had to be cancelled at the last minute, and in it’s place, in desperation, the Scottish “784 Theatre Group” was booked to perform a collection of sketches, these turned out to be ultra left wing political sketches*. Surprisingly this was all well received.

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The following year, it was decided that the theatre should be 'officially opened', but by whom? It so happened that the Queen was due to visit the North West in 1977 and so she was asked to do the formal opening. To everyone's surprise, this was agreed and so the Queen, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh and the young Prince Andrew visited the Riverside and unveiled to commemorative plaque making this auspicious occasion. It has been said that the Royal party spent more time at the Riverside, than they did at any other single venue on that state visit.

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Many of today’s biggest Northern Ireland stars began their careers in the Riverside. The progressive Riverside Youth Theatre provides local young people with the opportunity to hone their acting and dancing skills. Three full time staff together with 130 volunteers provide, present and service the annual programmes of top class and varied productions, that reflects all tastes. The Riverside is also growing in popularity as a wedding venue. Engaging with the local community is important and the Riverside gets tremendous support from the towns in the Triangle area and beyond. The Riverside Theatre is a wonderful resource of culture, music and dance and is a gem in both the University and Coleraine's crown.

(Thanks to Graham for help with this report)

Note: *The clue was in the theatre group's name - it is said that 7% of the world's population owns 84% of the worlds wealth

To find out more about what the Riverside Theatre has to offer over the next few months, just 'Click' on the theatrical Masks below (this will open in a new window)

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