WOKINGHAM will gain a new theatre space in the town centre, if a revision to the Carnival Hub plans go ahead, Wokingham.Today can exclusively reveal.
Plans for the site, which will replace Wokingham Library as well as the Carnival Pool, will be reworked to allow for a new 450-seat venue, bringing live performances to the town centre and ensuring that the Elms Field development will be a complete leisure venue.
The site will complement the Everyman Cinema, restaurants and soft play centres either already open or on their way.
Wokingham Borough Council leader John Halsall said that he had met with various groups and also visited the Braywick Leisure Centre in Maidenhead as part of his research into the issue. Previously, it was intended to build a sports hall that could be converted into a performance area in the same way that Loddon Valley Leisure Centre transforms.
The original plans did not include the necessary spaces for theatre.
To host performances, Carnival Hub will need green rooms, reception areas and appropriate rigging for stage lighting. This is expected to be arranged, although the external shell of the building is now in place.
“The Braywick Centre has a theatre that doubles up as a sports hall and it’s magnificent,” Cllr Halsall said. “We’re going to do better. We can learn from them.
“All the criticisms of the naysayers have now been incorporated into what we’re doing: we will have a facility in Wokingham town, at Carnival Pool, to produce major performances for up to 450 people.
“It’s fantastic, it really is.”
Cllr Halsall acknowledged that there would be some criticism for the council “changing course at the 11th hour”.
“It’s always difficult, but I’m really reassured that what we were doing in the first place was really good, but we’ve just optimised it, that’s all.
“We are building a theatre, a library and leisure centre in the centre of Wokingham.”
In addition to the creation of the green room and foyer, “the building will be soundproof to the highest extent so that we have a theatre-type sound rather than a gym-type”.
He added: “The vicinity will be able to accommodate smaller gatherings as well”.
It is hoped that residents attending productions would dine in the town centre before heading to the theatre, while the enhanced nightlife would help tackle anti-social behaviour in the multi-storey car park.
Cllr Halsall declined to be drawn about the fate of the existing library.
“I think we will take it one step at a time,” he said.
Labour group leader, Cllr Rachel Burgess, expressed concerns over plans for a mixed-use centre at Carnival Hub, saying that residents would be short-changed if the hall was a low-quality space that would be a sports hall with a sign saying ‘performance hub’ above its doors.
“There is a danger that the council will settle for a ‘performance hub’ that is little more than an exercise space with some extra storage capacity for sound, stage and seating that is wheeled out for performances,” she said.
“Of course, it is possible to combine sporting use with performance use but the utility of one will impinge on the utility of the other. Many schools have spaces that are used for both sports and performances, but spaces dedicated to one or the other are clearly better for their primary purpose.”
She also questioned whether such an arts space was needed given Wokingham’s proximity to South Hill Park.
“A bespoke hub for the borough might perhaps be better developed close to the planned film studios in Shinfield where synergies from film production and local performers might develop,” she said.
“My final concern relates to affordably and accessibility. We have seen a town centre redevelopment that almost entirely benefits more wealthy residents and the deliberate exclusion of community and lower status businesses and their customers.
“Both the sporting and performance facilities must be affordable to all.
“We cannot have sport and performance facilities paid for by all residents but only affordable for some.”
In May, the council announced a consultation with local groups, to determine demand for spaces, as well as help with the design of the fit out and extra equipment needed for the site.
In addition to the performance hub and sports hall, the hub will house wo swimming pools; a larger fitness suite and specialist group cycling studio; large studios which can also be used for events; a four-court sports hall which can convert into a performance venue with bleacher seating; a spa, long term health gym; larger café; and viewing areas.
The library would have space for events and activities, a children’s zone and space for exhibitions.
Overall, Carnival Hub is the final stage of the council’s regeneration plans for Wokingham town centre.