Riverside Theatre






THE RIVERSIDE IS NORTHERN IRELAND'S OLDEST OPERATING PROFESSIONAL THEATRE VENUE OUTSIDE OF BELFAST. IT HAS BEEN SERVING NORTHERN IRELAND FOR 40 YEARS AND DURING THE 70s AND EARLY 80s HOLDS A UNIQUE POSITION AS THE PROVINCE'S ONLY OPERATING PROFESSIONAL THEATRE OUTSIDE OF BELFAST.

HISTORY

The Riverside Theatre was commissioned by the New University of Ulster (now the Ulster University) as a major project during the 1970s, which was at the height of The Troubles, a turbulent period in Northern Ireland’s history. At that time, there were no other theatres open and operating outside of Belfast city centre though, across the water in England and Scotland, it was a particularly thriving time for the development of new theatres and arts centres.

It was considered then that, both as a developmental feature for the New University of Ulster in its course provision in English and Drama degrees and research, and, as a useful facility for the citizens of the town of Coleraine, the University campus was an ideal spot for the new theatre with its landscaped, picturesque grounds and ample parking space.

Under the supervision of the then Vice-Chancellor, Dr Alan Burges and NUU Registrar WT Ewing, an approach was made to one of Europe’s leading designers, Peter Moro, who was contracted to design a theatre for the University and for the citizens of Coleraine. Funding came from public donations, the University itself, the Gulbenkian Foundation and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the building was completed in 1977. The Theatre cost £385,000 to build and equip. Within a few months of opening, in the same year, the Theatre won the prestigious Architect’s Award for one of the UK’s best public design features of 1977. In the same year, the Theatre was officially declared open, in person, by HM The Queen as part of her official visit to the New University of Ulster, at Coleraine.

Riverside remains one of the creational gems of that award-winning architect, the late Peter Moro. Moro’s other designs include the Royal Festival Hall, the Nottingham Playhouse, the Theatre Royal at Plymouth and the University Theatre at Hull.

HOW RIVERSIDE IS FUNDED

While it is owned and staffed by the University, current funding for the operation of the Riverside is generously provided via a shared-management partnership with Causeway Coast & Glens Council. This funding partnership emphasizes the fact that the Riverside exists very much as a facility for Town and Gown: equal sharing of a prized luxury between students of the University and all of the residents of the areas covered by Causeway Coast & Glens' catchment.

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland generously provided annual, revenue funding for Riverside for over the first twenty five years of its operation - but such funding was withdrawn in 2007, leaving financial support for the Theatre in the hands of the University, the local Council, its business-sponsors and its ticket-buying patrons.

Riverside's complement of four full-timers and one part-time member of staff is the smallest of all of NI's professional theatre venues. It is augmented by over 120 volunteers from the general public and their work is very much appreciated.

AUDITORIUM FORMAT

The Riverside is unique, in a Northern Ireland context, by having both a totally variable stage and seating facility. It can offer facilities for traditional proscenium arch (i.e. “end-on”, the traditional theatre style) and also for thrust (where the audience is seated on three sides around a horseshoe-shaped performance area, bordered by a two-foot deep moat). It can also facilitate an orchestra pit, in the centre of the auditorium, for up to twenty players.Overall, Riverside's main auditorium can be configured and used in up to six different ways - hence our claim to uniqueness in an NI context.

In proscenium arch format Riverside can accommodate 290 seats: in thrust, this increases to 360. Both formats include special designated areas for wheelchair users.

THEATRE CLUB

The Riverside Theatre Club, which is now Northern Ireland’s oldest theatre-supporters’ organization, was established a year prior to Riverside’s opening through encouragement from the then Vice-Chancellor’s wife, Mrs Evelyn Burges. Its raison d’etre had been well thought out beforehand: the Club would provide volunteers to help in operating all the front-of-house services, it would organize events and receptions in support of the programme, it would assist the Theatre in raising funds and it would provide occasional gifts and other support in kind. And by encouraging membership from young people, the Club was also a very useful way of developing audiences for the future as well.

By the time of the Theatre’s opening night, the Club had already enrolled over 100 enthusiasts, many of whom are still active supporters over thirty years later! There are very few theatre clubs anywhere, which can make a similar claim.

The current Chair of the Theatre Club is Claire Bleakley, of the Ulster University's Development section.

OPENING NIGHT

And on that opening night, in a packed auditorium, Riverside's first, memorable production was performed by Scotland's highly prestigious 7:84 Theatre Company in Steve Gooch's "Our Land, Our Lives". And while this was, as critics concur, a hotly political play (7:84's mission was to flag the fact that 7% of the population owned and controlled 84% of Britain's wealth) - the power of the performance, the effect of the script and the skill of the cast won over every member of that capacity house. (I well remember the ovation, having been there in the audience as a young student, which continued for several minutes!).

PROGRAMMING POLICY

Riverside’s programming policy has not changed radically in its near, forty years of operating, so far. Its brief was, and continues largely to be, the provision of a mixed fare of drama, variety and light entertainment, music, schools’ and educational productions, community and amateur presentations and an annual Christmas Show. In its pursuit of Cultural Diversity, at the same time, the Theatre added specialized events, such as professional snooker, which were introduced later in the early 1980s and the Riverside continues to be a sought-after venue by promoters and companies from all over the globe. It has now begun to promote conferences and related events as well, particularly during “quiet periods”.

Riverside is the perfect venue for the presentation of Professional Snooker - with an audience on three sides of the auditorium, which adds to the excitement - and the Theatre has hosted the Irish Championship in the past. All the best known players appeared here including Alex "Hurricane" Higgins, Denis Taylor, Steve Davis and Jimmy White.

Riverside probably remains unique in an NI context by also having promoted Karate demonstrations and Fight-Nights by members of Coleraine's premier club, under the direction and tutelage of Sensei Terry Geddis.

Riverside has had long established links with some of the best Irish, British, European and American theatre companies. The Abbey Theatre from Dublin, London’s Royal National Theatre, all of Ireland’s major touring companies and groups from France, Belgium, Africa and North America have performed here.

YOUTH THEATRE

Over the last 9 years in particular, Riverside has paid special attention to the concept of youth theatre by having established its own, permanent group - now one of the most successful in Ireland. The Riverside Youth Theatre {the RYT} is 60 in number, who achieved membership as a result of auditions and these are held annually each September.

Up until Easter of 2015, there were 5 Tutors - Neil and Paul McMaster (Acting Coaches), Kelly Collins (Movement & Dance), Edwin Brown (Singing) and Riverside's Manager Jeremy Lewis (Speech) - all possessing professional qualifications in their respective roles. The Youth Theatre meets each Saturday morning in Riverside and works towards a major musical each year on the main stage. Last year it was "Annie Junior", and in the 2 previous Walt Disney's "Aladdin Junior" and "The Jungle Book". Past Associate Tutor in Music, Ben Levy, is currently the youngest person ever to have directed a major musical in Riverside at the age of just 17, which currently stands as a Riverside record. Ben's sell-out production of "Joseph & The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat" was the biggest hit of Riverside's 2013 summer programme. And his swansong, prior to having departed the country for University at York, was a large-scale, youth production of "Fame", the musical in Riverside during August 2014 - which, once again, produced capacity houses and much appreciation from the audiences. Ben recently directed his own company in a production of the sparkling musical, "Anything Goes". He will also be directing Riverside's MUSIC THEATRE SUMMER SCHOOL in 2016, details of which are currently in the EVENTS section of this website.

Riverside is both very proud of, and grateful to, Ben Levy.

Riverside is simultaneously very appreciative of the work of Edwin, Kelly, Neil and Paul above and wishes all of them the best in their various new ventures. The Youth Theatre has continued, of course, from last October onwards under the capable and experienced direction of local teachers Oonah McEwan and Kathy Walsh - both Heads of Drama from Grammar schools in the Riverside's immediate catchment area.

Kathy and Oonah have had a great first year, with increased membership of the Youth Theatre (now called MORE Drama @ Riverside) and directed BEAUTY AND THE BEAST JNR as their first major showcase in March 2016.

YOUTH THEATRE PATRONS

The Riverside Youth Theatre patrons are Ms Sarah Travers (presenter of UTV's weekly news and features show, "The Magazine") and Dr James Nesbitt, Chancellor of the University of Ulster. Riverside is indebted to each of them for their active and continuing support.

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT AND ACTIVITY

Community organizations from all over Ireland, and not just the local catchment area, have been using Riverside for nearly forty years. Amateur drama clubs, music societies, debating societies, art groups and photographic clubs meet, exhibit and perform in the Riverside every year.

WEDDING CEREMONIES AND RECEPTIONS

Riverside is a properly licenced venue for wedding ceremonies, civil partnerships and receptions and will be hosting its fourth such event during 2016.

DISTINGUISHED RIVERSIDE PERFORMERS SINCE 1977

Many of today’s hottest stars of Irish, British and International stage, screen and television began their careers in the Riverside from the Seventies onwards. The best known of these is Coleraine actor JAMES NESBITT, an early member of the Riverside Youth Theatre, who was “discovered” in 1978 while playing the part of The Artful Dodger in Riverside’s Christmas Show of that year, Lionel Bart’s Oliver! (The title role was played by BBC TV's Mark Carruthers, James's contemporary - in a magical production directed by Riverside's Administrator of that time, Tony Newby Lee).

DR JAMES NESBITT - CHANCELLOR OF THE UNIVERSITY OF ULSTER

Dr James Nesbitt (Jimmy, as he's better known) was installed as Chancellor of the University of Ulster in a ceremony, on Riverside's main stage, in June 2010 - and in the same ceremony Ballycastle export and international actor Conleth Hill was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Letters. Conleth performed the lead role in Riverside's production of "The Picture of Dorian Gray" during the 80s.

James has paid an enormous compliment to us by having named his successful racehorse "Riverside Theatre"!

ALAN CUMMING

Distinguished Scots actor Alan Cumming appeared in Riverside during the 80s, in the Royal National Theatre's touring production of "Accidental Death of an Anarchist". He currently plays Eli Gold on the CBS television show "The Good Wife". He appeared as a guest star in the latter third of the first season, becoming a series regular in the show's 2010–2011 season. He has been nominated for two Primetime Emmy Awards, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, and Satellite Award for his performance.

OMID DJALILI

The renowned, international movie actor and stand-up comedian, Omid read Theatre Studies at the University of Ulster in the late 80s and cut his teeth on Riverside's main stage in productions directed by Lynda Henderson and Paul Hadfield, prior to graduating. Omid was featured recently on BBC TV's "The One Show", in which he was reunited with Lynda, for the first time since he graduated from the University.

Omid was, during September 2014, reading daily extracts of his recently published autobiography, on Radio 4 as Book Of The Week.

CLIVE DUNN

"Dad's Army" star and No. 1 single-artiste ("Grandad") Clive visited Riverside regularly during the 80s, with his comedy-specials.

JONNY LEE MILLER

Star of the movie "Trainspotting" alongside Ewan McGregor - Jonny Lee Miller - trod Riverside's boards during the 80s in a production brought to us from TAG Theatre of Glasgow.

NICHOLAS PARSONS

Veteran actor and Presenter of Radio 4's longest-running game-show "Just a Minute", Nicholas performed his excellent one-man show on the life and times of eccentric poet Edward Lear during the 90s.

WILLIAM ROACHE

Bill, who has played the role of Ken Barlow in "Coronation Street", the globe's longest running TV soap, appeared during the late 70s in a Riverside Chat Show hosted by Gordon Burns.

PRUNELLA SCALES

International actress and wife of Timothy West, Pru Scales is most affectionately remembered both as Sybil Fawlty, wife of the horrific Torquay hotel owner Basil, in the classic TV sitcom of the 70s, Fawlty Towers and in the title role of Elizabeth Mapp in ITV's dramatized series "Mapp and Lucia", one of television drama's highlights of the mid-80s. Pru performed in Riverside during the 80s with her own production, "An Evening with Queen Victoria". Prunella and Timothy currently star in Channel 4's series of Great Canal Journeys.

COLERAINE THEATRE/TV & FILM PRACTITIONERS

Mark Carruthers, Northern Ireland’s most respected political journalist, author of several books, presenter of the weekly "The View", "Sunday Politics NI" and "Stormont Today" on BBC TV and popular radio anchorman, honed his performance skills acting on the Riverside stage. As well as his triumph described above as Oliver, in Lionel Bart's musical of the same name, Mark proved to be an astonishingly versatile young actor and subsequently - while studying for his O-levels - played the enormously challenging role of Myles, one of the two dysfunctional children in the psychological thriller, based on Henry James' novel, "The Turn of the Screw". This professional production, directed by Tony Newby Lee for Interplay Theatre Company, NI's only Theatre-in-Education company in the 70s, was a huge success with audiences and critically well-reviewed. Mark subsequently played the male lead in Jeremy Lewis's production of Joe Orton's outrageous black-comedy "Loot", during the mid-80s.

Zoe Seaton, Artistic Director of the Big Telly Theatre Company and one of Ireland's most respected directors and theatre practitioners, began as a child actor in Riverside and a founder member of its first Youth Theatre, Upstage Downstage. Big Telly has just celebrated its 25th birthday and is Northern Ireland's oldest operating, professional theatre company.

Scriptwriter for RTE, playwright, director and film-maker Robert Taylor, acted in several Riverside productions while a pupil at Coleraine Inst. Robert gained his Equity card, the gateway into the professional actors' Union, by taking the leading role in Riverside's production of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" in the early 80s, while Robert was studying for his A-Levels. He went on to perform in David Edgar's intriguing two-hander, "Ballboys", a very unusual Wimbledon thriller, alongside his contemporary James Nesbitt - in a show directed by Colin Carnegie, of Centre Stage Productions, Belfast.

Ronan Lundy, BBC Radio's regional corespondent and presenter, was one of Fagin's gang of pickpockets in 1978's "Oliver". As a member of Upstage Downstage, Riverside's first Youth Theatre - founded by Riverside's Wardrobe Mistress Jane Seaton - Ronan went on to play leading roles in USDS's various productions.

Critically-acclaimed visual artist and book-illustrator Stephen Brown performed as a child actor in several Riverside productions during the 70s.

Briana Corrigan, formerly a singer and recording artiste with rock band The Beautiful South, began as a Riverside child actor.

OTHER INTERNATIONALLY-KNOWN ARTISTES

But the list is even more extensive. A young Liam Neeson performed here during the early Eighties. Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson were all unknown but regular visitors then too, having just graduated from the Cambridge Footlights.

Iconic British film star Richard Todd, was one of the many stars to perform in Riverside during its first year of operation, in a thriller which led to a full week of packed houses.

And Northern Ireland's own - the late and sadly missed - James Ellis - stage, screen and television star - performed the lead in "Dial M For Murder", the classic, Hitchcockian thriller, which was staged in Riverside's opening year. James is affectionately remembered from his leads in TV dramas such as Graham Reid's "Billy" plays and BBC's "Z Cars".

Countless stars of major television soaps, such as Coronation Street, Emmerdale, Hollyoaks, Eastenders and Brookside have all appeared here through the years and we still keep in contact with many of them today. Irish crooners Brendan O'Dowda and Val Doonican performed here several times during ther 80s.

80s Rock Band The Flying Pickets appeared in Riverside during the 80s, just a week before their recording of "Only You" reached No 1 in the Top Twenty.

Classic offbeat, cult comedian, the late and much lamented, Ivor Cutler performed his inimitable "Life in a Scotch Sitting Room" on our main stage just prior to it being released as an album on the Virgin label. (Volumes 1 and 2 of this unique recording are still available and well worth a listen!)

Legendary Belfast export Van Morrison recorded a concert/chat-show appearance on our main stage, commissioned by UTV during the 90s, which remains as one of the highlights of Riverside's music promotions. Clips of this amazing event are still available to see on YouTube

RIVERSIDE'S THANKS

Mr John Hunter

No proper tribute could fail to acknowledge the enormous contribution to Riverside's development during the last forty years, made by one particular individual: Mr John Hunter, who was a past Secretary of the University of Ulster. John nurtured Riverside during its formative years from architect's plans through to the actual construction - directed and motivated its staff - and oversaw its success through his expert advice to, and guidance of, the various associated management groups. John continued in his long association until 2014, as both Chair of the Theatre's programming group and an active member of Riverside's Management Committee.


Written by JEREMY LEWIS
Theatre Manager 2006 to June 2016