Builders and Prescot Cables football players will launch new Shakespeare North Playhouse theatre

Video report by ITV Granada Correspondent Ann O'Connor

Builders who have helped construct a huge new Shakespearean theatre will take part in the opening show, it has been revealed.

The Shakespeare North Playhouse in Prescot, Merseyside, is home to the only 17th-century style timber theatre outside London.

It will open its doors to the public with a weekend of free festivities from July 15-17.

Shakespeare's plays will form part of the opening season

Shakespeare classics A Midsummer Night’s Dream and A Christmas Carol will form part of the launch programme, along with appearances by comedian Johnny Vegas and screenwriter Jimmy McGovern.

However, the opening ceremony will feature a number of people who are used to treading the boards - albeit in hard hats and high-viz vests.

Some of the builders who helped construct the venue will appear alongside players from Prescot Cables FC in an opening ceremony celebrating local heroes.

All The Joy That You Can Wish will take place outside the theatre and will feature the heritage and community of Prescot.

The show will culminate at the new Prospero Place outside Shakespeare North Playhouse, with the audience invited to join in a theatrical opening ceremony to ‘summon the muses’.

The new playhouse stands proudly in the centre of Prescot Credit: Liverpool Echo Syndication

Events continue with a weekend of Open Up performances on July 16 and 17, curated by inspirational Prescot-born playwright, actor and community champion Ashleigh Nugent.

A key part of Knowsley’s Borough of Culture celebrations, the opening weekend will see free performances of dance and drama alongside music, crafts and tours of the 470-seat Cockpit Theatre, which was inspired by Inigo Jones’ historic 1629 Cockpit-In-Court London masterpiece.

The view from a crane high above Prescot as construction began in January 2020 Credit: ITV Granada

During the plague, London’s best performers were forced out to towns like Prescot which it is thought had the only purpose-built playhouse outside the capital.

They brought with them new shows from a popular playwright of the day, William Shakespeare.

The Shakespeare North Playhouse is inspired by those historic connections.

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The new, modern, energy efficient building boasts a fully accessible outdoor performance garden, exhibition gallery, 60-seater studio theatre, learning centre, exhibition and events spaces. There's also a café and bar with outdoor piazza.

The first ticketed events inside the Cockpit Theatre are An Evening With Jimmy McGovern on July 23 and An Evening With Johnny Vegas on July 29.

St Helens-born comedian and actor Johnny Vegas said: "On the architectural side, it’s absolutely stunning. Being in the round I’ve always loved that type of theatre. It feels accessible and for something that is Shakespearean-based that’s the beauty of it. It feels intimate. It doesn’t feel like there’s a cheap seat in the house and that’s beautiful.

“I’m honoured to be one of the first acts in there. It is a major cultural icon coming to a most unexpected place - it's going to be monumental for us.

"Let's make it up north, let's do it up north, let’s have some faith in us up north. Creatively this can be that beacon for us to start coming together and proving for the rest of the world just what talent we have contained in this bit of the country. We breed talent here so let's celebrate it.”

Johnny Vegas says the space "feels like we've taken culture back" Credit: Yui Mok/PA Archive/PA Images

The first plays to grace the Cockpit stage, from September 9-10, will be those written by the three young winners of the As You Write It national playwriting competition.

The opening season at the theatre will include Shakespeare’s classic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a co-production with Northern Stage and Not Too Tame, running from September 22 to October 22.

Directed by Young Vic and Shakespeare’s Globe alum Matthew Dunster, the madcap tale of love, magic and mistaken identity will be given a dose of realism in this new version, setting the tale against the backdrop of teenagers on a raucous night out.

Headlining the autumn and winter season is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, recreated with a distinctly Knowsley feel, offering "a slightly bonkers, fast and furious retelling of the original text with some familiar local references and a sprinkling of pantomime fun".

Written by Nick Lane, associate director at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, the play is directed by Ellie Hurt, co-founder of Liverpool’s The B Collective and associate director of Hamlet at the National Theatre, as well as Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World which had a run at the Liverpool Playhouse. It runs from November 25 to January 7.

Tickets will go on sale for all Shakespeare North Playhouse shows at the end of April, with ticket prices from £3 to £35 with discounts for families, schools, groups, and other concessions throughout the season. A proportion of tickets will be available on a ‘Pay What You Decide’ basis, with some reserved for Knowsley residents.

The Cockpit Theatre: The "jewel in the crown" of the new playhouse Credit: Liverpool Echo Syndication

The theatre aims to work with every school in Knowsley to offer young people inspirational arts and cultural experiences, through hip-hop workshops, drawing sessions, youth theatre activities and comedy projects.

The team is working closely with organisations supporting D/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people to ensure opportunities are as open and inclusive as possible to all.

Laura Collier, creative director at Shakespeare North Playhouse who programmed the season, said: "We want the building to be a beacon for creative excellence, as well as a supportive and nurturing playground for people to explore ideas and develop their own creative voice."

Construction of the venue, built entirely during the pandemic thanks to public funds and donations, is now nearing completion.

Around 140,000 people a year are expected to visit the new venue.

Melanie Lewis, chief executive of the Shakespeare North Playhouse, said: "The unique architecture of the space provides the perfect environment for contemporary, dynamic theatre-making.

"We are excited to start sharing transformational experiences with people from across the North West and beyond. Everyone is invited to come along and join in the opening celebrations, and dive into a weekend of joyful moments, this place is yours - so please turn up and own it."