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FEATURE: The Bonington remains an ‘absolute community gem’ for people in Arnold

Slowed by the pandemic and a lost £50m Levelling Up bid, The Bonington Theatre still stands as Arnold's film and cultural hub, Dina Volovik reports. 

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“The theatre is closed, love,” the receptionist says with a welcoming smile.  

A children’s theatre troupe must rehearse Madagascar the Musical. Paper palm trees frame the stage, ready for Prince Julian to “move it, move it.”  

Across the lobby, swimming-capped women of various ages wave their arms, doing star jumps in a large pool. The bar above it must moonlight as the troupe’s dressing room. 

It is a rare sight.  

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Few West End theatres offer aqua-aerobics in a 25m pool followed by a cold drink at the bar. But, at The Bonington, Arnold’s only performance space, they have always adapted to overcome.   

It wasn’t meant to be a theatre. It began its life as a meeting room.   

In 1981, Sainsbury’s wanted to build a large store in Arnold’s centre and tear down the Carnegie Library. They made an offer.  

Local historian and the Bonington’s former theatre manager Bob Massey, 72, said: “They told the council, if you give us the old Carnegie Library site, we’ll build you a new leisure centre.” 

It would be built across town, where slum properties had been cleared out. 

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With plans drawn up and foundation laid, the council made a last minute decision. They would make the leisure centre’s large meeting room into a 180-seat theatre, caving to the Local Arts Forum’s lobbying.  

Massey said: “They put the steelwork up and then decided that they wanted one. Those plans landed on my desk and [the council] said, ‘Bob, can you turn this into a theatre?’” 

Designing the theatre, Massey fought the odds from the beginning. He said: “There were no dressing rooms, no wings. I designed the theatre around all those limitations.”   

Frames were extended to add a floor of seating, offices became dressing rooms, and projected lighting would mimic set changes. 

In 1982, The Bonington Theatre was completed.  

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Made of pre-fabricated panels bolted onto a steel frame structure, it was built in a brutalist style popularised as a fast, cheap way to build schools in the postwar housing crisis.  

It was called the CLASP (Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme) style, one that according to Massey is only meant to last 30 years.  

It was not long before the council, lacking a budget for staff, asked Massey to manage it.  

He accepted the job, remaining the theatre manager for 31 years. Massey said throughout it, he was on the books as a swimming instructor. And he didn’t know how to swim.  

He said: We slowly redesigned it so I could run shows entirely on my own. We had the same amount of equipment as a big playhouse.” 

The theatre’s flexibility was reflected in its eclectic live programme. Thanks to its retractable seats, the Bonington could host unusual events.  

Massey said: “There were well-known flower arranging classes and cooking shows, as well as ordinary theatre productions.  

“In the mid 90s, we actually had a skating rink on stage with plastic ice. The intention was to do something for everybody.” 

In 2013, he retired and David Popple, 68, took over as theatre manager, but not before the theatre was almost torn down.  

He said: “There was a time, about 2012, when there was talk of moving the leisure centre to the other side of Arnold without a theatre. It caused quite a bit of local uproar and consternation.  

“Labour lead the renaissance that drew public approval. Local theatre troupes formed a little group that wanted to preserve the theatre. That’s when I came.”  

Popple’s team redesigned it with the latest film projection equipment. The Bonington began to showcase cinema.  

He said: “I started to programme theatre, it took a couple of months to realise it was going to be hard work, nobody was coming. I sat on my hands and thought I have to figure this out.  

“I made a proposal to council that we invest more in cinema in 2015. We started with a film that Christmas and eight people came. But, from then on it just lifted and now we do 540 screenings a year.” 

Gradually, he started to see how the Bonington became an asset to the people of Arnold. 

Popple said: “We’re a second home to so many people. The number of single women, the number of people that come in just because we’re friendly. We know everybody, and more to the point, they know us.  

“The majority of our audience are over 55. We don’t really talk to them about loneliness, but addressing those sort of issues is what we really do without thinking about it.” 

Theatre duty manager Jeremy Arblaster, 34, began to widen the film programme, offering art films with snacks, family entertainment, and West End theatre broadcasts from National Theatre Live.  

Arblaster said: “Not everyone has access to a car to be able to drive to a showcase. We want to show what we’re passionate about and what people want to see.  

“I think Arnold really needs this because there isn’t a whole lot going on culturally this side of Nottingham.”  

Though film began to fill the programme, The Bonington remained a theatre with a big heart for local troupes.  

It stayed affordable so Nottingham theatre groups like The New Youth Theatre and Flying High Expressive Arts could perform there.  

The New Youth Theatre put on Madagascar. Its director, Neil Butler, said: “I don’t think we could stage [our musicals] without The Bonington. Because it is supported by Gedling Council, it allows us to do what we do and not have to charge the parents too much for the ticket.” 

Flying High Expressive Arts aims to improve children’s confidence through expressive dance. The founder, Carrie Bird, said: “We started in 1999 and have had connections with the Bonington Theatre most of those years.  

“Our groups start from age 4 and go up to 18. When the children get to 15, they can come and do a workshop at The Bonington. It puts it up a notch in their estimation as well as ours.  

“We’ve done performances at different venues, but we’ve always had our summer showcase here.  

“The guy who does the lighting at The Bonington has become our lighting designer. He will come with us when we put on a play at the Nottingham Playhouse because he’s part of it.  

“That’s what you get with a small theatre. You feel as if you are part of something, part of a community.” 

The Bonington tried to make the theatre safe and welcoming during the coronavirus.  

Arblaster said: “Initially our strategy was to have a covid safe environment with 25 seats per screening and extra cleaning.  

“After the restrictions were lifted, we continued to offer socially distanced shows. We wanted to build that trust so when people did start to come out they could go here and feel safe.” 

Audiences appreciated the effort.  

Kim Gayler, 60, retired community nurse, said: “The Bonington was absolutely instrumental in sanity preservation during the pandemic when we were allowed to go to the cinema in a safe way.  

“They moved the sofas and chairs in and there were showings for about 28 people. Our own cinema club. We have loved the ‘special’ evenings, usually involving something nice to drink.  

“As far as I’m concerned it’s an absolute community gem.” 

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