THE Marine theatre in Lyme Regis has a long and glamorous history, but as 2018 approaches it also has an exciting future.

Rachel Stretton speaks to new manager Gabby Rabbitts about her plans to diversify Lyme’s arts offering – for the town’s residents and beyond.

“THERE is a lot to look forward to in 2018.”

It’s been just weeks since Gabby Rabbitts took to the helm at the Marine Theatre, but already she has big plans – and she wants your input.

One of her first acts was to launch an audience survey to find out just what people want – and what they don’t want – and when it comes to booking acts for next year she’s taking that on board.

“A lot of the information coming back from the community is they would like more live music, that was a call especially from the younger people but we are trying to diversify the programme so there’s something for everyone.”

It’s a step forward that Gabby sees very much as getting back to the venue’s roots – the theatre hosted the likes of Fleetwood Mac and Status Quo in the 1960s.

As well as the acts, there are plans to refurbish the coffee and tea area into a theatre bar, to put in a disabled toilet for the first time to boost inclusivity and hold a pop-up children’s festival as well as a host of other events covering everything from literature and film to new ideas.

It’s a tough challenge, but one Gabby feels she is ready for. 

She ran the Electric Palace in Bridport after it reopened in 2007, having been bought by her father Peter Hitchin. It took a years-long battle to reopen the venue, which closed in 1999, and Gabby’s hard work saw the Palace placed second in the national Rock the House competition, which recognises small live music venues, in 2012.

She said the Electric Palace’s success happened ‘very quickly’, and is proud of its significant contribution to Bridport’s reputation as an arts town.

“It just went from strength to strength. I was approaching really big names and once we had a few on board more and more promoters were getting in touch. It was something the town just hadn’t had before.”

The Electric Palace job was a return to her roots. Gabby was born in Bridport, and grew up there, moving away to get a degree at Goldsmiths, University of London, which specialises in the arts. She stayed in the capital, initially looking to find work in acting, but moving to running events in the finance sector to pay the bills.

She was delighted when the opportunity in Bridport came up.

“I was hankering to get back into the arts,” she said. “That’s where my heart and soul is. The Electric Palace is a major part of Bridport, I went there as a child when it was a cinema.”

Two years ago, as a new mother, she took the decision to leave, and with her family, renovated a camper van and took off around Europe.

Now with both children at school, the time is right for a new challenge – and a new home in Lyme Regis, where the family moved earlier this year.

“I love Lyme Regis,” Gabby said. “You walk down the high street and everyone says hello, and the trustees have been so welcoming. Bridport has a really big arts community – there are a lot of artists, film-makers, musicians – and I think Lyme is very similar. Obviously, it’s slightly smaller, but it reaches out to neighbouring communities, like Seaton, so there’s a good audience.

“I know people from Lyme Regis go to the Electric Palace for events and I’m hoping that it will start to work the other way, that people from Bridport will come to the Marine Theatre.”

Diversifying the arts offering is a tactic Gabby has used before.

“I am really excited about what’s to come at the Marine Theatre. When I look back on my time at the Electric Palace there are a lot of things I put in place which are still running and still successful – From Page to Screen, National Theatre screenings – it’s those heavyweight kind of things that I want to bring here, to Lyme Regis.”

WHILE known as the Marine Theatre, Gabby is keen to ensure the offering is much wider than plays, with plans for a monthly comedy club and much more live music.

Indie folk band This Is The Kit are playing their first date of an international tour there on January 11, which Gabby sees as kickstarting a new era for the venue.

Its past is just as eclectic. It began life as a sea water baths in 1806, pumping water directly from the sea below.

From 1894 it found a new use as a drill hall, a training facility for local soldiers. After the First World War it became the Drill Hall Theatre and from the 1930s it became the Marine Cinema.

In 1960 Lyme Regis Town Council bought the building and reopened it as the Marine Theatre in 1962.

It has been run by the Lyme Arts Community Trust since 2003.