Riverside Theatre, Coleraine

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Coordinates: 55°08′49″N 6°40′19″W / 55.147°N 6.672°W / 55.147; -6.672 The Riverside Theatre is located at the University of Ulster at Coleraine, Northern Ireland. It was opened in 1976 and is the fifth-largest professional theatre in Northern Ireland. It is architecturally unique in Ireland for its flexible staging facilities. The Riverside theatre won a design award in the year of its completion, and another shortly after for its provision for disabled patrons.

It is an established touring venue. It features productions from all over the UK, Europe and North America. The Riverside programme incorporates drama, contemporary dance, rock bands, ballet, opera, variety, children's shows, pantomime, music recitals and recordings for television and radio.

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The Riverside Theatre was commissioned by the New University of Ulster 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.

While it is owned and staffed by the University, current funding for the operation of the Riverside is also provided via a new management partnership with Coleraine Borough 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 citizens of the three local towns.

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 and Coleraine Borough Council.


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.


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 University of Ulster.


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!).


Riverside’s programming policy has not changed radically in its thirty five 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 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.


Over the last 7 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. There are 5 Tutors - Neil and Paul McMaster (Acting Coaches), Kelly Collins (Movement & Dance), Edwin Brown (Singing) and 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 Walt Disney's "Aladdin Junior" and in the previous year, "The Jungle Book". Associate Tutor in Music, Ben Levy, is currently the youngest person ever to have directed a major musical in Riverside at the age of 17. Ben's sell-out production of "Joseph & The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat" was the biggest hit of Riverside's 2013 summer programme.


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 (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 1980s.

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

Distinguished Scots actor Alan Cumming appeared in Riverside during the 1980s, 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.

Star of the movie "Trainspotting" alongside Ewan McGregor - Jonny Lee Miller - trod Riverside's boards during the 1980s in a production brought to us from TAG Theatre of Glasgow.

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 RTÉ, 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 1980s, 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 correspondent 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 1970s.

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.

Mark Carruthers, Northern Ireland’s most respected political journalist, author of several books, presenter of the weekly "The View" 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 1970s, 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-1980s.

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

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 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, 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 the 1980s.

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 1990s, which remains as one of the highlights of Riverside's music promotions.


No proper tribute could fail to acknowledge the enormous contribution to Riverside's development during the last thirty five 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 continues in his long association to this day as he is both Chair of the Theatre's programming group and an active member of Riverside's Management Committee.