A look at Chester’s new Storyhouse building

The new Storyhouse building project in Chester has converted the old art deco Odeon cinema, which closed in 2007, into a theatre, cinema and library.

The conversion, designed by Bennetts Associates, is an example of bringing together familiar multiple leisure and artistic activities, but reinventing how they are perceived by users and how they can connect with each other.


Sir Peter Bazalgette, Chairman of the Arts Council said that the Storyhouse is:

“…one of the most exciting projects in England at the moment…a powerful, modern, forward-thinking vision.”

The Storyhouse complex occupies a 7,000 sq metre site on Chancery Lane.

History of the project

The Storyhouse project started with the need to relocate Chester library. A site near the River Dee was considered, but this was rejected in favour of converting the old Odeon cinema. The space inside the cinema was too large for just the library, so the idea for a cultural centre was conceived, but without a clear idea about exactly what venues would be included.

The idea of connected spaces was devised; for example, someone coming to see a show might also borrow a book. School parties visiting the library’s education rooms could also see a play.

Cheshire West and Chester Council contributed £33m of the £37m budget for the project. Perhaps surprisingly for a project of this nature, there was very little controversy or public objections to the council spending this money. This could be because, for a number of years, there was no theatre and cinema in the city and that the public saw the value of having a first class arts venue.

The design

The construction of the Storyhouse involved removing the original rake and seats to create a large flat space. A large glass box houses a small 100 seat cinema which is at mezzanine level, the height of the old cinema balcony. Beneath this cinema box is the ‘Levantine’ restaurant.

Red painted metal stairs lead to a 900-seat theatre, and a 150-seat studio space.

In between the theaters, cinema and restaurant spaces are numerous bookshelves. Visitors are encouraged to browse, read and borrow books. In total, there are 700 metres of shelving.

Although the Storyhouse building is large, it is broken down into smaller areas, with some spaces intimate and relaxed, others more lively.

Most of the design is very modern, but some of the original art deco features remain.

There are two entrances: a new one featuring glass, and the original striped plywood entrance which has welcomed visitors since the 1930s.

The original screen used to be behind the foyer. When it was removed, it created a continuous space from the foyer to the old proscenium arch and through to the brick walled auditorium.

There is no box office, as bookings are made online.

The team behind the project has extensive experience in theatre design, including the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon and London’s Old Vic. The new theatre occupies an extension added to the main building. Charcoalbue theatre consultants helped Bennetts with the design of the Storyhouse theatres. The theatre in the Storyhouse is adaptable to end-stage or thrust configurations.

The theatre is in the classical-modernism style, featuring a mixture of modern looking glass and steel along with traditional wood, brick, and copper

The main theatre auditorium has bold dark-stained wood and is designed to be both dramatic and intimate, while the 150-seat studio theatre is built on steel transfer beams and columns that provide acoustic isolation.

What most visitors do not see is the spectacular views from the backstage green rooms that look out towards the Welsh hills.

Community and diversity

The Storyhouse management is passionate about catering to the needs of all sectors of the community. They want to encourage young audiences who would not normally visit the theatre, which is why the cinema includes film showings for autistic audiences and people with dementia. They also provide job opportunities for disadvantaged young people.

The ticketing policy for shows operates a similar policy to Ryanair – the earlier you book, the cheaper your price.

Unlike many art complexes, Storyhouse has long opening hours. The library and restaurant are open from 8:00 am and the building closes around 11:00 pm depending on performance length.


The Storyhouse hosts a wide-ranging number of events, with an eclectic mix of popular products and more obscure ones. As its name suggests, the Storyhouse event program focuses on telling stories. Popular musicals such as Evita and Spamalot contrast with new plays, with Hollywood blockbusters and art films also shown at the cinema. On-stage events range from standup comedians, live broadcasts from the Royal Opera House and a variety of ballet performances.

Guest lecturers from the University of Chester give a series of lectures and seminars, and various arts and crafts workshops are held for children. Library spaces host literary events too.

Early success

The Storyhouse took three years to construct and opened in May this year. Currently, it welcomes 3,000 visitors a day, many of whom just come for a cup of coffee and a look around.

Councillor Louise Gittens, Cabinet Member for Communities and Wellbeing at Cheshire West and Chester Council, said in October:

“Storyhouse is already into its second season following sell out shows in the summer. Before opening we anticipated 350,000 visitors to Storyhouse in the first year and already 285,000 people have visited since May.

“The new season is bringing touring theatre to Chester with firm favourites and brand new shows. Storyhouse’s first Christmas presents a world’s first stage show of Enid Blyton’s the Secret Seven.”

The library at Storyhouse could represent the future of public libraries. Incorporating libraries in cultural centres may encourage a new generation of readers to take a fresh look at these important facilities.

The Storyhouse is a fine example of integrating modern architecture in an existing building in a bold and transformative manner. It is also a bold experiment in connecting culture spaces that cater for both popular and minority artistic events.

Posted by Mark
November 15, 2017

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