Finally there is progress on the St James Theatre and now all eyes will be on the developers to deliver.

There are always great expectations of the people who promise to reopen a dearly loved old theatre, together with doubts about whether they can pull it off.

There's some scepticism about the St James purchase because Aucklanders have been worn down by frustrated hopes and delays on the future of the theatre.

It has been easy to blame Auckland Council but it inherited a resource consent for an apartment block on the site, an owner who didn't want the theatre and a ballooning restoration cost.


Devonport faced all this five years ago when we won a lease from North Shore City Council to open and restore the Victoria Theatre. People want you to succeed but they've got their eye out for any sign of failure and are quick to seize on your mistakes however small.

The announcement the new owners of the St James will go ahead with the 39-storey apartment block caused a bit of a lurch of the heart to heritage lovers - we hate seeing old buildings subsumed by modern giants soaring above them.

But with a council facing deep budget cuts and the old theatre mouldering away further by the day, the apartment block is the price we have to pay for saving the St James.

And the reality is, the glory of this art deco treasure is all inside the building. It's here where the glitzy, gilded atmosphere and sumptuous ornate plasterwork remains beautifully intact.

The apartment block development includes seismic strengthening of part of the theatre, which means some of the most expensive part of the restoration will be taken care of.

The next biggest dilemma for the owners is when and how to open the theatre. Someone somewhere has put a figure of at least $50 million for the restoration cost. This figure has become a stamp branded on the theatre as if it is some unchallengeable fact.

I'd get another quote. There are many different ways to restore - there's the Rolls-Royce style or there's the do-it-as-you go method. At the Vic in Devonport we went for the latter, making the building safe and clean and comfortable and we threw open the doors to audiences within six months of signing the lease. It was a bit tatty in places but people could once again watch a movie, buy an icecream and, most importantly, they could claim back their local theatre.

On a tour of the St James last month I was amazed by its good condition. Its closure seven years ago seems to have been more about politics than audience safety. It will have to be thoroughly checked out before crowds can be allowed back in but the atmosphere of this gorgeous historic theatre and the grand intimacy of the place remains undiminished and impressive.


The key is to get people in as soon as possible, even just into the foyer with tours of the ground floor as a bonus. Restoration can be ongoing.

The more immediate task is to work out who is going to use it, what they will require and who the audience will be.

A big project like the St James will take courage and determination to see it through. A large dose of optimism will help and taking your supporters with you is essential. Because whoever owns the title, it's the people with their love and memories of the theatre who really claim it as their own.

Margot McRae is chairwoman of the Victoria Theatre Trust and deputy chairwoman of Devonport Heritage.