CONSULTANTS are being brought in to run Basildon’s Towngate Theatre after the sudden exit of its manager.

Basildon Council is paying a company £53,000 to run the town centre theatre for six months, while it finds a replacement.

Manager Graham Sandford quit his job after a review of the St Martin’s Square theatre’s operations called for improvements to the way it was run.

A council source involved with the theatre told the Echo: “Graham left suddenly and from what I understand, there was no notice period.”

The decision to bring in the Charcoalblue company – which is involved with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal National Theatre and Glyndebourne Festival Opera – has prompted fears the theatre might end up being privatised.

Since its opening, in 1989 the Towngate has enjoyed a chequered history, with almost as much drama as the shows on its stages. In the Nineties, spiralling costs even prompted the council to close it.

Basildon Standard: Labour leader Nigel Smith outside the Basildon Centre

Concerned: Nigel Smith

Labour opposition group deputy leader Nigel Smith said: “My fear is this could be the beginning of outsourcing. That would be appalling. It would make people angry, as it is very popular.”

A report to councillors, after Mr Sandford quit, said: “The theatre has been undergoing a review of progress against the business plan.

“The theatre manager has left, An initial report has been provided to the council on areas for urgent improvement.

“The council cannot cover all the requirements of a theatre manager. This is critical at this time of year for the theatre, aswe are beginning the process of producing the annual pantomime.”

Kevin Blake, Tory councillor responsible for the theatre, denied the move was a prelude to privatisation.

He explained: “Consultants have been employed to provide interim management to the theatre, and to assist with the recruitment of a new manager.

“There are no plans to outsource the service.”

However, Mr Smith remains concerned for the future.

He said: “I do not have any confidence in bringing in outside consultants. Why on earth does it take so long to recruit a manager?

Other officers involved could do it until a replacement was found.

“The Towngate belongs to all of us. There has been no consultation and no debate.

“I am very sorry Graham left.

He was involved in the Towngate for many years and it had been a success.”