MEMBERS of a community theatre group are desperately searching for a new home after landlords Monmouthshire County Council gave them a stark choice – triple their rental rates or get out.

The news came out-of-the-blue, Caldicot Musical Theatre Society’s treasurer, Vera Willis, said. And though an initial two-month deadline has since been extended to the end of the year, the society’s members are reeling from the news they will probably have to give up their beloved home in the Castlegate business park.

“We’ve put in so much money and time,” Mrs Willis said. “We’ve had a lot donated by local businesses – now we have to rip it all out.”

She said the mood among the society’s members was of “absolute shock and horror”, adding: “My daughter (who is the society’s chairwoman) had to tell everyone, and she was crying.”

Monmouthshire council bought Castlegate business park in October 2018 for £7 million. This acquisition was intended “to generate a net revenue stream and provide economic development opportunities”, a spokeswoman for the local authority said in a statement.

It is understood the space currently occupied by the theatre group will be converted into office space for local firms.

But this is unlikely to comfort the society’s 75 or so members, of which 40 are children, nor the diverse community organisations which hire the theatre space each week for their own events.

Brownie groups, karate clubs, gym and Pilates organisations, and local NHS workers all use the theatre space, and the society has also put on cinema nights for autistic children.

Society secretary Dawn Probert said it would be “a big loss” to the community if the theatre space was taken away.

This loss would be financial, too. Staying at Castlegate isn’t a viable option. Caldicot Musical Theatre Society is a charity, run on a shoestring budget and making modest returns on show tickets, refreshments, and programmes. If the society wanted to stay at the site, recently re-calculated rents would rocket from around £12,000 to more than £36,000.

In the two years the society has called Castlegate its home, the theatre space has undergone a remarkable transformation. Once part of the disused Castlegate canteen facilities, it now boasts a impressive stage room with professional lighting equipment.

Much of the theatre’s furnishings and equipment was provided by local organisations or businesses, either for a reduced cost or donated for free.

A kitchen facility was installed a few months ago, using materials donated by a Caldicot firm.

The group has also received grants from the lottery, from local churches, and from Portskewett Community Council.

Mrs Willis said Monmouthshire County Council had also helped cover the costs of the theatre’s equipment, before later deciding to issue the society with higher rates.

Much of the society’s equipment is custom-fitted for its Castlegate home. Added to that, the society owns a few thousand costumes and props. Leaving Castlegate won’t be easy, and the extended December 31 deadline falls just after the society’s busy Christmas period, with a show on December 15.

Mrs Willis said: “Can you imagine what it’ll be like? A week before Christmas and we’ve got to take everything out. Where are we going to put it? It’s very, very upsetting.”

She criticised the way the council approached the matter, too, saying the first contact was a phone call in May from a property agent acting on the council’s behalf.

“He said ‘this is a call you’re not expecting and you’re not going to like’, and said we had two months to leave,” she said. The council had offered to help the society relocate, she added, but these had failed to materialise.

The Free Press put the society’s concerns to Monmouthshire council. In response, a spokeswoman said the council acknowledged the theatre society’s contribution to the town and surrounding area.

“Castlegate is a highly successful commercial business park, not a recreation or theatre space and it’s pretty clear that these uses are not compatible in the medium term,” the council spokeswoman said. “We have to be fair and consistent with all tenants.

“Castlegate provides great value for money for a commercial business but it will always be too expensive for a community group, no matter how well run it is.”

She said the council had offered to help the society find a new location, and had suggested Caldicot Comprehensive School, which contains a theatre area, as an alternative site.