Front-of-house facilities at a popular Durham City theatre and cinema are to be transformed as the venue undergoes a refurbishment.

Work at Gala Theatre and Cinema will include improvements to the foyer, bar area and box office areas as well as the introduction of an updated till system.

The changes are being made to improve facilities for customers, creating more welcoming, inviting and fit-for-purpose public areas.

The venue, in the city’s Millennium Place, has been closed to visitors since March as a result of Government restrictions introduced to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The improvement works had been planned before the closure but have been delayed due to the pandemic. It is now hoped that the Gala will reopen to visitors in January 2021, Government coronavirus restrictions permitting.

Cllr Joy Allen, Durham County Council’s Cabinet member for transformation, culture and tourism, said: “This investment is incredibly important. It will significantly improve the customer experience for everyone visiting Gala Theatre and Cinema and will, hopefully, bring in new visitors – something that is crucial to the venue’s recovery from the impact of the coronavirus.

“We had already planned to close the venue to carry out the refurbishment. It is unfortunate that the additional closure due to the coronavirus pandemic means that visitors will now have to wait a little longer to return to Gala.

“Government guidance permitting, we are confident that the venue will be able to reopen in the New Year. I am sure customers will feel that the wait was well worth it with some fantastic new front-of-house facilities to welcome them back.”

The closure will mean the theatre and cinema’s full autumn programme has been cancelled, including the annual pantomime. This year’s show, which was due to be Robin Hood, will now take place during Christmas 2021. The Gala Gallery will also remain closed.

Anyone who had purchased tickets for shows this year will be contacted regarding a refund or an alternative date if the performance has been rescheduled. However, this may take some time, so customers are asked to be patient.

The Empire Theatre, in Consett, will also remain closed for the rest of the year, with plans for it to reopen in January 2021. Maintenance work at the venue had to be paused when coronavirus restrictions were introduced. Its annual Christmas show will also be moved to 2021.

Meanwhile, the council is looking at whether it is possible to reinstate some events and performances at Bishop Auckland Town Hall, which has also just undergone a significant refurbishment programme.

Many members of staff who normally work at the three sites were redeployed at the beginning of the pandemic and have provided invaluable support to vulnerable residents through the council’s virtual community hub and other essential frontline services over recent months. Where this demand has now reduced, the council has placed staff on the Government furlough scheme.