IT is a milestone year for the theatre that has been at the heart of England’s historic capital for a century.

This year the Theatre Royal Winchester is not only celebrating its 100th anniversary in Jewry Street, but also 40 years of Hat Fair – the longest running street arts festival in the country.

Originally a busking event, it now attracts around 40,000 visitors to witness its comedy, music and theatre. This year will involve a record 45 companies, with 12 new commissions and four UK premieres.

Guests and staff descended on the ‘garden’ bar at the theatre on Friday (May 23) to officially launch this year’s proceedings, and premier the new Hat Fair song, composed by Winchester guitar and ukulele teacher, Andy Martin.

Six lucky Year 2 children from St Bede C of E Primary School tugged open a piñata, in line with the South American theme.

Chief Executive of the Theatre Royal, Mark Courtice, said he is excited for this year’s event.

“The fact that so many premieres are happening here is great for Winchester and for us. We have two birthdays in one year, so we thought we just have to party. South America throws the best parties in the world, so that’s why we chose the theme.

“This year celebrates 40 years of achievement of Hat Fair, but also looks to the future - it’s inspiring and exciting and we are really proud of it. Without the whole community behind us it would be impossible to do this festival, so we are very grateful to them.”

Jo Hennessy, outreach officer at the theatre, said the involvement of local children is vital, and this year 11 schools and 400 pupils will take part in the opening parade through the city centre.

She said: “It’s a big event and it’s just brilliant on the day with the children and their parents and teachers. I always say to them that the parade is the opening of Hat Fair, and the key is to make as much noise as possible!”

In the run up to the parade on July 4, Ms Hennessy will be visiting each school to help make decorations.

The participating schools are St Bede C of E, St Faith’s C of E, Osborne, John Keble, Stanmore, Kings Worthy, Weeke, South Wonston, St Swithun’s, Westgate and Kings’.

They will march from Abbey Gardens to the Cathedral, and the festival will continue until July 6.

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