A collective cry swept across Wilmslow when the last curtain fell at its beloved Rex Cinema in 1995. But following a recent Facebook campaign by local residents, the space has been spruced up and reimagined, reopening as a perfectly turned out retro cinema in December.
The result? It’s been a runaway success with an impressive programme of blockbuster and indie films, and live screenings of theatre productions from the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Opera House.
Why’s it such a big deal?
In an age of multiplexes, the Rex was a reassuringly cosy way to catch the latest blockbusters. Even after its closure, and with a new incarnation of a sofa store, the building was emblazoned with the discernible R E X giant letters, imparting a little hope that one day it just might reopen.
Enter the formation of the Rex Revival Group – a savvy group of residents who campaigned for the resurgence of the cinema through Facebook, attracting a 4,000-strong membership and ultimately the attention of indie cinema owners, the Mundin family, who had already transformed three cinemas into characterful boutique theatres (the Ritz in Belper, the Regal in Melton Mowbray and the Savoy in Heaton Moor).
“We first visited the Rex five years ago whilst it was still operating as a furniture retailer,” says Tony Mundin. “We were looking for cinema-shaped buildings, in the right location, and Wilmslow really appealed.
“The manager showed us around, including an auditorium on the second floor that had been closed since 1995. We examined the possibility of opening a single screen site and adding an extension to the rear but it just wasn’t feasible given the investment required and the size of the auditorium.”
The team decided it wasn’t going to work and parked the idea. But when they learned the furniture retailer was going into administration, the family jumped back on the case.
“The retailer had at this point vacated the whole building and we realised we could use the ground and first floors. This meant we could add a second screen and a large bar and foyer – essential for a luxury cinema.”
The Mundins embraced the project and the hotly anticipated new-look Rex was unveiled in December. And you can’t miss it. Cruise along Alderley Road or Water Lane and as you approach Barclays, pow, there it is. A regal space rearing up above the pavements.
Swing through the doors and at the rear of the entrance is a staircase. A staircase I’d completely forgotten about. Until I returned on a Sunday evening, almost 24 years after I’d last raced up it. I was probably clutching a box of fruit pastilles as a starry-eyed 11-year-old, going to see something like Dumb and Dumber with that tingle in my stomach I used to get before the lights dimmed.
I had that sudden rush of nostalgia as I hopped up them, following the scents of popcorn, and although the original aesthetic was gone, I felt that flutter again.
Inside it’s plush and retro and the Mundin’s passion for the place is tangible – they’ve done a cracking job of smartening up the space.
The walls are papered in art-deco-style-designs in dark green and gold, and red velvet seating winds around the bar area, where punters catch up in the honeyed light, ordering stiff drinks and snacks. It’s a cool spot with lots of atmosphere.
Same goes for inside the theatre. You’ve got the regular stalls or larger luxury seats, or you can splash out on a sofa for two to cosy up in. All have a very civilised drinks holder and plenty of room to dangle your legs in front.
“For an extra special treat we have ‘The Box’ which has a very large sofa and a private waiting area with free drinks,” explains Tony.
I was there to watch Bohemian Rhapsody – and although I’m not here to review the film, the sound, the layout, the sensory experience have all been engineered by the new owners. And by god, I was swept into Freddie’s world, from those first few scenes where the doe-eyed whipper-snapper meets Mary Austin for the first time, to that at Live Aid.
When the camera soars across the heady crowd and tunnels towards the Queen frontman, I was there with him for the ride, clinging to his every note, staring slack-jawed at his gyrating moves and raw talent.
It was goose pimple stuff and that’s exactly what a good cinema is designed to do – to bring a film to life, to instantly spark the atmosphere, and to suck you into the protagonist’s story.
What does the future hold for the venue?
“We’re still learning what films our audience prefer and we’re continually tweaking our programming to suit them and encourage them to take a risk on a new genre or director once in a while,” Tony says.
“Cinema is on a high this year. Avengers will be the biggest film of all time and we still have Aladdin, Toy Story 4, The Lion King, Frozen 2, Top Gun 2 and Star Wars to come.
“We have so much fantastic content coming up that really should be seen on the big screen, with big sound and with an appreciative, like-minded audience.”
Take a friend, take a date, take a kid – the Rex delivers on every level, and the anticipation builds on those first fleeting steps up the staircase before the curtain rises.
Let’s hope the Rex’s new incarnation will breathe some much-needed life and character into the town centre – giving a leg-up to start-ups and independent businesses.
I’m hoping it’s going to become Wilmslow’s big success story. Watch this space.