LAST year, or even earlier this year, it may have seemed the small team given the task of raising £1.1m to cover the cost of restoring a theatre had bitten off more than it could chew.

There was no doubt the Georgian Theatre Royal, in Richmond, North Yorkshire, needed more than a lick of paint and the odd nail here and there.

Part of the market town's heritage was gradually decaying and a radical facelift was seen as the only way ahead.

Even when the National Lottery's Heritage Fund pledged £575,000, management warned there were still many obstacles to overcome - not least of which was the initial hostility towards the design of an extension to replace the crumbling annex which houses the bar.

However, a new blueprint won over Richmondshire District Council's planners in the summer - and, suddenly, it seemed the momentum was there to carry the campaign forward.

On one of his first official engagements since relinquishing the role of Tory leader, Richmond MP William Hague added his weight to the appeal, presenting the theatre with a cheque for £50,000 from the Foundation of Sport and the Arts.

Yorkshire Arts, the Esme Fairburn Trust and the European Rural Development Fund each donated £50,000; another £10,000 came from Lloyds TSB and Richmondshire District Council - and all in addition to an early donation of £100,000 from solicitors Brown Shipley.

A prize draw and numerous smaller donations took the total close to the £1m mark earlier this month - so yesterday's confirmation that the Heritage Lottery Fund had increased its commitment to £668,000 meant the restoration work could definitely begin.

The tiny auditorium, stage and backstage areas are to be refurbished, although the project aims to enhance the authenticity of the theatre, giving audiences a better idea of what it was like to watch a play there in the late 18th Century.

The glass-fronted extension will include a bar and coffee house, as well as allowing more room for facilities for the disabled.

Theatre campaign coordinator Mac Bryant said: "We have said throughout the campaign this project is not just about a unique theatre - it is part of the future development of Richmond.

"Although the theatre is small, its importance is immense.

"It is referred to in drama and theatre courses in universities around the world.

"When the development is completed, it will make an even more important contribution to tourism in the region as well as underpinning the theatre's continuing role in the local community."

Ray Taylor, Heritage Lottery Fund regional manager for Yorkshire and the Humber, said: "The theatre is a magnificent example of a Georgian playhouse which has inspired other remarkable spaces across the UK - and, by encouraging more people to visit and use the space, it can continue to be a working theatre and inspire more visitors."