Is the People’s Theatre the shape of things to come?

Howard Brenton’s Never So Good is an interesting play about a piece of British history fading from memory. Even more interesting, however, is the prospect of the rise of the semi-professional performance.

Amateur dramatics is often dismissed out of hand by professionals as, well, amateurish. For reasons I’ll come on to in a moment, I think this is a stupid generalisation, but it sticks. But in the north-east, the People’s Theatre is the exception. It is highly thought of across the region, it teams up with New Writing North for the region’s most prestigious playwriting competition, and it is reputedly popular with aspiring professional actors seeking to make a name for themselves. It even managed to get performing rights to Lee Hall’s The Pitman Painters whilst the official professional production was still touring. (I’ve also heard complaints that the company is ridden with amateur dramatics politics, but let’s be fair: that applies to most drama groups.)

The People’s Theatre’s latest offering is Never So Good by Howard Brenton, a biopic of former Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. The politics of the UK 50s and 60s is, when you think about it, a surprisingly obscure subject in the public consciousness. Political history tends to be viewed as Chamberlain, Churchill, Atlee, and then nothing of note until Thatcher. This play brings to life an era where old values are giving way to new ones. The story begins with a young Macmillan dutifully and wholeheartedly signing up for World War One; continues with Macmillan’s opposition to Chamberlain’s appeasement, even overlooking his wife’s continuing affair with a political ally; his underhand tactics as Chancellor to seize power from a prime minster’s disastrous foreign intervention (does that sound familiar?); and finally, after career of public duty for country and empire, his inability to understand why people now want to laugh with oiks like Peter Cook at Beyond the Fringe, or jeopardise his government with the first major sex scandal in politics. I wasn’t quite convinced by the younger Macmillan following the older Macmillan as a mocking commentator – it seems a half-hearted attempt to integrate this into the play, and I’ve seen other writers employ this device better – but it’s still a well-written play.

What is most striking about the People’s production is that they are not afraid to take on productions some might consider off-limits for amateurs. This was premièred at the National Theatre as recently as 2008 with Jeremy Irons as Macmillan, with presumably the lavish budget one expects of major London productions. The People’s production has a cast of over 20 including ensemble parts. The set is a little bare, which appears to be in contrast to the original which makes use of sets flying in an out willy-nilly, but it doesn’t matter. You don’t need expensive sets to picture the scene – the Prime Minister’s desk or a couple of a garden chairs is all you need. Apart from one usually long period between scenes (which may have been either a technical problem or a strange artistic decision), I don’t have any complaints about the People’s production. In fact, this amateur performance is a prime example of how it can be as good as the professionals.

And this brings me on to the other half of this post. Never So Good was a good performance but nothing ground-breaking. But this is something we could be seeing a lot more of in the future. Why? Because a question mark still hangs over public funding of theatre.

So far, with the exception of Darlington Arts Centre, the north-east theatres have weathered the storm quite well. This is partly down to a good deal from the Arts Council, but it’s also down to an increase in co-productions between different theatres. In practical terms, this means the costs of rehearsing and developing the play are shared out between two or more theatres. Although this dents the artistic freedom individual theatres enjoy when they have a whole play to themselves, it means that playgoers have a wide a programme on offer as they’ve had before.

But we are not out of the woods yet. There is still another £16bn/year worth of cuts to be decided, and when painful choices are already being made over schools, benefits and emergency services, it’s highly unlikely that arts subsidies will be exempt. It might be that professional theatres will carry on being resourceful and still find ways to carry on what they’re doing. Or – and this is a scenario we cannot rule out – it might be that regional producing theatres will be unable to sustain their current programmes and be forced to cut back. There’s no getting round the fact that professional actors eat up the budget, and we could end up in the situation where regional producing theatres can no longer compete with what actors get offered for film or television, commercial West End productions or lucrative corporate works.

What productions like Never So Good show is that if the worst comes to the worst with the cuts, it’s not the end of the world. Yes, it helps to have a paid cast who have been through acting school and dedicate four weeks to rehearsals without worrying about day jobs, but this is by no means essential. And the People’s is far from a special case. One of the best thing about the Edinburgh/Brighton/Buxton Fringes is that it removes the division between professional and amateur productions – and the best amateurs there are easily competitive with the professionals. In any case, the fully professional cast is only a recent concept. Only a few decades ago we had the ASMs (that’s Acting Stage Manager) who both acted on stage and did the backstage work. During the wars amateur theatres were the lifeblood of many towns. This is why I find it daft to automatically treat amateur theatre as second-rate.

I can’t imagine companies like Live or Northern Stage ever going to the wall, whatever happens to arts funding, but they could be forced to scale back the number of plays they do. Will we see the rise of the professional amateurs? Will this fill in the gap vacated by the subsidised theatres? I hope we don’t have to find this out. I’d much rather the subsidised regional theatres find ways to keep going and have the best of amateur productions as an addition, not a replacement, to what the professionals offer. But do not underestimate what people can do with nothing but spare time and a determination to spend it on the stage. We may need them very soon.