The last place you’d expect a theatre

Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers is a decent play but nothing out of the ordinary. What is out of the ordinary is where Esk Valley Theatre perform it.

Barney sitting with Bobbi, as the penny drops that she's insane

Amateur dramatics faces an uphill battle against being dismissed as amatuerish – sometimes this impression isn’t fair, sometimes it is. But nothing has a worse reputation than the dreaded village hall play. The wonderful Social Stereotypes portrays the typical group as Chalfont St Oswald, where Pamela writes the play, directs the play, writes the songs, and casts herself into all the most glamorous parts even though she’s far too old for fishnet tights. The equally wonderful Hot Fuzz has an equally unflattering portrayal of a village hall production of Romeo and Juliet. Whether this reputation is warranted is open to debate, but I can see one big problem: if your intended audience is the rest of the village and everyone in the village knows someone in the production, there’s not much motivation to try to be any good.

But not every village hall wants to settle for “Didn’t they all try hard?” this cannot be truer than in Glaisdale, home of Esk Valley Theatre. This runs one month every year in August, and it’s converted into a makeshift theatre with temporary seats and lighting. Nothing out of the ordinary here; plenty of venues are temporary theatres that have other functions the rest of the year, such as most of the spaces at the very famous arts festival that runs during the same month. But here’s the unusual bit: in spite of the Glaisdale barely scraping a population over 1,000, it has a fully professional cast, and audiences come from all over the North York Moors. It’s endorsed by Alan Ayckbourn and Pip Leckenby, who designs most of the sets for him, is usually the set designer for their plays.

This year they’ve produced a Neil Simon play called Last of the Red Hot Lovers. In the play, Barney Cashman (Rodney Matthew) has a comfortable life, a successful business and a happy marriage. Not very exciting, and most unacceptable for the 1960s – it is the new age of free love, isn’t it? So jealous of all the fun everyone else is apparently having, Barney decides the only way to bring some excitement back into his life is with an affair. Over three acts, he ineptly tries to have his way with professional adultress Elaine Navazio (Joanne Heywood), then screwed up aspiring actress Bobbi Michele (Joanne Heywood), and finally his wife’s best friend Jeannette Fisher (Joanne Heywood again). The last choice – a woman with major depression and self-esteem issue – is truly an all-time low, especially when she keeps going on about the virtues of Barney’s wife. It is from that when Barney realises the value of what he already has.

I’ll start with the bad news for Esk Valley Theatre: Neil Simon has never really appealed to me compared to other top-flight playwrights. There’s nothing I particularly dislike as such, but I find his plays to be too heavily-character driven for my tastes. He spends a lot of time putting depth into very believable and understandable characters, but all too often this comes at the expense of actual story. Like many Neil Simon plays, I spent large stretches of the play waiting for a plot development, and it’s hard to care too much about the outcome when none of the characters make themselves that likeable. Neil Simon is doing something right, because he is one of the most popular playwrights of the 20th century, but I just don’t find these plays as engaging as ones from other big names.

But I have little to fault with the production itself. The part of Elaine/Bobbi/Jeanette requires a very talented actress to act three completely different parts. I don’t subscribe to the theory that there are certain plays that amateurs shouldn’t attempt, but professional training certainly helps a lot. The performance of both actors is as good as you’d expect of a “proper” theatre. A good number of fringe productions and amateur productions (particularly the People’s) achieve this too, but when you think about the typical offering from a village theatre, this is a major achievement. Not just the director, producer and actors, but also the large number of volunteers that make this possible.

And this kind of brings me on to my final point. Yes, Neil Simon isn’t very adventurous – but that wasn’t entirely Esk Valley Theatre’s decision. They were hoping to do a bolder play by Ugo Betti (a five-hander called Crime on Goat Island) until a failed Arts Council application forced a hasty change of plan to this smaller cast play. Yet again, arts council funding cuts have struck. Now one way of looking at this is that in these austere times, arts council grants should be reserved for things that absolutely could not work without public funding – and, by extension, you could argue that as Esk Valley Theatre is running fine without a subsidy, limited public funds are better spent elsewhere. But it’s risky, there’s no knowing if their luck will hold in future years, and rural North Yorkshire has already suffered the loss of touring Stephen Joseph Theatre productions (a consequence the withdrawal of North Yorkshire Council’s subsidy).

The arts funding debate isn’t going away any time soon. Of course, every grant that gets ringfenced is a loss somewhere else in the public purse. But what I hope is that small-scale enterprises like this don’t get overlooked. There is a danger that the arts industry might get the idea that arts from the north-east equals arts from Newcastle, arts from Yorkshire equals arts from Leeds, and that would be a mistake. I hope that people are keeping an eye on small enterprises like Esk Valley Theatre, because surely the lesson to be learned here is that worthwhile art can come from the places you least expect. Having put in all this work so far, it would be such a pity to abandon it now.