Right, whilst I am catching up on my backlog of news and reviews, here’s a bit of news from Saltburn. With all the cuts going on, there’s been a lot of bad news in financial terms for theatres. Darlington Arts Centre has already closed, and hopes of a re-opening are fading fast. Newcastle City Council proposed to cut all arts funding last year, and whilst this has sort-of been watered down, there’s question marks over whether this “cultural fund” at 50% of the old arts fund is any better. It’s unclear whether the Esk Valley Theatre will be able to maintain its professional programme after they lost their Arts Council funding. Even the famous Georgian Theatre in Richmond is in danger of closing. All in all, it’s not a happy time to be a theatre treasurer.
Well, for a change, here’s a bit of good news from my old home town. Last month, Saltburn Community Theatre managed to bag a £50,000 grant from the National Lottery through the People’s Millions. The People’s Millions is a public vote where two worthy organisations pitch their proposals to the viewers of local ITV news (Tyne Tees in this case), and it then goes to a public vote, with the winning getting the money. I must say I’m not sure we should be allocating money on an all-or-nothing basis in a series of head-to-head votes, and I suspect the real motivation behind a public vote is free publicity for the National Lottery, but hey, it’s good news. If it’s any consolation, the group Saltburn beat, the Royal Voluntary Society with their scheme for older men isolated rural communities in Northumberland, also got £50,000 as runner up with the most votes.
The Royalty Theatre’s production of The Day After the Fair shows that there’s more to Sunderland’s theatre scene than The Empire.
Let’s get this out of the way. Full disclosure: I am a not member of the Royalty Theatre, but I have links with them. At least four actors I’ve worked with are members. I have a read-through of one of my scripts coming up, and I am in ongoing discussions about the possibility of a performance. As such, I am not really in a position to give an impartial review. However, I’ve given their Newcastle counterparts (the People’s Theatre) a few mentions now, so it’s only fair that the Royalty gets a look in too. For the record, none of the people I know at the Royalty are involved in this play.
I’ve previously argued, as have many other people, that the People’s Theatre in Newcastle is a valid alternative to the many professional theatres on offer, but in Sunderland the situation is even more polarised. The only professional theatre on offer is The Empire, which describes itself as “The West End of the North East”. That’s not a bad description, but like the West End, there is very little actual theatre on offer. Out of all the events on offer in the next six months, I can only see one thing that I’d call a play; the rest are musicals, ballet, opera, big-name celebrities, and musical tribute acts. (This compares to seven at the Theatre Royal, nine at Live Theatre and three at Northern Stage.) Which means that for actual theatre in Sunderland, you usually need to turn to a much obscurer building just west of the city centre. However, the Royalty Theatre is an amateur theatre, so this can mean anything from productions as good as the professionals to toe-curlingly lame village hall shows (“Didn’t they all try hard?”) So, what do we have here? Well, the Royalty’s offering for January (indeed virtually the only offering that month if you’re allergic to pantomimes) is Frank Harvey’s The Day After the Fair, which is based on a Thomas Hardy short story, On the Western Circuit.
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. Continue reading
COMMENT: If Darlington Council can no longer run Darlington Arts Centre, it should be handed to people who can.
One issue that’s been discussed a lot throughout the theatre world but not much on this blog is the cuts to arts subsidies. I’ve got mixed views about it myself, which I may go into another day, but this post is about what’s happening now. As it happens, north-east theatres aren’t doing too badly. Live Theatre and Northern Stage have kept their “portfolio” status (as has the Stephen Joseph Theatre). The Theatre Royal and Sunderland Empire are very much commercial ventures and so have little to fear. The Gala Theatre has got some sort of status as a “cultural” hub for all of Durham’s festivals. There’s issues over local authority funding and internal politics at the Gala, but on the whole there’s no prospect of any of these places closing their doors.
A glaring exception is Darlington. Darlington Borough Council ran two theatres on Arts Council support: the Civic Theatre and the Arts Centre. But unlike its Newcastle counterparts, lack year, the funding was scrapped. For a while, the closure of both theatres was contemplated. Thankfully, the Civic Theatre has done well enough since then to escape the axe, but the Arts Centre was not so lucky. In July this year, Darlington Arts Centre was closed, and this is a big loss to the town. The Civic Theatre alone does not compensate for this. Small theatres are an asset because they allow small-scale productions to perform that would never be viable in a 500+ seat theatre. I see little chance that plays going to the Arts Centre will be using the Civic Theatre instead.