OPINION: Regional theatre IS worthy of critical attention

By John Roberts

JOHN pic bylineThis weekThe Stage’schief theatre critic ventured outside of the London boundaries and stepped into the borders of North Wales – only because, by his own admission, he was in the “region” giving a talk at the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts. Upon seeing Theatre Clwyd’s production ofCat on a Hot Tin Roof– he wentonto

to announce that the production is worthy of the London stage and wouldn’t look out of place on the stages of the Donmar or The National Theatre.

Now, this may on first read seem like a praise-worthy statement and one I am sure was meant in good spirit but scratch beneath the surface and, what you’re looking at is a point of view that London is the pinnacle of the arts scene and something that every regional theatre should be aspiring to.

We have to stop this constant comparison between London and the regions – it’s interesting that these statements only ever seem to come from those who are actually based in the English capital.Not only do these glib remarks undermine the hard work by hundreds of professionals up and down the country, who are working tirelessly to produce the highest quality product they can on what small amount of subsidy they get, (arts spend in London last year equated to £69 per person, compared to the rest of the UK at just £4.58 per person) but also proves just how out of touch our “national” theatre critics are getting.

This morning Mark Shenton published his daily blog in trade ragThe Stage– again talking about his aforementioned trip, brought us this little beauty, which, one can only presume, will hang above his head like an albatross for time to come.

“And there are, to be honest, only a handful of theatres that warrant shentonregular coverage: apart from Stratford-upon-Avon and Chichester,
which are basically treated as if they’re London theatres (even the London Evening Standard still reviews them), these include Sheffield’s Crucible, Manchester’s Royal Exchange, the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, Curve in Leicester, and the Royal &Derngate in Northampton.”

But where are the theatres in Scotland or those in the very city his trip was for? No visit for The Everyman or Playhouse or The Unity. No mention of The Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh or the Citizen’s in Glasgow or even venues across the water in Belfast… the list of “worthy” venues are endless and to say that only a handful of venues deserve critical attention is both alarming and out of touch to the theatre scene the rest of us live and breathe on a daily basis.

Living in Liverpool – I am within easy reach of Manchester, North Wales, Birmingham, Leeds and can see a production in regional houses, number one venues, fringe and pop-up spaces every day and still not see even close to a tenth of the output these cities are producing. I would love to be able to cover every single production – I know I can’t and our teams across the UK do their hardest to cover as much as they can… In fact, last yearThe Reviews Hubreviewed over 3,300 productions – more than double the next leading publication (which was in factThe Guardian). Regional theatre is alive and is producing challenging, thought-provoking, daring andqualitywork on a regular basis. Of course, the venues will also produce work that is classed as “safe” or “classic” but that’s what makes the regions so exciting, there is literally something for everyone on any given day of the week.

Now if only the “national” critics left London more regularly and sat in auditoria they’ve never before graced with their presence, they may realise that regional theatre isn’t dying – it’s thriving. It is, in fact, the national critics themselves who face an inevitable demise. There are thousands of shows a year in the regions more than worthy of press recognition.

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  1. Just by chance playing in the Clwyd Theatr Cymru Studio theatre on the same night that Mr Shenton ventured into the ‘provinces’ to see the very fine Clwyd production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was the Torch Theatre Company’s production of Grav by Owen Thomas.

    Grav is now on its third tour and recently picked up the audience award for best production at the Wales Theatre Awards; it played the Assembly hall at the Edinburgh Fringe last summer and sold every single ticket available. It was invited to both the Perth and Adelaide Festivals, it opened the Rugby World cup in Rugby itself. Why is it touring for a third time? Well, it sells out almost everywhere it goes, it gets standing ovations everywhere it goes, and every theatre it visits is getting record percentages of first-time bookers – one theatre in the valleys getting a massive 95%.

    Now, to be honest, I don’t expect Mark Shenton to come along to see Grav but I object to his suggestion that there are only a handful of theatres worth visiting outside of London. How does he think that makes us all feel? Grav is just one of a series of excellent productions coming out of Wales. Iphiginia in Splott (he’s off to catch it having missed it at the National – you also missed it in Cardiff and Edinburgh, Mr Shenton) he fails to acknowledge that its birthplace, Sherman Cymru, could be possibly worth a visit having had a staggering success with this production.

    Cardiff also has the Number one Fringe theatre in the UK – The Other Room at Porter’s – producing amazing work but apparently not worth a visit. And yes, the engaged and engaging students at LIPA are always of a high standard, three have cut their teeth recently at the Torch Theatre, including the designer of Grav , Frankie Bradshaw, now working for Kenneth Branagh.

    We in the ‘provinces’ play an important part in the development of young actors, writers, technicians, designers, to dismiss us so readily shows a total lack of respect for the work we do.

    *Peter Doran is Artistic Director of Torch Theatre

  2. Sad The Stage has dumbed down to such a degree that it even opens a debate labelled “Regional theatre IS worthy of critical attention”. No wonder so few in the profession still buy it.

  3. Such a shame that so many brilliant productions have been missed by this critic over the past few years! With the reviews not having been evident there have been less new audiences attracted to visit this hub of creativity when the funding both local and government have been severely cut.
    Use it or lose it – Shame on you.

  4. I’ve nothing really to add to this, other than to say I agree with all that’s been said. I’m in Scotland, reviewing year round. At Fringe time, London companies and reviewers come up here with the attitude that this is “London on tour”. There’s no respect, and a general assumption that everyone shares their outlook. Last year at a venue press launch, I saw a London company do a scene from a show about West End theatre with West End in-jokes that the assembled London press found hilarious. Fine, but don’t expect us all to feel the same.

    It seems to be an affliction only affecting Londoners too. New Yorkers, Australians, Japanese, Spanish – there’s always an tacit acknowledgement that they’re on someone else’s turf. Everyone’s welcome here, but show some respect. And don’t even get me started on London PR companies…

    Before anyone suggests this is typical Scottish bitterness, it’s not. I’m from Bradford. It’s Yorkshire bitterness.

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