New season confirms the Playhouse’s exciting future

A scene from Sweeney Todd
A scene from Sweeney Todd
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There were a few grumbles as James Brining announced his latest season at the West Yorkshire Playhouse last week.

Up in a top room of the labyrinthine Playhouse, Brining stood on a stage to, ostensibly, tell members of the press, collaborators and supporters, what we’ll be watching on the stages of the theatre this autumn.

“Why did he spend so long talking about the last two years?” was the question I heard from a number of people after the event.

Brining hadn’t, it was fair to say, laboured too long on what was in the season we were there to hear about. It contains some shows that I expect to be very impressive, yet at the launch event, it’s true, he spent most of the time recapping the past couple of years. I can explain why.

When he first arrived at the Playhouse the Yorkshire Post asked him, regularly, what his plans were. Although he answered all the questions with the openness and enthusiasm that are already a hallmark of his tenure, I was always left with a feeling that I hadn’t quite got the answers I was after. He talked about big notions, how the Playhouse is a ship that needs time and lots of effort to be turned around.

He talked about how he wanted the theatre’s walls to become porous and allow the rest of the city in. Those were his ambitions when he arrived and the reason he spent so long last week talking about the last two years is because he has fulfilled a great many of them. The Playhouse is more alive than it has been in a decade with the buzz of artists at all sorts of different stages of development making work in the building.

Brining appears to be the sort that demands the same effort and dedication from his staff that he demands of himself. He wants to collaborate with big companies, he wants to keep bringing people into the building, he wants the Playhouse to be the best it can be. The first two years of Brining’s reign are a marker of where the theatre is heading in the future. The answer to that is: somewhere good.

In this year the Playhouse has staged 672 ticketed performances and seen an increase in ticket sales of 33,000. It has introduced an Actors’ Graduate Scheme, bringing talented youngsters into the building and it became the world’s first Theatre of Sanctuary, recognised as a place of safety for refugees and asylum seekers. So what of the immediate future?

In Sweeney Todd Brining showed that he really, fully understands that epic and often intimidating stage, the Quarry. The prospect of him bringing that stage understanding to a play as equally epic as The Crucible is one that should have audiences truly excited.

Nikolai Foster returns to the theatre. After the huge success of Annie, a Christmas hit for the theatre, Foster is someone who can be trusted with the big box office shows.

Which is fortunate because he’s been given what should be one of the theatre’s biggest Christmas titles in years. White Christmas, the Irving Berlin musical, will be brought to the stage by Foster and the choreographer who helped make Annie such a hit, Nick Winston. Christmas at the Playhouse, I expect to be a seriously big deal. Brining is filling the theatre with as much performance as he can. James and the Giant Peach and Raymond Briggs’s Father Christmas are also on the bill.

Brining is looking over his shoulder because he’s telling us ‘look what I’ve done so far’. It’s already a pretty good track record. I only see it getting stronger and stronger.