In the coming year there are some impressive productions coming to our region’s theatres – despite the difficult times they face. Arts editor Nick Ahad looks at what’s coming up.
AT a recent theatre performance I was discussing the fact that the cuts made to the Arts Council over the past few years – while damaging and, to many, unjustifiable – have brought an unexpected positive with them: a renewed confidence and optimism among the sector.
There are many in the Yorkshire theatre world who have stood up against the cuts and not only argued that they shouldn’t be made at all, but have determined to do all they can to show just why they and their companies are worth the public money spent on them. Companies have got inventive, artists have started to collaborate and there is a new sense of optimism that audiences genuinely really do care about the fact that their theatres need them. At a number of performances this year, actors have held up their hands at the end of a performance to dampen the audience’s applause and appealed from the stage for people to get involved in the My Theatre Matters campaign. The campaign urges people to do nothing more than to write to their local councils and simply explain why theatre matters to them. The campaign has attracted tens of thousands of supporters, from seriously high profile names like Judi Dench and our own Alan Ayckbourn, to ordinary people who simply care about their theatre.
This spirit has translated into some bold work and that looks set to continue over the coming year in the theatres around our region.
Sheffield has ended 2013 with a stunning production of Oliver! Five star reviews from almost every theatre critic have been entirely deserved. The question of course is whether or not the theatre, named Regional Theatre of the Year in the Stage 100 Awards, can keep the run of success going. The smart money says yes.
The biggest thing theatre aficionados will be looking forward to is the return of the writer’s season, a collection of work celebrating a single writer. Michael Frayn and David Hare have had the treatment from artistic director Daniel Evans and this year is the turn of Irish writer Brian Friel. A highly respected playwright, his work, in a career spanning six decades, has been performed around the world. Those who have missed the season celebrating a single writer, put on hold in 2013, will be delighted at the opportunity to get to know a heavyweight of British theatre. His plays Wonderful Tennessee, Translations and Afterplay form the central spine of the season, but there will be all manner of other events around it. Other highlights of the Crucible’s typically bold season include a new production, a dance version of Barry Hines’ book A Kestrel for a Knave. Kes will undoubtedly be something special. The theatre will also be staging a farce, Boeing Boeing, which has had several popular runs elsewhere, but is a new direction for the Crucible. I don’t see it losing its mantle any time soon.
Over in the Leeds, the West Yorkshire Playhouse is now under the full control of James Brining, who can no longer be called The New Man. Autumn 2013 showed him finally reveal his hand when his production of Sweeney Todd hit the stage – and highly impressive it was too. He’s going to need to keep that standard up and with the coming season there are some interesting choices.
First up is a hint at a seriously interesting new collaboration – the Playhouse is working with Opera North, certainly a rarity if not a first, in a production with the wildly popular The Tiger Lillies on a show called Lulu: A Murder Ballad. The band is a cult favourite and tickets are already selling well.
The theatre is also staging Of Mice and Men, The Threepenny Opera in another collaboration – this time with leading disabled theatre company Graeae – and it is fantastic news that the theatre is bringing back its popular and brilliant production of Refugee Boy. The intriguing notion of Maxine Peake’s first play awaits later in the year, but the big tentpole for the Playhouse is surely a celebration of local boy done a little better than all right for himself, Alan Bennett. The theatre is concentrating on the work of one of Britain’s most-loved playwrights with a season that will see a new production of Enjoy, the regional premiere of Untold Stories and three of the writer’s Talking Heads will be performed not only in the theatre, but in venues around the city – and there will be an opportunity for a “golden ticket” winner to have a performance in their own homes.
One of the region’s most popular theatres, the Alhambra in Bradford, is set for a seriously big year. Celebrating its centenary, it has pulled out all the stops to bring some impressive shows to the venue. The Lion King will have an unprecedented almost two-month-long run at the theatre. Behind the scenes the work has been going on literally for years to secure this show for its regional premiere. It is going to be spectacular.
Similarly, the theatre has pulled off another coup by landing the regional premiere of another of British theatre’s biggest shows, War Horse, which comes to the venue in May. It’s going to be celebrating in style.
In the early part of the year the beautiful Leeds Grand Theatre hands the keys over to Opera North – and we’ll be looking at their new season next week – but once the theatre gets the keys back, it will start looking forward to an impressive regional premiere of its own when Shrek the Musical lands in the early summer.
That the region is able to attract some really great musicals, direct from the West End, is a marker of just how strong theatre is in Yorkshire.
And so with sweet circularity, at this point I return to the top of this discussion – the cuts to the theatre industry.
That I’m going to have to leave it there and pick up next week is an indication of just how strong we are in theatre in this part of the world. It’ll be another good year.