Curtain call on a centenary to remember

This year the Alhambra in Bradford used a landmark anniversary to raise its profile in the arts world. Nick Ahad talks to Adam Renton, the man determined to see the venue step out of the shadows.

War Horse was one of the major productions which Bradford managed to attract during its centenary year.
War Horse was one of the major productions which Bradford managed to attract during its centenary year.

It’s a Saturday afternoon and the cafe of Marks & Spencer in Pudsey is rammed. The chances are the people around Adam Renton would like to shake him by the hand – if they

knew who he was. They don’t because he is one of the people who operate from backstage, kind of like the Wizard of Oz. Unlike the great and powerful Oz, Renton is the real deal.

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He is the mastermind who has just staged one of the most successful years in the history of one of the region’s biggest theatres. At the beginning of 2014 I sat down with Renton and asked him about his ambition for the Alhambra Theatre in its centenary year. It’s a big birthday, 100, and I wondered what the theatre’s manager had up his sleeve to celebrate.

Michael Ball on stage at the Alhambra during the 100th birthday variety night concert.

As general manager of the Alhambra (Renton also has charge of St George’s Hall, Ilkley’s King’s Hall and the Alhambra Studio) the pressure was on. A hundredth birthday for the Francis Laidler-built theatre was a big deal.

Renton was also a little hamstrung by the fact that the Alhambra doesn’t produce its own work. Instead, he has to look around, see what is touring the UK and then convince the people making those shows to bring them to Bradford.

The Alhambra’s centenary year is almost over and Renton knows he, in modern parlance, smashed it out of the park.

“My strongest memory of the centenary year was about three years ago,” says Renton, confusingly. It transpires Renton hasn’t mixed up his dates – the success 
of 2014 can be traced back to 2011. “I’d been invited to the opening night of the tour of Lion King – and I’d been 
negotiating to get the show for us in 2014 for a year by that point, so it could actually be almost four years ago I started planning this.

When Adam Renton discovered The Lion King had included Bradford on its first UK tour, the general manager of the Alhambra in Bradford knew the centenary year would be a success.

“Disney wouldn’t confirm the date or the deal and I’d been trying to get them to. So I didn’t have confirmation or a contract, yet there I was on a VIP list at the opening night of the tour alongside three other theatre managers from different parts of the UK.

“The others had all confirmed that that their theatres were going to have a run of the show, but we hadn’t. That I was there at all was positive, but the fact that I was the only one of the four of us who didn’t have a contract made me less so.”

At a drinks reception after the performance Renton was talking to a technician who worked on the show and had previously had worked at the Alhambra.

“He said, ‘I thought you’d be here’ and revealed he’d be seeing me in a couple of years time. He knew that the show was booked to come to us, even though I hadn’t been told officially – and that was the moment I knew 2014 was going to be a success.”

These days you can’t imagine anyone playing games with Bradford’s biggest theatre, but three years ago the venue knew its slot in the pecking order. It was not high. With Leeds just across the way, producers bringing a big show to West Yorkshire might well have their eye on the Leeds Grand as a first choice and Bradford’s theatre as, if not quite an after-thought, certainly a first reserve.

“In the past we did attract some very big shows, but in recent years those shows have gone to Leeds and – I am led to believe – that has been down to the perception of the city,” says Renton. “If you’re sitting in London then Leeds seems like the sexier place to be. I make no apologies for saying this, because we are in competition, I went hell for leather this year to promote us as far afield as I possibly could. I took all the billboards going into Leeds that I could get to advertise the brilliant work we were bringing to Bradford.”

Renton says all this not with the look of a man still looking for a fight, but of a man who feels like he has made his point. When Disney were unsure about signing the contract and actually committing to coming to Bradford’s theatre, the Alhambra was in a different place to where it is now, at the end of the centenary year.

So it’s three years ago, Renton has landed the big fish, but the Lion King, impressive a catch as it is, doesn’t a season make. Instead he sets out to build a season around that tentpole production. The RSC will bring Henry IV parts I and II, with Antony Sher as Falstaff, tick. The National Theatre will bring War Horse, tick. Matthew Bourne will bring Swan Lake and a new production of Lord of the Flies, tick. The season was coming together very nicely, but the 100th birthday cake needed some icing on top. A variety night.

“That’s what the theatre was opened for. We have old bill posters around the theatre, ones from when Laurel and Hardy performed here. That sort of show is what this theatre is for. I remember watching variety shows here when I was a child and I loved them. I knew that was what we needed,” says Renton.

Again, he faced a problem. In the same way the theatre world thought once upon a time that Lion King should probably go to a ‘sexier city’ than Bradford – like nearby Leeds – audiences think that variety nights are a bit naff. Single-minded Renton needed to convince everyone to get on board.

“I prioritised it. My budget was the same for the centenary year as it is for any other year, so I made it very clear that the variety night was the priority.”

Then he released the details of the event, which would happen on September 20, 2014. He’d booked the Krankies.

“People thought I’d lost my mind. I’d seen the Krankies when I was a child and I’d seen them recently – I’d seen how good they still are,” says Renton.

The rest of the line-up for the variety night included comedy from Joe Pasquale, Bradford’s own panto king Billy Pearce and the headline act was Michael Ball. I can confirm that Renton had not lost his mind. The Krankies proved what several decades of working on your stagecraft does for you. It makes you really, really good – they were genuinely hilarious. Billy Pearce’s stock was high as it has ever been after a show-stealing turn and Michael Ball was, well, Michael Ball.

If Renton wanted an evening that would celebrate the theatre’s current success while honouring its past, he had it. It was the perfect way to celebrate the theatre’s important milestone.

“There was another moment that I remember really clearly – this one actually from the centenary year,” says Renton. “It was after the variety night and I was standing on the rooftop terrace, having a glass of champagne with Michael Ball and Nick Thomas (the manager of company Qdos, which produced the variety night) and looked across the city. It was about 2am and I thought ,‘We did it’.”

It sounds like a special moment and, lest you think that story is about Renton’s hubris, think again. He’s talking about the city.

“Working in Bradford over the past decade, you have had to really, really love the city – otherwise I don’t think you would stay. You have to love it and accept how hard it can be to be in business here,” he says. “This year there has been a new spirit in the building, a positive attitude that I haven’t seen in a long time. I know it might sound ridiculous, but sometimes when I look out of the windows of the restaurant upstairs across City Park, I think, ‘You could be in any city in Europe’.

“The theatre is now high on the agenda and we’ve worked really hard this year to get that message out to people. The building deserved to have what it has had in it this year, it deserved the celebration it has had this year.”

It’s been an exceptional year for Yorkshire, with a global audience seeing just how spectacular we are thanks to the Tour de France. All kinds of other celebrations have happened around that special event. Yes, 2014 has been a bit of a vintage for Yorkshire – and the Bradford Alhambra has had its fair share of that vintage flavour.

“It’s the best year we’ve had since I’ve been in charge. I really believe the legacy of the centenary year will last a long time. We’ve shown we have a long term vision and this year has been about reminding people that we exist, how good we are at what we do and how brilliant the shows are that we attract,” says Renton.

The numbers stack up to. Three, four years ago Disney were dragging their heels, wondering if Bradford really was the right place for The Lion King. When the show was in Bradford 81,000 people saw it. War Horse brought in 34,000. Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake played to 10,000.

The theatre sold £4m worth of tickets for Lion King and £1m worth for War Horse. It’s been a hell of a successful year.

“Now when I talk to people about booking shows, we’re in a really different position. Positive things have happened. I think we’ve ridden the wave perfectly. City Park has been a huge success in Bradford, Westfield is being built, but something greater than that has happened.

“My job is harder when there is a negative perception of Bradford. I think we’ve got over that. I think we’ve stopped beating ourselves up in Bradford. We’ve started shouting about the positive things that have happened and are happening here.”

It’s coming to the end of 2014. Renton can sit and have a coffee and reflect.

“It feels like a lot has happened,” says the man who organised a year that was a fitting celebration of a grand old theatre reaching its 100th birthday. As the song goes, here’s to many more.