Lawrence Batley Theatre, Stephen Fry and celebrating community theatre

Over the past year and a half we’ve seen an impressive effort from our theatres to make sure they stay relevant and fulfil their missions.

Sarah Hadland and Shobna Gulati in the Lawrence Batley Theatre’s production Going the Distance. (Picture:  Dennis Madden & James Rees).
Sarah Hadland and Shobna Gulati in the Lawrence Batley Theatre’s production Going the Distance. (Picture: Dennis Madden & James Rees).

Of course all theatres have their own mission statements, their own specific ideas about what they are and how they operate, but ultimately it all comes down to a shared, single notion: how to serve audiences.

For the indomitable Slung Low in Leeds, that meant pivoting to become a foodbank. Many theatres moved online. Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph kept doing its very best to get people back in through the doors.

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Then there’s Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield.

Penny Ryder in the LBT’s Going the Distance; inset, Emma McDonald.(Picture: Dennis Madden & James Rees).

The impressive Henry Filloux-Bennett took over at LBT in March 2019, almost exactly a year before the pandemic shut down our theatres. He arrived with a bit of an odd background: he was the head of marketing at Nottingham Playhouse and The Lowry in Salford – not that strange, although a bit of a leap – but it was the fact that he also arrived with a West End production as a writer under his belt that made him something of an anomaly.

He’d adapted Nigel Slater’s Toast while working at The Lowry to great success and so, when the theatre world went into shutdown, there was over in Huddersfield something of a perfect storm in Filloux-Bennett: he had the energy and ambition of someone only in post for a year and he was a West End produced playwright with a hefty contacts book.

He immediately started putting his contacts book to work, producing a script for an online version of David Nicholls’ novel The Understudy, starring Stephen Fry, Mina Anwar and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie star Layton Williams.

Filmed in the depths of lockdown, it was released online in May last year. He continued to put other creatives to shame by just five months later releasing another online version of a new script, this one a version of Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up, with Stephen Fry once again making an appearance, this time alongside Sir Derek Jacobi and Griff Rhys Jones.

Stephen Fry enjoyed working with LBT on the lockdown dramas. (Getty Images).

In March this year, Filloux-Bennett kept up the pace and was behind a new script for a filmed online version of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

He’s turned to the contacts book once again and drummed up an impressive cast for a new online venture. Going the Distance is the first time he’s worked with a collaborator, co-writer Yasmeen Khan, for an original piece starring Matthew Kelly, Shobna Gulati and a returning Stephen Fry.

Filloux-Bennett describes the new piece as ‘far more of a traditional film than the previous digital shows we’ve made’.

The show tells the story of a small community theatre navigating the pandemic and fighting back by staging a production of the Wizard of Oz.

“It’s ostensibly a comedy, but it covers everything we’ve been through over the last 18 months while also highlighting the pluckiness of theatres up and down the country who have been faced with such challenges,” says Filloux-Bennett.

“The last 18 months have been a unique period of time in our lives and I think it’s our job to respond to what we’ve all been through, but also to mark one of the biggest challenges theatre has ever faced and celebrate the resilience of so many people within the industry who have fought with everything they’ve got to keep going and keep theatres open for their communities.

“I also wanted to celebrate community theatres and arts centres – so much of the time we’re focussed on the West End and the big tours going around the country, but actually most people’s first experience of live performance will be their local community theatre, whether that’s panto, or a school trip or taking part in a youth group.”

The idea for the project came after Filloux-Bennett commissioned Khan to write a digital version of The Importance of Being Earnest.

“We commissioned Yasmeen at the beginning of this year, and I knew from working with her just how brilliant and hilarious a writer she was. I had the idea for Going the Distance almost exactly a year ago and when I mentioned it to Yasmeen she immediately got excited about it – I love collaborating with people, so it was a bit of a no-brainer for me – and it worked fantastically well. We both took different parts of the story and then worked with (director) Felicity Montagu to try make sure we got the tone consistent throughout.”

This latest marks the seventh online production in the last 18 months for Lawrence Batley Theatre, a place that works hard to serve its Huddersfield community, some of which is difficult to reach. The beauty of this, says the creator, is that it helps to reach more people than ever.

“The thing I love most about it is just how accessible it is. From a financial point of view, a whole household can watch it for £15 – and every penny of that goes back to supporting regional theatres and paying freelancers, who’ve had such a nightmarish 18 months,” says Filloux-Bennett.

The question is, now that theatre audiences are slowly returning to venues, will the digital world of these plays continue?

“I really hope so, but people need to want it, it can’t just be a nice optional extra because it costs so much to do, assuming you want to try to do it well.

"It definitely has opened theatre up over the last 18 months, but whether or not we return to live performances only and forget what we achieved I guess is up to us.”

Stephen Fry and lockdown dramas

National treasure Stephen Fry has been an impressive cast member addition for Filloux-Bennett in several digital productions made by the Lawrence Batley Theatre during lockdown.

Fry says: “My involvement with the Lawrence Batley Theatre over three brilliantly imaginative, innovative and original lockdown dramas was one of the features that made the months of sourdough and general weirdness bearable.”

Going the Distance is available to view on demand until Oct 17.

Details are available at www.goingthedistanceplay.com