Northern Broadsides return to the stage with four short Tennessee Williams plays at the Sheffield Crucible Studio

The pandemic has robbed so many of so many things. While lives lost are of course the most significant of all losses, the loss to the theatre world has been wide-reaching.

Brianna Douglas in rehearsal for Beyond These Walls.
Brianna Douglas in rehearsal for Beyond These Walls.

Tours cancelled, performances shelved, productions now on the shelf, gathering dust.

In the case of Halifax stalwarts Northern Broadsides, all the above is true, but there has been an added element of disappointment for audiences and the man in charge.

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Laurie Sansom was appointed artistic director of Northern Broadsides in 2019 after a turbulent few years for the company.

Northern Broadsides’ artistic director Laurie Sansom in rehearsal

Once in post Sansom, former artistic director of National Theatre of Scotland, spent a year working behind the scenes to come up with his vision for the company, appointing his team and readying Broadsides for a new chapter.

The next phase of the company’s story came a year later and the company opened the national tour of Sansom’s first production as Broadsides’ chief, Quality Street, in February 2020.

Yes, that 2020.

“It was challenging, of course. We lost four months of our tour and that meant a loss of £150,000 – that’s not sustainable for a touring company like ourselves as we need a healthy reserve in order to bankroll a five-month tour,” says Sansom.

“Funding from the second wave of the Cultural Recovery Fund and the extraordinary generosity of Sheffield Theatres has enabled us to get a production now staged for a small socially distanced audience – and many more who will be able to watch the film version in the autumn, but that can’t be used to replace that loss so, along with virtually all of the UK’s touring companies, our crisis moment is still a little way down the track.”

The news a couple of weeks ago that Cornish-based and West Yorkshire favourite Kneehigh Theatre has closed its doors for good was a devastating blow for the industry and proved that nobody is safe. Even a company as seemingly granite-hewn as Broadsides cannot be taken for granted.

The good news is that the CRF and Sheffield Theatres-backed production Sansom refers to above is now ready and in the next couple of weeks we’ll finally get to see Sansom’s second Broadsides’ production. It already feels worth the wait.

To say that Sansom is taking the Halifax company in a new direction is something of an understatement: the next production is a selection of four rarely performed short works by Tennessee Williams. Yes, a company built on the Northern English voice is presenting the work of the quintessential voice of the American South.

Sansom sees past the Williams reputation. “As with all great artists, they are products of their time and place, but also speak to the human condition. Williams called himself Tennessee as a deliberate branding exercise, with a keen awareness that his origins could be seen as a calling card when he started out, but his works are set all over the US and indeed the world as he was a voracious traveller who existed in hotel rooms for much of his life,” he says.

“A part of this project is freeing his work from what have become cloying cliches; the clapperboard houses, ceiling fans and southern drawls. In fact, only one of these four plays was originally set in the South – in the others we are either in Boston, New York or an unspecified city, but they all exist as short poetic dramas in their own right and I also had a hunch his writing would sit perfectly in the Northern voice.

“Some people might feel there is a shared sensibility and relish for language and a shared suspicion of anyone with a deluded sense of their own importance – but I’ll let audiences judge if they find more profound connections.”

The four short plays, being presented at Sheffield Crucible Studio, are The Lady of Larkspur Lotion, Talk to Me Like The Rain and Let Me Listen and in their UK premieres The Case of the Crushed Petunias and Every Twenty Minutes.

The pieces have been chosen for their resonances with the times we’re living through, tackling as they do themes of isolation, loneliness and the power of imagination to bring us together.

Being back in the rehearsal room and a performance space is, it seems, an exhilarating notion.

“I can’t wait,” says Sansom. “I’m thrilled to bring Broadsides’ irreverent style to this giant of 20th century American theatre, and introduce two gems in their UK premieres.

“I didn’t realise how much I’d missed the rehearsal room and the energy you get by collaborating until we started work again. It’s been such a tough year for so many people and it does feel like when we finally get back to full houses it will be an indication that we really are getting our lives back and that at their heart is the need to share communal experiences.

“It’s also a huge relief that there will be more work again for the many freelancers who are the lifeblood of the industry and have been hit so hard over the last year. Many in the theatre lead hand to mouth existences as it is and they stick with it through sheer force of will and because they love what they do.

“I’m most looking forward to taking Broadsides out on the road again and seeing our audiences around the country. We are already planning a Shakespeare production for Spring 2022, which will be the moment when we feel things are really back to normal, but all of us are changed by our experience over the last year.”

Beyond these walls in sheffield

The Lady of Larkspur Lotion: A woman in a hostel is visited by The Writer.

Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen: A young couple are trapped in their relationship and a city centre bedsit.

Every Twenty Minutes: A well to do couple trade banter that becomes barbs.

The case of the Crushed Petunias: Miss Dorothy Simple, an up-cycling store owner who lets a stranger in.

Beyond These Walls, four short plays by Tennessee Williams, Sheffield Crucible Studio, June 24-26.

Tickets 0114 2496000 or sheffieldtheatres.co.uk