Why Leeds Grand Theatre lives up to its opulent name

The production of Kay Mellors Fat Friends at Leeds Grand. Photo: Helen MaybanksThe production of Kay Mellors Fat Friends at Leeds Grand. Photo: Helen Maybanks
The production of Kay Mellors Fat Friends at Leeds Grand. Photo: Helen Maybanks | other
Continuing his tour around the theatres of Yorkshire, Nick Ahad arrives at one of the most opulent, Leeds Grand Theatre.

Leeds City Varieties and Leeds Grand Theatre. They’re run by the same organisation ultimately, so do I cover them in a single article? Sure, and with next week’s Culture I’ll cover the works of Shakespeare in a pamphlet.

While Leeds Grand is managed by the same city council-controlled company that runs the City Varieties and the beautiful Hyde Park Picture House, it would be a travesty to not give each venue its own article on my journey around Yorkshire. So this week it’s Leeds Grand Theatre.

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The week before lockdown was announced, when the government was still issuing ‘very strong advice that public venues should not be visited’, but had not ordered venues to shut, I was at the Leeds Grand. I was there to see the premiere of Northern Ballet’s Geisha, a beautiful and moving piece of work from Kenneth Tindall.

The Leeds Grand Theatre auditorium.The Leeds Grand Theatre auditorium.
The Leeds Grand Theatre auditorium. | jpimedia
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Of all the theatres I’ve virtually visited in this series so far, it is the one that is perhaps most deserving of its name. It’s properly grand. There are those who think you should still dress up for a night at the theatre and I tend to go strongly against that view, but when I visit the Grand even I swap my trainers for shoes.

It is a Grand old building with an impressive history that dates back to 1878. In recent years the theatre has had new life breathed into it, not least with Transform, a massive transformation project in 2006 that, among other things, revealed beautiful original tiles that had been inexplicably plastered over. It also entirely, well, transformed the building.

Closing the doors, which happened the week after Geisha, was done with a heavy heart. “From street level you can’t possibly know what treasures await you beyond the front

doors.

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"A conservation plan issued before the transformation plan noted that it was hard to find anything outside of London to compare with its ‘opulence, complexity and scale’,” says chief executive Chris Blythe.

“Closing our buildings has been a poignant reminder that without people, be that audience or staff, a building is just a building, no matter how grand. People breathe air into our theatres, they are the energy and life source, the real stars of our show.”

I understand why Blythe says that and the place obviously comes alive when there are people in it, but I’ve been in this building when it’s just been me and a couple of others and it is something incredibly special.

Surrounded by chicken shops, tattoo joints, bars and cigarette kiosks, it’s easy to forget just how special and just how sumptuous it is inside.

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My camera roll is full of photographs of the inside of the auditorium, and I’m a pretty regular visitor. It’s just hard to resist the urge to capture the beauty inside, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

It’s hard also to believe that we nearly lost the building. In 1968 the city council discussed plans to demolish the money-losing theatre and replace it was a 22-storey office block. The planning application was rejected, but the story serves as a timely reminder, as the building lies empty and facing an uncertain financial future once again that we cannot take these places for granted.

In recent years the theatre has had some staggering successes with world premieres of Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls The Musical, which opened at the venue in 2015 and returned in 2018, and Kay Mellor’s Fat Friends and Band of Gold in 2017 and 2019.

It shouldn’t be understated just how big a deal that is: the Leeds Grand is a receiving house, which means it doesn’t make its own productions, it stages what is already out there – except in these cases, it did.

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Ian Sime, General Manager, says: “Our audiences deserve and expect to see the cream of the world’s performers, in the best productions of our time. Each production relies upon an equally important body of support staff including creative, technical and venue staff to create the magic.

“It is still a great thrill to work with such talented, passionate and committed individuals. Every performance and audience reaction is unique and meaningful and enriches our lives.

“Since opening, Leeds Grand Theatre has brought people into the city to be entertained – with generations of people coming through its doors for the top shows of the day, from Blue Beard the Grand in 1878 to panto in the 1960s, right up to today with tours of the very best West End musicals.”

Except today, it isn’t. It’s empty. Blythe says: “While we’re all working towards and looking forward to the day we can reopen our doors and welcome audiences back, we must face facts. Venues like ours will be the last to open.

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“Our income generation will be limited potentially months after other parts of the economy start to grow. The whole industry will need to take stock as investors and producers of our wonderful shows have also taken a massive hit. But however daunting, I am certain we have a future.”

I’ve avoided using the cliché thus far, but it feels appropriate. At Leeds Grand the show must, surely, go on.

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