Nick Ahad: Theatre is the medium of the people – not just the privileged few

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In this column last week I exhorted those of us who are not the privileged few to demand the same opportunities afforded to those who are.

I was talking about women, ethnic minorities, the people who find themselves excluded from opportunities which allow class migration, thanks to the barriers the privileged few have raised and work hard to leave in place. Interestingly, after I’d written that column I did two things in quick succession that reminded me why the issue is so vital.

Firstly, I saw No Guts, No Heart, No Glory, a story written by and about young Muslim women who are literally fighting for their right to be heard. Set in a boxing gym, the visceral experience happened at Bradford College and to say it was spectacular would be to do it a huge disservice. I’d interviewed one of the young women actors on my BBC Radio Leeds show and at the end of the performance Freyaa made a beeline for me and asked what I thought of the performance. I loved the fact that she didn’t know that asking a theatre critic a question like that really isn’t the done thing, that performing in a show about empowerment meant she felt able to come and ask me for my opinion. That morning I’d expressed my anger in this column about people who looked like Freyaa not being given opportunities and here she was in front of me, taking them. I was overwhelmed and moved to tears by No Guts in a way a theatre show hasn’t moved me in many, many years.

The following night I sat in the glorious Alhambra Theatre in Bradford and witnessed something equally special in a very different way – a good old-fashioned night of variety. Variety isn’t dead, but it’s not been well for a very long time. Variety introduced us to acts like the Krankies, Cannon and Ball and they’ve been replaced by... well, I’m not sure what they’ve been replaced by. I do know we now have lots of panel shows from Oxbridge educated acts, producers and commissioners. Good for them. But where are the shows for those of us who know what the inside of a Working Mens’ Club smells like?

Well, on Saturday night there was one – and one of the very best you could imagine – inside Bradford’s Alhambra, with The Krankies, Billy Pearce at the absolute top of his game, Joe Pasquale and Michael Ball topping the bill.

I loved it so very, very much. It was a reminder of my childhood, when those shows were a staple of our annual family holidays at Butlins in Skegness. I realised I hadn’t seen a show like it in years. The Alhambra, brilliantly led by manager Adam Renton, did much more than stage a brilliant variety show last weekend. It served as a powerful reminder that theatre is the people’s medium and it’s been hijacked and we should demand its return. Last week I used this column as a call to arms. This week I’m happy to report there are small pockets of resistance, pushing back against the tide of middle class mediocrity.