How Lawrence Batley Theatre has made Huddersfield a haven for dance

In our continuing series of profiles of theatres in the region, Nick Ahad takes a look at the Lawrence Batley Theatre.

Frankenstein at Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, February 2020.

While we are in lockdown I’m taking an odyssey around the region’s theatres getting beneath the surface of the buildings where we all gather to hear stories about who we are.

If we can’t get out to the theatre (or anywhere, if we are even vaguely responsible) then over the coming weeks I will bring the theatre to you, through the pages of Culture.

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Today we arrive in Huddersfield and one of our region’s most intriguing venues: the Lawrence Batley Theatre.

Joyce Branagh at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield.

If you are a fan of contemporary dance, you won’t need me to tell you about LBT. It is, after all, one of the premier venues for catering for fans of the art form.

“Only two per cent of our dance audience ever go to another theatre,” says artistic director and chief executive of LBT Henry Filloux-Bennett. “When you consider that on the train line from here can get you to Manchester or Leeds in an hour, that’s really quite remarkable.”

It really is and it’s one of the things that has made me champion LBT over the decade and a half I’ve been writing about theatre for The Yorkshire Post.

It would have been easy to overlook LBT in favour of bigger, more glamorous venues who produce more of their own work, but the fact that it was such a champion of contemporary dance under former leader Victoria Firth, in such a frankly unlikely place, has always made it worthy of praise in my eyes.

Nigel Slater (left) on the set of Toast, the stage adaptation of his memoir. The UK tour of the play launched at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield.

“When I arrived, I was quite surprised by just how big of a following contemporary dance has here and I was completely blown away by the loyalty of the audience. We have around six or seven contemporary dance shows each season and they always sell really well.”

I’ve never been able to find an explanation for why Huddersfield is this haven for dance, nor has Filloux-Bennett: it appears to really be as simple as ‘if you build it, they will come’. Firth committed to building the audience and it continues to come.

The building which houses the Lawrence Batley Theatre was originally a Methodist chapel built in 1819. Falling into disuse in the 1970s, it was used as a nightclub before being mothballed. The Kirklees Theatre Trust gave the building the go-ahead for a total renovation in the late 1980s and in 1994 the ribbon was cut on a new era for the building, the honours being performed by Dame Judi Dench and local lad Sir Patrick Stewart.

Last year, there was a 25th anniversary celebration featuring cabaret drag act Le Gateau Chocolat, a spectacular fireworks display in the courtyard, an exhibition of Simon Annand photographs called The Half and a community production of Henry V featuring a cast of 60 aged between four and 73-years-old.

A scene from Toast, the stage adaptation of Nigel Slater's memoir Toast, the 2019 UK tour of which was launched at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield.

It’s becoming ever more eclectic under the reign of Filloux-Bennett, who celebrates a year in post this month – although ‘celebrate’ may be a less than appropriate word to use at the minute. When we speak, the artistic director has just returned from a senior management meeting at which the practicalities of closing the venue, for now, were decided. Lots of things, as you might expect, are moving online and Filloux-Bennett suggests audiences look to the website, which will have full details about the new way of working from Monday.

One of the big conversations happening among senior management is about how this year’s pantomime will look. One of the reasons LBT has flown under the radar is that it is more of a receiving house than a building that makes its own work. That changed in 2016, when Joyce Branagh and Andrew Pollard combined to bring the venue it’s own self-produced pantomime.

“It was a massive success from the start. It now accounts for 40 per cent of our annual box office, so that’s hugely important in terms of developing audiences, bringing people in and in running the building,” says Filloux-Bennett.

One of the reasons I wanted to write this series of profile pieces on our theatres while the country is in lockdown is because they are buildings and organisations, owned by us. We pay for these places. The LBT receives £130,000 annually from the Arts Council and £206,000 from Kirklees Council. That’s not even half of what it costs to run the venue.

“One of the reasons I applied for the job here is because theatre is an artform that I love and one that I think has a genuine impact on a community. That’s no truer than at somewhere like LBT, which is absolutely at the heart of the community,” says Filloux-Bennett.

“People from all over Huddersfield use us as the creative heart of the community. For 18 to 20 hours a day, you can find people doing all kinds of things from yoga classes, to creative writing classes, to children and parents groups and our young company, members of which were on stage when we presented Henry V.”

Then there’s the work on the stage. Last year, the theatre was able to launch the national tour of Toast, the stage adaptation of Nigel Slater’s memoir, mainly because Filloux-Bennett was the playwright, which was useful. It also staged the national tour of Rita, Sue and Bob Too and dance, of course, which includes Yorkshire’s own Gary Clarke, The National Dance Company of Wales and James Wilton. “We don’t know how the coronavirus is going to affect our audiences. Even when we’re through this, will people want to sit in a theatre in close quarters with each other? We just don’t know,” says Filloux-Bennett.
Maybe. But when we are ready to start watching shows, making work and gathering as a community, LBT will be there.

Some of LBT’s big moments

Henry V: In September last year a group of community actors came together to perform a raucous hugely fun production of Shakespeare’s play – with some unusual additions.

The Half: An exhibition of photographs by acclaimed theatre photographer Simon Annand, featuring the likes of David Tennant, Judi Dench and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, led the LBT on to the front of national newspapers and the BBC national Breakfast sofa.

To read more about the LBT’s plans for the future, visit their website on Monday: www.thelbt.org