We look back at 2019 - an exceptional year for theatre in Yorkshire

Alan Ayckbourns Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present.
Alan Ayckbourns Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present.
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Are there any cliches more overused than those employed to talk about this time of year?

The no man’s land, the place between, the wasteland where we abandon all sense of time and simply hang in a purgatorial limbo in which it is too early to start the exercise regime, but too soon to have another mince pie.

Julie Hesmondhalgh in There Are No Beginnings.

Julie Hesmondhalgh in There Are No Beginnings.

An antidote? To take stock of the year by looking back, and so I bring this week a retrospective, a collective glance over our shoulders to see what we’ve achieved, learned, enjoyed and experienced during 2019.

The biggest theatre story of the year in the region was the re-opening of the Leeds Playhouse, but I’ll come to that later.

As this is a personal trawl through the annual archives, I want to start with an incident at Leeds City Varieties.

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The brilliant comedian James Acaster paid Leeds a visit this autumn. The show he was bringing to the theatre, Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999, was one of the most exceptionally well-reviewed comedy shows I’ve ever read about.

Stand-up comedian James Acaster.

Stand-up comedian James Acaster.

I could barely contain myself at the prospect of seeing the most exciting young comedian of his generation on stage at the beautiful old music hall, the Leeds City Varieties. In the event, the show was completely derailed by some audience members who blurted out the most utterly banal and facile comments.

I was fortunate enough to be able to see Acaster a few weeks later at York Grand Opera House, where I had the chance to see the actual show he had given up trying to perform in Leeds. It was as good as the reviews said.

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Fortunately that night at the Varieties was a rare disappointing one: I’ve said it a few times this year, but I don’t remember as strong a period for Yorkshire theatre as the one that we’re in.

We’ve had moments in the past where some theatres have had particularly good times – I’m thinking The Railway Children years for York, Scarborough’s moment when everything Ayckbourn wrote seemed to transfer to the West End, the Grandage years in Sheffield – but this last couple of years is the first time I’ve known all the theatres in our region firing quite so well on all cylinders.

One of my moments of the year was the opening night cabaret staged by the endlessly inventive Leeds theatre company, Slung Low, at The Holbeck.

I choose this as a year highlight not because I performed there (my stand-up set was decidedly divisive, with some tweeting me later to tell me how offended by my material they had been), but because it marked both an ending and beginning of something special.

It marked the end of the first age of Slung Low, which began its life

at Bradford’s Theatre in the Mill before moving into disused railway arches in Leeds.

From there it has staged some truly spectacular work, like Moby Dick at Leeds Dock and Flood, a BBC-televised three-part story about the end of the world at a Hull marina.

In March, the company staged a cabaret at The Holbeck, the country’s oldest social club.

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The venue is now Slung Low’s home and the two have become completely symbiotic in less than 12 months.

The second age of Slung Low already promises something huge.

I found myself spending a lot of time in Scarborough earlier this year, as I recorded a radio special with Alan Ayckbourn. The master still has plenty to say and simply being able to watch him rehearse and then see audiences experience such great joy with his new work Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present, was something special.

Another night that will linger in the memory was the first night in the Bramall Rock Void.

That night, with the premiere of Charley Miles’ There Are No Beginnings, marked something special for the whole region.

The Bramall Rock Void is the new studio theatre in the

refurbished Leeds Playhouse. The theatre re-opened in the autumn after a £16m transformation, but it doesn’t feel like a transformation, nor a refurbishment. It feels like we’ve got a brand new theatre for the region.

The energy, the optimism, the possibility you can now feel in that place, the way it is so emphatically open and welcoming to everyone is something that is going to have a serious impact on the theatre made in this region. It’s an exciting moment to be writing about theatre in Yorkshire. As your eyes drift towards that mince pie, it’s worth remembering that these little moments stack together to create something significant.