Bradford’s theatre of dreams

Joey, the life-size horse puppet from the National Theatre's internationally acclaimed production made a special appearance at the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford in advance of the Yorkshire premiere this spring
Joey, the life-size horse puppet from the National Theatre's internationally acclaimed production made a special appearance at the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford in advance of the Yorkshire premiere this spring
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Jewel in the crown: As the Bradford Alhambra celebrates its centenary, Adam Renton tells Nick Ahad why the theatre has never been more important to the city.

On occasion, Adam Renton confesses, he does something really quite odd.

This photograph was taken just after the Alhmabra opened in 1914.

This photograph was taken just after the Alhmabra opened in 1914.

The man in charge of the Bradford Alhambra will sometimes go into a room in the theatre, alone, and talk out loud.

He’s not speaking to himself exactly, even though it would appear that way to anyone who happened upon him. Renton is actually speaking to a bust of Francis Laidler, the man who masterminded the building of one of Yorkshire’s most beautiful theatres a century ago and who gives the Laidler Room, where his bust is displayed, its name.

“I’ll sometimes stand there and just talk to him and say, ‘I hope you think I’m doing okay’,” says Renton, before laughing at the mental image he has just conjured up. “It’s a babysitting role, my job. Looking after the place for the next person. If the job was about getting feathers in my cap, I would have left a long time ago. It’s about me looking after the place and the job so it’s in a strong state when I pass it on in the future.”

As general manager of Bradford Theatres, Renton is the business mind behind the Alhambra Theatre. Over the past decade he has led the theatre through an extraordinary period of success. He also has ultimate responsibility for St George’s Hall, King’s Hall in Ilkley and the Alhambra Studio, but we’re here to talk to the theatre that sits at the top of the list.

Michael Bentine and Peter Sellers played to a packed auditorium at the Bradford Alhambra.

Michael Bentine and Peter Sellers played to a packed auditorium at the Bradford Alhambra.

Up in his office, high above the Alhambra and looking over the rooftops of Bradford out east, there is all manner of memorabilia. The kind of paraphernalia you would associate with a theatre manager – a poster of the National Theatre’s tour of The History Boys, signed by the cast, invitations to openings and, more unusually, a Bullseye style dartboard. It is the office of a busy man. As well as programming and running the four theatres, Renton has been the behind the successful opening of a restaurant in the Alhambra over the last year. He doesn’t have a lot of time to sit and reflect, but this seems a good moment to force him do so.

This year the Alhambra celebrates its centenary.

As the country marks 100 years since the start of the First World War, it feels a little incongruous to also be celebrating a joyous anniversary at the theatre.

“It does seem a little strange that a theatre opened when the country was going to war,” admits Renton.“But what’s poignant about that is that the theatre was opened at a time when the country needed optimism and escapism more than ever before. That is something we provide to this day for our audiences. Escapism, entertainment, really important things for all of us.”

It is true that, if you are looking for pure entertainment in Yorkshire theatre, the Alhambra is a great place to visit. The theatre is a receiving house, which means it doesn’t make its own productions, but scours the country for the best touring shows and brings them to Bradford. More often than not, that means big, bold and sometimes unashamedly brassy musicals. The theatre does have a hand in creating its annual panto, made by the experts in the genre, Qdos, but unlike, say, the West Yorkshire Playhouse, it does not originate its own work.

That means in some ways Renton’s hands are tied – he can only bring to the Bradford theatre the work that is already out there and available, being made by other theatres and other companies. He has turned this possible disadvantage to the theatre’s benefit, by travelling nationally and internationally to discover work of the highest quality for Yorkshire audiences.

“I make a concerted effort to have at least two or three what you might call ‘straight plays’, as opposed to musicals, in the programme each year,” he says. “There’s no doubt that audiences know us for musicals and that is what we do very well. But I also bring our audience the sort of straight plays they might normally choose to see, but will come to us if we programme them. I like to call it the M&S factor. If people know that they can trust the quality of what we will give them, then they will take a risk..”

While Renton speaks like a marketer, the truth is audiences do trust the programming and will come see work that isn’t simply Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat. Nowhere is the trust more demonstrable in the theatre’s contemporary dance programme. Back in the late 1980s the theatre management made a mistake. An expensive mistake. Alvin Ailey, a world class American based dance company was booked to come to Bradford. The audiences did not come and the theatre lost a lot of money. A lot – the kind of sums that might easily have met curtains down on the theatre for good.

So when Renton booked Alvin Ailey to return to the theatre for the first time since that disastrous previous visit, around a decade ago, the nerves must have been jangling. The audience didn’t exactly flood in, but it was respectable – enough to allow Renton to keep the faith in bringing the art form to Bradford.

“I am really proud that we have made an important feature in the programme of our contemporary dance,” says Renton. “When we first started bringing Matthew Bourne to the Alhambra, we had to work hard for to get the audience. When he brought his Swan Lake here this month, 9,000 people bought tickets before the show arrived.

“It’s important we have that because it means the Alhambra appears in the back of the Sunday Times as a venue to see great contemporary dance – we’re right there alongside Sadler’s Wells. As we should be.”

One hundred years after the public met the Alhambra, she is in good shape. The theatre’s centenary – it actually celebrates 100 years since the doors opened at 2pm on March 18 – is being celebrated all year. There are one or two tentpoles in the season – a variety night later in the year is one specific celebratory evening – but Renton has managed to book an impressive selection of shows during this year.

Touring out of London for the first time are productions of War Horse and The Lion King. In September another Yorkshire premiere arrives with Singin’ in the Rain and Rock of Ages touring for the first time. There will also be a visit from the National Theatre’s spectacularly successful production of One Man Two Guvnors in July.

“It’s a really wonderful thing that we celebrate the centenary this year, but for me it is actually almost like just another year of bringing brilliant productions to the theatre,” says Renton, a little disingenuous. His smile reveals that he has booked a blinding season for 2014 and he knows it.

While 2pm on Tuesday marks 100 years since the Alhambra was officially opened, it was five days after that in 1914 that the public of Yorkshire had a first glimpse inside the beautiful building. While she looks to all the world a Frank Matcham creation, a label I’m sure I have mistakenly attributed to the building myself in the past, this stunning architectural jewel sprung out of Bradford’s soil thanks to the vision of a local lad – of sorts.

Francis Laidler was born 1867 in Thornaby on Tees, the son of a doctor who moved to Bradford to work as a cleric for a wool trader. He then worked for Hammonds Brewery and was quickly promoted to management. In 1902, aged 35, while still at Hammonds, Laidler went into partnership with Walter J Piper at the city’s Prince’s Theatre; Piper died six months later and Laidler left Hammonds to take on the management of the theatre full time.

It was at this point he earned the title he would carry through life: theatre impresario.

Having run the Prince’s Theatre in the city centre since 1902, Laidler began to put the wheels in motion to build the new theatre that would become the Alhambra in 1912.

While it looks like a Matcham theatre, the design was actually all home grown. Messrs Chadwick and Watson of Leeds designed and supervised the creation of the building, while the contracting was carried out by Mr JT Wright. Laidler did allow Londoners Messrs F DeJong and Co carry out the plastering and decorating, so we have southerners to thank for the finish on the interiors, but we can safely claim the Alhambra as a truly Yorkshire enterprise.

The opening show of the theatre was a variety of, well, variety acts and a revue called A Year in the Hour was a particularly popular show. Acts included principal boy performer Alice Wyatt who opened the show with the National Anthem, Yeadon-born comic Sydney Howard, Mamie Watson, Leslie Barker, Nellie Wallace and acrobats The Benedetti Brothers

The roll call of names who appeared on the Alhambra’s stage in those early years during the Golden Age of Variety is really quite something. George Formby, Florence Desmond, George Lashwood, Randolph Sutton and Laurel and Hardy all performed on the stage in those early years. In 1930 prima ballerina Anna Pavlova performed the Dying Swan at the Alhambra.

While today the theatre’s pantomime is one of the year’s highlights and regularly attracts up to 100,000 people annually, the panto is a long tradition. Laidler was a fan of the art form, even earning the nickname ‘The King of Panto’ and inaugurating the tradition of the Sunbeams, a juvenile dance troupe, to perform in the annual show.

The last Alhambra panto over which the impresario presided was Red Riding Hood, which opened on December 27, 1954. On January 6, 1955, he died the day before his 88th birthday. Although there was talk of cancelling the performance, his widow Gwladys Stanley Laidler insisted that the show must go on.

Today the undisputed panto king at the Alhambra is Billy Pearce, but children of the 80s will have fond memories of Russ Abbot, Les Dawson, Little and Large and Cannon and Ball appearing in the theatre’s pantomimes. Renton was among them.

“This place matters to me. I remember my mum and dad bringing me to the pantomime – in fact, one year I remember really clearly that we arrived late and Cannon and Ball were in the panto. I was a teenager at the time, I was in that period where I thought it was a bit naff to be going to the panto with my parents and Bobby Ball spotted us arriving late so he started having some banter about us – and my mum started answering back,” he says. “I was just mortified.

“I also remember my grandma bringing me to see Sooty one year. I hold on to those memories and it’s important to me that other young people today are forming those memories too, today.”

As the theatre celebrates its 100th year, those new memories continue to be made.

Renton says: “There is something special that has made this place last for 100 years.”