Nick Ahad meets the artistic directors whose dream of creating a thriving theatre in Malton is taking a step closer.
The thing about Yorkshire, the reason, perhaps, we as a county outperformed many countries in the Olympics, might largely be down to what the Americans might call a “can do” attitude. And what we might call “rolling up your sleeves and gerrin on wi’ it”.
Witness: Garry Cooper and Nick Bagnall.
A little over two years ago, Cooper clapped eyes on the Georgian Milton Rooms in Malton for the first time. As he did so, he had an epiphany.
The actor, who has appeared on stage, in TV series like Heartbeat, in the epochal Quadrophenia and alongside muscle man Jean-Claude Van Damme in a bona fide Hollywood movie, had found in the Milton Rooms some sort of spiritual home.
As he walks around the building today, it’s clear to see nothing has changed.
The building’s been around for almost 200 years, so plenty of people will have plenty of connections to the place, but Cooper’s eyes light up as he opens each doorway to reveal its secrets. To the untrained eye (that is to say, you and me) much of it will look a bit of a mess, a building in great need of much TLC. The difference is that while we might see a damp cellar, Cooper sees a music studio for young people.
Where you and I would see only a room with fading paintwork and falling plaster, Cooper sees a studio theatre. A bare room? An artist’s studio.
This disparity between reality and potential goes on and on, much like the sprawling building that sits at the heart of the North Yorkshire market town.
It would be possible to dismiss Cooper’s flights of fancy as just that – were it not for one factor. A mere matter of weeks ago, the Prince’s Regeneration Trust (PRT) came on board to help.
The Trust, which works across the UK to save important redundant historic sites, is many things, but it is neither sentimental, nor a soft touch. That it has agreed to advise the Milton Rooms on how it might become a viable venue and indeed a thriving business is reason enough to make the rest of us sit up and take note.
The pair have known each other for over 20 years. Both started out in the acting game, but Bagnall has become far more involved in directing in recent years – he directed Cooper in Billy Liar at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2010.
“As soon as I saw the Milton Rooms, I called Nick and told him to come and take a look. We’d talked about setting something up together and as soon as I saw it I knew it was the right place,” says Cooper.
Bagnall was as immediately smitten as his actor friend and today they are the Milton Rooms’ joint artistic directors.
“I’ve not drawn a wage since I started working here.” The fact that Cooper says this with a smile reveals either that he has spent too long in the basement office on his own, or that he knows something I don’t. Having taken a tour, heard the plans and the fact that the Trust believe in him, the smart money’s on the latter.
The Milton Rooms was built in 1814 by the Fitzwilliam family, the estate which still owns vast swathes of Malton. The original part of the building was added to in 1931 as a gift on the 21st birthday of one the family’s sons. “Forty years ago, the estate handed it over to the council on a peppercorn rent for a 1,000-year lease,” says Cooper. “It’s now been handed over to us for a peppercorn rent on a 900-year lease.”
At first glance it seems Cooper might need every year of that lease to realise his ambitions, but things are starting to move on. The main entrance, which is actually a back entrance built into the 1931 stage of the building, faces out on to the market square. Just inside is a huge space boasting, according to Cooper “the biggest sprung dance floor in North Yorkshire.”
It’s once you go through the doors at the rear of the auditorium that you see the potential of the building. In the back is a large room with vast windows. Currently used as a dressing room, the plan is to turn it into a studio theatre which will become the main venue for the Milton Rooms, where the artistic team will stage their own productions.
Through this room and down the stairs is a warren of other spaces that Cooper sees eventually being used for a plethora of activities, from offices, to artist studios to the recording studio he wants to have built.
What helps this vision is not just the Prince’s Regeneration Trust believing in the future of the building, but the fact that Bagnall and Cooper have such impressive connections. Kathy Burke, Imelda Staunton, Jools Holland and Bill Nighy are all patrons of the venture, and it is thanks to a generous donation from Imelda Staunton, who was directed by Bagnall in the West End a couple of years ago, that the first event that launched the theatre, just over a year ago, happened.
“We wanted to do something spectacular, something that meant people knew we were here, so we staged a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Nick, that took over the whole town,” says Cooper.
A massive venture with a huge community cast joined by a handful of professional actors, the production put the venue on the map. Since then it has hosted shows by London companies Paines Plough and the Unicorn Theatre and a string of music events in its small bar.
The fact that Cooper and Bagnall were taking a “can do” attitude inspired the town. The Old Lodge Hotel in Malton has given free accommodation to actors who have come to perform in the the venue and the whole place is staffed by a committee of volunteers – the chief organiser is busy adding names to a list as we pass through the building’s foyer.
“The aim is to turn it into a producing theatre. We’re working with the Prince’s Regeneration Trust to make it a viable business, and the aim is for the building to run itself and for us to apply for Arts Council funding to turn it into a proper producing theatre,” says Cooper.
“In this part of the world, between York and Scarborough, there’s nothing like it. This town needs something like this.”
While the Trust coming on board means the business future of the building looks a little more solid, what is happening artistically? Jim Cartwright, another friend of the duo, has written a play specifically for the space, which will premiere this Christmas, and Simon Armitage, as smitten with the venue as the two artistic directors, is currently in talks with them about a script to be performed next year.
Cooper says it would be a dream come true if the Milton Rooms was able to meet all the ambitions he and his partner have for it. It’s a big dream, it’s an ambitious dream, but, to quote the community show that launched the venue, if a man can put a girdle around the earth in 40 minutes, surely it is not beyond the wit of these men to turn this dream into reality?