Harrogate Theatre - the spa town with a rich stage tradition

Optimism is probably the most sought after resource in the world of theatre right now.

Harrogate Theatre's chief executive David Bown. (JPIMedia).

While I’ve been taking a tour of Yorkshire theatres since lockdown began, the people working behind the scenes of those theatres have tried to remain upbeat and positive about the future and about the possibility of a future for their venues.

It’s a balancing act. Theatre bosses want to give their future audiences a reason for faith, but they also need to warn that there are dire consequences on the road ahead. That they need to be realistic is becoming ever clearer.

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The front page of last week’s The Stage, the theatre industry’s newspaper, warned that the loss of Nuffield Southampton Theatre, which went into administration as a direct result of the effects of the pandemic, was the ‘canary in the coal mine for British theatre’.

The theatre, pictured here in 2006, has played to everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Eddie Izzard. (JPIMedia).

That’s where we are now. While I hugely admire the optimism I’ve heard and communicated from Yorkshire theatre leaders in these pages over the lockdown weeks, make no mistake – we are now in a world where theatres are fighting for survival.

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The town that appears regularly in Sunday broadsheet lists of the most desirable places to live has an interesting theatre. On the face of it, a pleasant venue that does what nice people expect of a nice theatre.

As chief executive David Bown says: “We are the theatre with the peacock blue seats and twinkling chandeliers, with an auditorium that seats 500 but brings a wonderful sense of intimacy to the audience, located at the heart of a beautiful North Yorkshire town.”

To some extent it lives up to that, perhaps slightly old-fashioned, notion of a night at the theatre, but you don’t have to scratch very hard to find a real creative spirit below the surface.

The venue first really caught my attention in 2003 when Hannah Chissick, then just 26-years-old, became the youngest artistic director of a theatre in the UK and one of the youngest women ever to hold the title.

A traditional theatre in an up-market North Yorkshire town doesn’t do something like that; except it did.

When Chissick left in 2006, David Bown took control of the venue, leading it without an artistic director. It would be fair to say he’s had to sail the theatre through some choppy waters over the years, although none perhaps as choppy as this.

“Harrogate Theatre brings all the charm and heritage you could hope for in a 120 year-old building, one that is steeped in history and is the subject of so many wonderful memories and stories across generations,” he says.

Financially difficult years have made the theatre a little wary of demanding too much from its audiences – although, again, if you look especially to its studio you will find some theatrically interesting work.

It does mean that the only production of note it originated for some years was the annual, wildly popular, pantomime. In 2018 it began to dip a toe in the water of producing its own work outside of the festive traditional fare and introduced the Harrogate Theatre Rep Season of three shows across three weeks by one company.

“We are working hard to establish the company as a permanent feature on the autumn programme,” says Bown. “Our flagship annual pantomime brings more than 30,000 people through the doors.

“As primarily a touring venue it’s the only work we produce ourselves, and the income sustains much of our work year-round. Our pantomime has won awards and has a reputation for being of a consistently high quality and of appeal to literally all ages.”

The theatre is also famous as the hub of the Harrogate Comedy Festival every October (although what happens to the event this year is anybody’s guess).

The comedy cognoscenti regard the 11-year-old festival as one of the country’s highest quality festivals.

“In the Harrogate Theatre rep season, with the comedy festival and the pantomime there’s such a range, which really showcases the versatility of the space, alongside the skill and ambition of our small team.”

As with all of our theatres, there is the wonderful history of the place too. A brown plaque outside the ornate doors – and it really does have one of the most beautiful theatre entrances in the region – tells you that Charlie Chaplin, Fats Waller, Sir Ben Kingsley and Eddie Izzard have trod the theatre’s boards.

Bown says: “There’s also a wonderful modelled plaster frieze by sculptor Frances Darlington that depicts the development of arts through the ages in the foyer.

“I worked with Harrogate Theatre in the late 1990s and sat on their board, so I was familiar with the work and the people.

“I was attracted to the energy and the ambition that I witnessed and I jumped at the opportunity to be part of it when it arose. I consider myself very lucky to go to work every day at Harrogate Theatre.”

While he does still go to the theatre on a daily basis, it’s different these days.

“We have a challenging few months ahead, but I like to think that when we come out of the other side we will be busier than ever,” he says.

“I hope we will all have an even greater appreciation of live arts and of the magic of this fabulous old building as the beating heart of Harrogate and as a valuable cultural asset for our region.”

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James Mitchinson