North East theatre in 2017 – a review

Reporter: Peter Lathan

Dateline: 2nd January, 2018

The Headlining Stories

For years, Newcastle has been seen as the centre of North East theatre for it is in that city that there is the greatest concentration of theatre: two major producing houses, Northern Stage and Live Theatre; two large receiving houses, the Theatre Royal and the Tyne Theatre and Opera House; the region’s development organisation for dance, Dance City; the NE’s leading amateur theatre company, The People’s Theatre, and, more recently, a fringe theatre of increasing importance, Alphabetti Theatre. The city is also the home of a large number of theatre companies—Unfolding Theatre, Curious Monkey, The Letter Room, Camisado Club, Greyscale, to name just a few.

And of course just across the river is The Sage, the “international home for music and musical discovery.”

Now both Sunderland and Darlington are increasing their theatre provision.

Sunderland is home to the largest theatre in the region, the 2,200-seater Sunderland Empire, the only theatre between Leeds and Edinburgh with a stage capable of accommodating the largest West End shows. The city also has a small amateur theatre, The Royalty Theatre, but until recently the only space for small-scale professional productions was Arts Centre Washington. In the last few years, however, thanks to Sunderland Stages, a new initiative which originated at ACW, touring shows have been appearing at a wide range of venues from the National Glass Centre to a car park, from university premises to record shops to Miss Tina’s, a coffee shop which incorporates play spaces for toddlers.

For some years, the Music, Arts and Culture (MAC) Trust has been developing an area around Sunderland Empire as a “cultural quarter,” first taking over, refurbishing and reopening The Dun Cow, the Empire’s near neighbour, a pub which now hosts bands and small-scale theatre upstairs.

In May, it reopened another nearby pub, The Peacock (formerly the Londonderry, although there had been a Peacock on that site more than a century ago), which also has space for music and theatrical performances.

Then in November, it opened the newly converted Fire Station, which is a restaurant and bar but also has studios in which Dance City, Live Theatre and Sunderland Music Hub will offer a variety of courses.

In February, planning permission was granted for a new 450-seater auditorium at the back of the Fire Station and it is anticipated that it will open in 2019.

In 2012, Darlington Borough Council had a funding crisis because of government cuts and could no longer afford its £500,000 annual subsidy to Darlington Arts Centre. As a result, the Centre closed making many groups homeless. The most high profile of these was children’s theatre company, Theatre Hullabaloo, originally known as Cleveland Theatre Company, which eventually managed to find funding to convert the town’s old fire station into a new base, The Hullabaloo, which features a 150-seater auditorium, a creative play installation space, café, offices, rehearsal room and an external play space. It opened in December.

In order to support the arts in the town, two organisations were set up in 2012: Luxi, whose aims are artistic creation, providing support activities to performing arts and cultural education; and Creative Darlington, which aims to encourage a broad and diverse arts offer, reinforce specialist practice in children and young people’s arts, with emphasis on the performing arts and develop the town as a creative place in which artists, arts producers and creative businesses can flourish.

They were at the forefront of the creation of Jabberwocky Market, part of the Collaborative Touring Network (which includes Battersea Arts Centre), which brings “exciting and unusual, amazing theatre to Darlington.”

Also attempting to fill the gap is ODDMANOUT, a new writing theatre company which has international ambitions, co-operating during 2017 with The Market Lab in Johannesburg on Encountering the Other, which involved actors from both towns visiting each other and performing together.

And Darlington Theatre Town was an attempt to bring all these initiatives together, a festival of theatre which ran from 26 August to 27 November

In late 2016, a former Odeon cinema (and snooker hall) opened as the Majestic Theatre which its manager Matt Campbell described as “Really… a replacement for the Darlington Arts Centre, which we hope will be self-sustaining.” It hosts both professional and amateur shows and is partnered with Darlington College.

Finally, what used to be Darlington Civic Theatre, which closed in May 2016 for major refurbishment funded in part by the Heritage Lottery Fund, reopened under its original name, Darlington Hippodrome, in December 2017 and increased its capacity to 1,000.

Darlington was temporary home to Paines Plough’s pop-up theatre, The Roundabout, which was one of three pop-up theatres to come to the region during the year. The other two were the conversion of a former ironmongers’ shop in Prudhoe in South Northumberland into the Front Street Theatre to house a children’s Christmas show, Melva, produced by Prudhoe-based theatre company Mortal Fools, and the second was the Pantodrome, imported by NS Pantomimes and set up in Times Square in Newcastle (inside the Centre for Life) where it played host to Jack and the Beanstalk.

Having made a big impact in its temporary basement home which it had to leave in March and which has now been demolished, Alphabetti Theatre moved into new premises in May and, with the help of a small grant from Arts Council and work given freely by construction students from Newcastle College, was able to open for business on 1 September and present a season of work from outside and inside the region, although the latter predominated, providing a space for new writing.

Five years ago, New Writing North and the Durham Book Festival obtained funding for an annual tour of primarily non-theatre venues, usually libraries or community centres, across the North, not just the North East, with a children’s play based on a favourite book. This year’s production, Do Not Enter the Monster Zoo, was the fifth and last, but, just as this initiative was coming to an end, two young actors, Hannah Goudie and Bob Nicholson of Camisado Club, previously Northern Stage’s NORTH14, along with actor / musician Jeremy Bradfield, set up Kitchen Zoo and toured The Owl and the Pussycat. They are now working on their next show, The Tin Foil Astronaut, which will start touring in February at ARC Stockton.

Newcastle’s Live Theatre has been established for more than 40 years as a centre for new writing and had very stable staffing, but during 2017 three senior members of staff either left the organisation or stepped down. In February House Manager Carole Wears left after 22 years to set up her own production company, CaroleW Productions, and then in September Gez Casey, who had been Literary Manager since 2007, left to join Arts Council as Theatre Relationship Manager.

Also in September, Artistic Director Max Roberts stepped down after 30 years in the post. He will be Emeritus Director, working alongside the new AD. No new appointment has yet been announced.

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