Review of the Year - The Midlands Stage

Reporter: Steve Orme

Dateline: 29th December, 2015

What an amazing year 2015 was for theatre in the Midlands. Record figures, a prestigious award and premières galore made it a year to remember.

The Royal Shakespeare Company led the way. During the financial year 2014-15, the Stratford-based organisation sold more than 1.8 million tickets for 28 productions and co-productions. Income totalled £63.9 million, with box office receipts increasing by 5% to £34.3 million.

On stage, artistic director Gregory Doran’s production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman enjoyed a London transfer to the Noël Coward Theatre.

In Northampton, the town’s Royal and Derngate scooped the best presentation of touring theatre accolade at the UK Theatre Awards. Under the astute leadership of artistic director James Dacre, the venue toured six productions to 37 venues across 30 towns and cities, playing to 197,000 people in a wide range of places.

Royal and Derngate also gained plaudits for its Made in Northampton season. I particularly enjoyed Lucy Bailey’s “gripping” revival of Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight which featured Tara Fitzgerald as Bella Manningham.

There were good reasons for Leicester’s Curve to celebrate. Almost 200,000 people bought tickets for productions at the theatre during 2014-15 and turnover increased to £7.8 million—the highest figure since Curve opened in 2008.

Curve cemented its reputation for producing classy, classic musicals. In addition the theatre opened its first home-grown new musical, Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 The Musical. Paul Kerryson stepped down after 23 years as artistic director with a record-breaking run of The Sound of Music. His successor, Nikolai Foster, is looking to continue the musicals policy into 2016.

Another success story in 2015 was the continued resurgence of theatre in Derby. Artistic director Sarah Brigham has ensured that the darks days are over at Derby Theatre which secured Arts Council England national portfolio status.

The venue twice teamed up with Mike Kenny for a “commendable” adaptation of Siobhan Dowd’s Solace of the Road and a “heart-warming” new version of Cinderella for its festive production. And the theatre celebrated 40 years of productions at its city-centre site with Brassed Off, a “thought-provoking production done exceptionally well”.

After a year’s absence, panto returned to the city with Derby LIVE’s production of Aladdin at the new Derby Arena.

Over in Birmingham, the REP continued to produce quality theatre. Its co-production with Chichester Festival Theatre of David Seidler’s The King’s Speech, featuring Raymond Coulthard and Jason Donovan, started its first national tour in Birmingham. The REP also teamed up with the Almeida Theatre for a tour of Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, with Robert Powell performing the title role with “dignity, gravitas and authority”.

Nottingham Playhouse hit the heights with two regional premières: Laura Wade’s satire on class, wealth and privilege Posh and a “poignant, powerful and at times distressing” version of The Rubenstein Kiss by James Phillips.

Newcastle-under-Lyme’s New Vic received £198,000 from Arts Council England to stage a five-week festival of 22 plays inspired by the discovery of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork known as the Staffordshire Hoard. There was a solid introduction to the festival with two plays by Theresa Heskins and Jemma Kennedy, Unearthed and The Gift. Apart from that, the theatre-in-the-round also produced an impressive version of Graham Linehan’s adaptation of The Ladykillers.

Elsewhere, Coventry’s Belgrade had a memorable 2015, marking 50 years since the theatre set up the theatre-in-education movement; and Buxton Festival Fringe celebrated too—the biggest Fringe to date contributed nearly £500,000 to the local economy.