Review of the Year - The Midlands Stage

Reporter: Steve Orme

Dateline: 23rd December, 2016

Prestigious awards, increased ticket sales and stunning productions were the hallmarks of 2016 for theatre in the Midlands while 2017 will bring the end of an era as well as a huge amount of optimism.

Northampton’s Royal and Derngate and Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre led the way at the UK Theatre 2016 awards ceremony at the Guildhall in London.

Royal and Derngate’s co-production with English Touring Theatre and Rose Theatre Kingston of Peter Wheelan’s play about the secret life of Shakespeare’s daughter, The Herbal Bed, won the award for best touring production while the Belgrade won the promotion of diversity award.

The Belgrade increased the representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic people among its workforce as well as offering work placements and internships to young people starting a career in the industry.

Regional awards went to Lichfield Garrick which was hailed as the most welcoming theatre in the West Midlands, while Buxton Opera House took the accolade in the East Midlands.

Meanwhile, Pappa Essiedu, who took the lead in Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, picked up the award for best performance in a play.

As for the RSC, it was another successful year financially for the organisation which increased turnover from £61.8 million to £81.3 million. Box-office takings increased to £35.1 million. This allowed the company to restore the Swan Wing and reopen its studio theatre The Other Place.

Over in Leicester, Curve recorded its highest turnover, £10.2 million, and tickets sales were up by 28% in 2015-16, the first full year of Nikolai Foster’s tenure as artistic director.

The city is expecting the Haymarket Theatre, which closed in 2008 to make way for Curve, to reopen as a professional performance and rehearsal space in 2017.

One sad event in 2016 was the closure of Birmingham venue The Drum—“the UK’s premier intercultural arts centre”—in June. The organisation behind the venue said it had to make “the very hard decision” to wind it down after more than 20 years serving the international, national and local artistic community.

It said a “combination of challenges including the current financial climate unfortunately came together in a manner that left the board with no viable alternatives”.

The year 2017 will be the end of an era at Nottingham Playhouse when artistic director Giles Croft steps down in November after 18 years.

The former literary manager at the National Theatre has championed new writing and created some “unforgettable” theatre, according to chief executive Stephanie Sirr.

My favourites at the Playhouse in 2016 were Croft’s production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie which featured wheelchair user Amy Trigg as Laura Wingfield, Noises Off by Michael Frayn, which was “one long laugh”, another “memorable” Croft production, Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth, and John Harvey’s “gripping” adaptation of his crime novel Darkness, Darkness which features Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick and looks at the murder of an activist during the miners’ strike 30 years previously.

One of the highlights of 2017 is expected to be a revival of Nottinghamshire playwright Stephen Lowe’s Touched, which will feature two Nottingham actresses, Vicky McClure and Aisling Loftus. Croft will be replaced by Adam Penford, it has been announced.

Down the A52, Derby Theatre continued to produce quality theatre. My favourites were Look Back in Anger, said to be based on John Osborne’s unhappy marriage to actress Pamela Lane when they were living and working in Derby, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street featuring Hugh Maynard and Sophie-Louise Dann, and the festive production, Mike Kenny’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland which is “quite bonkers—but rather good”.

Two other plays which stood out for me during 2016 were the Birmingham REP production of What Shadows, Chris Hannan’s take on Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech, and Anthony Horowitz’s “fascinating” Mindgame, a Tabs Productions presentation which I saw on a rare trip to the Pomegranate Theatre, Chesterfield.

As for 2017, expect continued kudos for Midlands theatres, particularly Royal and Derngate in Northampton which is to undertake its first independent tour with Tim Pigott-Smith playing Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.