Review of the Year – The North East Stage

Reporter: Peter Lathan

Dateline: 4th January, 2016

The Receiving Houses

First, the usual disclaimer: it is impossible for one person to see every piece of theatre in the region, or even every piece of theatre in one part of the region, so, although I do my best to see as much as I can, there is much that I miss. As ever the southern part of the region is comparatively neglected in terms of reviews, which means that venues such as Darlington Civic and ARC Stockton do not get the coverage we would like. I would be delighted to hear from anyone based on Teesside who would like to review regularly for the BTG. What’s required is a wide knowledge of theatre and a good writing style. If you think this might be you, please do get in touch: peter@britishtheatreguide.info.

In 2015 as always the North East’s large scale receiving houses continued to host major tours throughout the year, both musicals and plays. The RSC had its Newcastle season at the Theatre Royal as has been the case for many years now. Plays always do well at the Royal and not so well at the Empire—but the success of last year’s production of War Horse at Sunderland Empire seems to have, in some ways, broken the mould, for two further productions from the National Theatre had huge success on the Empire’s stage, One Man, Two Guvnors (January) and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (August).

Of course at both venues musicals predominated, as ever, and you can be sure that every West End musical which goes on a national tour will come to the Royal or Empire—or both!

The next largest receiving house in the region is Darlington Civic, which has a capacity of 901, and the others are considerably smaller, ranging from the 262-seater Alnwick Playhouse to Billingham Forum at 643 seats, although most also have studio spaces which seat around 100 or fewer.

Whilst Darlington hosts mid-scale tours, many of which are middle-of-the-road plays featuring one or more TV “names”, the others tend to present companies like London Classic Theatre and Rumpus Theatre Company, which also have a middle-of-the-road appeal and will play at a venue for, usually, one night (although occasionally two) before moving on to another and it is not unusual to see the same show appearing at many of the region’s small-scale theatres over a fortnight or so.

It may be my imagination but there seems to have been an increase this year in shows for young children in the 3 to 8 age range during half-term and between terms.

It has to be said, though, that at most of the receiving houses—with the exception of the Theatre Royal, the Empire and the Civic—it is one-night stands, tribute acts and, increasingly, stand-up and local amateur musical theatre company hires which make up the larger part of the programming. Many, of course, take advantage of the almost insatiable demand for panto at Christmas/New Year and either produce their own or buy in a professional show, sometimes supplemented (once the professional season is finished) by local amateurs’ offerings.

Worth a mention is the fact that one receiving house, Hartlepool’s Town Hall Theatre, relaunched itself this year by linking up with other similarly sized venues to provide a small regional touring circuit—a brave thing to do in these cash-strapped times!

That apart, I suspect that my BTG colleagues in other parts of the country could write something similar and probably even mention many of the same touring companies/productions. The real indicator of the health of a region’s theatre is the quality (and, to a lesser extent, quantity) of the work produced locally and that is where we will turn our eyes next.

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