The region’s commercial theatres continued as before as receiving houses. Sunderland Empire, which has the largest stage between Leeds and Edinburgh, remains the natural home for the biggest musicals, but, except for kids’ shows like David Walliams’s offerings and the Horrible Histories series or one-offs like War Horse, plays do not do well there. However Birmingham Royal Ballet and Ellen Kent’s Eastern European opera companies do attract big audiences. There are also weeks of one-night stands, mainly musical.
Newcastle’s Theatre Royal does present a more varied programme with plays, musicals, opera and dance. In Darlington, the Hippodrome has just completed its first year since a major refurbishment and name change, which included some musicals, middle-of-the-road plays, one-night stands and even the occasional talk.
Live Theatre and Northern Stage also act as receiving houses as well as originating work, as does Alphabetti which remains the region’s only genuine fringe venue, although there is the twice-a-year Jabberwocky Market in Darlington, organised by Luxi, which has been running since 2013 in partnership with Battersea Arts Centre as part of the UK Collaborative Touring Network (CTN). This project enables producers around the country to present world-class small-scale theatre in places like Darlington, Hull, Gloucester, Medway, Peterborough, Thanet, Torbay and Wigan. In Darlington venues vary from schools to the Quaker Meeting House and the Covered Market.
The small-scale venues, some of which are Arts Council funded or receive support from local authorities, still manage to survive on a diet of one-night stands, stand-up, music (particularly tribute bands), local amateur companies, stage and dance school showcases. Some manage to produce, or at least commission, their own work.
During 2018, there were in-house productions and/or commissioned work from ARC (Stockton), Customs House (South Shields), Gala (Durham), Maltings (Berwick), Middlesbrough Theatre and Queen’s Hall (Hexham). (And if I’ve missed something, I do apologise!)
And we mustn’t forget Dance City in Newcastle which works tirelessly to champion contemporary dance in the region, giving a home to local dance companies as well as bringing in the best of contemporary dance from around the country. Those companies whose work is on too large a scale to be presented in Dance City’s theatre perform at Northern Stage and Newcastle’s Theatre Royal.
Opera finds a home at the Theatre Royal (Opera North), Sunderland Empire (Ellen Kent) and Durham’s Gala (English Touring Opera).