Summary of the Midlands stage in 2013
What a year it’s been for theatre in the Midlands: box-office records broken, shows playing to sell-out houses before London transfers and quality productions aplenty.
For once the Royal Shakespeare Company didn’t grab the biggest headlines. They were earned by Birmingham REP which reopened after a £20m and two-and-a-half-year refit.
The REP is now attached to the £188m Library of Birmingham and boasts a third auditorium, a 300-seat Studio.
The main house reopened with the touring production of the National Theatre’s People by Alan Bennett. The REP then had tremendous success with Birmingham-born Martin Shaw in Twelve Angry Men which sold out before moving to the West End and Molière’s Tartuffe with another local, Mark Williams, in the lead role.
As for the RSC, the Stratford-based company reported a 30% increase in its income to £62.6m in the financial year 2012-13, thanks largely to box-office takings growing by 75%.
RSC executive director Catherine Mallyon said, “The fantastic figures mask some real challenges. There’s significant pressure on us and on arts organisations up and down the country. Cuts in public investment are biting.” More on that later.
Another successful venue was Birmingham Hippodrome. Disney’s The Lion King completed a sell-out run, with more than 190,000 people watching 109 performances. The National Theatre production of War Horse did likewise, attracting more than 55,000 to 31 shows.
Nottingham Playhouse celebrated its 50th anniversary season with a diverse programme including the world première of a new adaptation of Philip Pulman’s I Was a Rat! and the European première of the stage version of Khaled Hosseini’s best-seller The Kite Runner.
Leicester’s Curve has been in existence for only five years but has built an enviable reputation in that time for staging musicals. Janie Dee picked up the best performance in a musical accolade in the 2013 UK Theatre Awards for her portrayal of Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! while Frances Ruffelle was nominated in the same category for her performance in Piaf.
Curve’s artistic director Paul Kerryson has announced that 2014 will be his last year in Leicester; he will be difficult to replace.
There was also success in 2013 for Newcastle-under-Lyme’s New Vic which continued to produce classy work. The Staffordshire theatre-in-the-round hosted Amanda Whittington’s new play The Thrill of Love about Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. It later transferred to St James Theatre, London.
While some theatres ensured everyone knew about their successes, Derby Theatre unostentatiously worked hard to secure its future. Although it receives a smaller Arts Council grant than its predecessor, the University of Derby-run theatre was awarded grants totalling more than £400,000 during the year from trusts and foundations.
A Times Higher Education award for excellence and innovation in the arts and popular productions including Lee Hall’s Cooking with Elvis and Kes, directed by artistic director Sarah Brigham, signal a promising 2014 for Derby Theatre.
There’s a lot to look forward to in the Midlands over the next 12 months, everything from Antony Sher playing Falstaff in Henry IV Parts I and II at the RSC to new artistic director James Dacre’s first season at Northampton Royal and Derngate.
Some venues will no doubt struggle in 2014: Nottingham Playhouse is waiting to hear whether its £94,000 grant from Nottinghamshire County Council will be cut while the New Vic at Newcastle-under-Lyme is getting £23,000 less from Stoke City Council. Other local authorities may make similar cuts.
But whatever challenges Midlands theatres may face, I expect that in 2014 they will still endeavour to produce quality work at every available opportunity.