Regional theatres may be under threat as seldom before thanks to the double whammy of actual and threatened funding cuts at both national and local levels, but the ongoing vitality of the sector was demonstrated once again this year at the 2013 UK Theatre Awards, presented on Sunday at the grandly historic Guildhall in the City of London for the second year running.
The venue may have lent the proceedings a kind of formal, highly theatrical glamour, but an informal, celebratory charm was provided by the superb host Michael Xavier, who wrote his own script (with a little help from Wiki, which occasionally of course let him down: presenter Katherine Kingsley was mentioned as engaged to fellow actor Dominic Tighe, but in fact they’ve since married).
That’s one of the things about regional theatre: you don’t necessarily have an army of helpers, you get things done yourself. Even if you’re presenting awards about them. And Xavier himself is a valiant sport: he appeared regionally last year in Hello, Dolly! at Leicester’s Curve Theatre and wasn’t nominated, although his co-star Janie Dee was – and won the best performance in a musical award.
But as always the awards proved one thing: that theatres who take the biggest risks score the biggest hits. As one of the judges who helped draw up the nominations shortlist, I already knew that Sheffield’s Crucible, Lyceum and studio featured heavily; what I didn’t know, as the voting is by secret ballot, is just how well Sheffield would do.
It secured each of the main wins for best new play, best musical and best touring production. And they couldn’t be more diverse. Mike Bartlett’s short, piercing and penetrating Bully – still unseen in London, though it has since visited New York – exuded a palpable air of fear and menace in its portrayal of an office culture of bullying and survival of the fittest, arrestingly communicated in Clare Lizzimore’s production that turned the Crucible Studio into a boxing ring.
Also in the Studio, Tim Firth’s debut original musical This is My Family scored what I dubbed in my review for The Stage last year “a popular triumph”, and I went on to say,
If it ultimately lacks the defining universal punch of Blood Brothers, there’s a bite and brilliance about it that could translate this into a major staple of the regional circuit.
I hope that its UK Theatre award now propels it to a further life. (A supporting acting award was also given to This Is My Family’s veteran Siân Phillips, who even now is touring in the National’s production of Alan Bennett’s People, proving this octogenarian actress’s ongoing commitment to regional theatre).
A further life is already guaranteed, of course, to Sheffield’s third win, for best touring production for its new stage version of The Full Monty, written by the film’s Oscar nominated screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and which has already been long announced to arrive at the Noel Coward Theatre next February.
After the Broadway musical version betrayed its source material by re-setting it in Buffalo, NY, this Full Monty brought it home, in every sense, to Sheffield, so it was very much a homegrown show. And although regional theatres are never just try-out centres for potential West End hits, Sheffield is surely onto a winner with this one.
The outstanding success of Sheffield shows what can still be achieved by a well-supported local theatre with really strong artistic and executive leadership from the two Dans, Evans and Bates. And it is striking, too, that all of their successes were for ambitious new productions, not revivals or modest two-handers. As Daniel Evans told me after the awards: “What I’m most proud of is that they were all for new work, and having the breadth of that work acknowledged.”
Not that Sheffield is a theatre that is shy of the classics, either – it is currently giving its main house Crucible Theatre over to Shakespeare’s famously problematic The Winter’s Tale, and last Christmas produced an exhilaratingly fine production of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady (which was also nominated for the UK Theatre Award for best musical production). Evans has, meanwhile, just started rehearsals this week for Oliver! that he directing as this year’s Christmas musical at Sheffield.
While Sheffield, with nearly 2000 seats to fill every night, swept the boards, it was good to see recognition for another theatre on a completely different scale entirely: Exeter’s 60-seater Bike Shed Theatre was given the publicly voted award for most welcoming theatre. It’s not a theatre I’d even heard of before, still less been to, but it is at least on my radar now. I look forward to both welcoming it and being welcomed there!