Why are theatres doubling up on shows?

Aled Jones will star in White Christmas at the Dominion Theatre. Photo: Alastair Muir.
Aled Jones will star in White Christmas at the Dominion Theatre. Photo: Alastair Muir.
Mark writes regularly for The Stage, including reviews from London and the regions, features and, since 2005, a daily online column.
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There was a lot of talk about redistributing funding away from the capital in favour of the regions during the recent Arts Council funding round.

But though it did see funding restored to Derby Theatre and Exeter's Northcott (after they lost their grants last time around), the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds was entirely cut this time around. Elsewhere, Opera North got more money (up 6% to £10.4 million a year) but English National less (down 29% to £12.4million a year).

Talking of the latter, the Arts Council has stated: "In spite of the indisputably ambitious quality of work and the important role this company plays in developing talent, ENO has struggled to reach box office targets and to achieve long-term stability." I'm not sure exactly how this further cut will achieve that, but ENO have already announced a new business plan that includes creating a new wine bar and café in its foyer, in partnership with Benugo founder Ben Warner, at what are promised will "budget-friendly prices".

According to Warner: "In so many theatres you feel completely fleeced. We want to enhance the experience of visitors.” That's an admirable aim, and should also increase the footfall into the Coli – one of our most beautiful theatres – that could potentially increase visitor numbers at showtime, too.

But maybe they, and their main London competitor the Royal Opera, should be looking at repertoire, too. Does it really make sense that both houses are reviving existing productions of La Boheme this season? (At Covent Garden, John Copley's production plays this week, and returns next May; in St Martin's Lane, Jonathan Miller's staging will be on in October and November).

That would be another way for theatres to save money – to stop doubling up (especially as here, in the same city) or otherwise collaborating so that two (or more) theatres can share the same show. I recently interviewed John Stalker in these pages about Music & Lyrics, a producing partnership which a number of regional (mostly receiving) houses have joined to share product between them, and has already yielded a strike record of two out of three hit shows and will launch their 4th in the autumn.

I am also encouraged by the collaboration recently announced by Southampton's Nuffield Theatre and Northampton's Royal and Derngate to join forces on producing new Christmas shows for the two venues: Dougal Irvine, one of the brightest and best new composers around, and comedy writer Georgia Pritchett are writing a new version of The Snow Queen for Southampton this Christmas, while in Northampton Ella Hickson is writing Merlin for production this year before transferring to Southampton next year.

Southampton is also joining forces with another regional theatre, the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, to co-produce the world premiere of a stage adaptation of The Hudsucker Proxy that will play both houses.

On the other hand, I wonder at the necessity or wisdom of the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds staging new productions of both The Crucible and White Christmas this year – both of which are also on the London boards this year, at the Old Vic and Dominion respectively. Not that a Leeds audience will necessarily come to London to see them, but will London critics want to go to Leeds so soon after a London outing for both? I realise that producing shows for a local audience isn't about pleasing London critics, but while The Crucible is an acknowledged masterpiece and schools' set text that can justify revisiting an endless number of times, White Christmas has had prior commercial Christmas runs at other regional theatres and hardly needs the commitment of a subsidised house to put it on.

At a time when funding is coming under so much pressure, regional theatres need be more, not less, bold in their choices. And so, perhaps, does the Arts Council in where it allocates or redistributes its funding. As Lyn Gardner pointed out in The Guardian, "The shift geographically is a mere 2%, and in fact of the 58 arts organisations that were unsuccessful in their applications, 43 of them are from outside London."

There may have been some robbing of Peter to pay Paul in the process, but essentially, as Gardner pointed out, they were effectively trying "to protect the status quo and that means that buildings – particularly London buildings – continue to be funded over small organisations and the grassroots who will just have to hope that some money will trickle down to them. But in tough times buildings – and their boards – will always protect themselves rather than look to the future."

In choosing shows like White Christmas and The Crucible as their main in-house shows of the autumn, Leeds are looking to the past, never mind the present, to deliver them a couple of hopefully guaranteed hits.

3 Comments

  1. “but will London critics want to go to Leeds so soon after a London outing for both? I realise that producing shows for a local audience isn’t about pleasing London critics.”

    I am glad that someone has finally acknowledged that they are London critics who very occasionally venture outside of the M25 rather than “National” critics of which they all like to dub themselves. Perhaps if the publications that they write for hired more regional reviewers the distribution of reviews in the “national” London-centric press would show a better slice of the varied and exciting theatrical landscape outside of the M25.

    However this point also makes it look like you believe choices made by the artistic team should be based on what the Critics want to see, rather than what they believe their audiences want to see… a dangerous game to play methinks!?

  2. I couldn’t agree more with the idea of theatres doubling up – it’s a fantastic way to save money and still deliver the goods! The Lyric Theatre, Belfast doubled up with Perth Theatre last year for Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer – one of the best productions staged in Belfast last year. Most recently, the Lyric have teamed up with the Abbey in Dublin and the Soho in London in a co-production of Owen McCafferty’s new play ‘Death of a Salesman’. More of the same I say!

  3. Lets not kid ourselves here, especially when it comes down to Christmas. How many Cinderellas will an individual critic see this year? Local to me there were three venues showing different adaptations of Cinderella – did the regional press see them all and review each one on their merit? of course. The rules of probability are in favour of a show being produced both in London and in a Regional Venue. There are many reasons why shows don’t get reviewed – WYP for example is already at a disadvantage due to critics getting back to London late at night.

    The industry is seeing a rise in blog reviewers, and website reviews such as A Younger Theatre and the Public Reviews. I can see why, not only do they have a large family of reviewers eager to see shows, they also support our regional venues in getting their shows reviewed.

    Here’s a suggestion – why don’t the reviewers make a stand? why not focus on the regional venues 1st and London 2nd. After all you would have thought the majority of their readers sit outside of London anyway.

    Lets not make a dig at a local venue for doing something different – just because someone decided to stage it in London does not mean a regional production should be classed as 2nd best or would you rather they created yet another panto?

    Personally I would say a white Christmas is something new, rather than going for something traditional.

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