Traditional seaside venues are this summer still pulling in the punters, confounding the prophets of doom, writes Mark Ritchie
Those assessing the general health of the summer seaside entertainment sector in recent years are sure to have discerned that the patient has been infused with a new vitality. The fact that so few recognised television names are boosting the box office at seaside venues has meant that the shows themselves have become the stars. Productions based around tribute themes, cover versions and dancing to contemporary hits, material reflecting dance crazes and comedy have taken over from the old end-of-the-pier-style of entertainment, where a well-known face would parade his or her talent, along with assorted supporting players.
To a large extent it is the UK holiday parks that are now flying the banner for the bespoke summer production show, but what about the seaside theatres? They are much reduced in number certainly, but close scrutiny reveals that rumours of their demise have been exaggerated.
Right across the country there are dozens of holiday resort theatres that welcome touring variety shows on a one or two night a week basis. However, the number of UK resorts that feature professional summer shows, set in theatre venues with six-nights-a-week programmes, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Those resorts are Scarborough, Cromer, and Gorleston on Sea on England’s east coast and Babbacombe in the south west. Of course, many resorts offer theatre shows, but not six nights per week.
Anyone paying a visit to the Fylde coast recently could not have failed to notice the investment in the once tired and crumbling wreck of a resort known as Blackpool.
New promenades, tram systems and general infrastructure are now in place. But have those staying longer than the odd day been venturing through theatre doors to see the shows? Those doing the summer deals and trying to attract the holidaying theatregoers are, in the main, the usual suspects. Trevor Chance and his Legends tribute show continues on the Central Pier, while on the North Pier nightly production shows from The Jersey Boys to High School Rocks are on offer.
The Grand Theatre is presenting an attractive mix, including Mick Miller’s comedy show and the Original Comedians Show. At the wonderfully refurbished Winter Gardens Opera House theatre, a host of one-nighters is augmented by regular appearances from Roy Chubby Brown, along with tribute show the Billy Fury years. At the Tower, the world famous circus will again be staged in the stunning Frank Matcham-built auditorium. The Globe theatre, which stands on Blackpool Pleasure Beach, is now a receiving house offering Dora the Explorer for the little ones, but attempting to attract conferences and exhibitions in the main.
Of all the Yorkshire resorts, Scarborough is the place with the most theatre news to report. The reopening of the Open Air Theatre is big news, after its £3.5 million refurbishment and a visit from the Queen. There is daytime entertainment for all the family with Gary T Davies, which takes care of the tots, but on assorted dates stars such as Dionne Warwick, Olly Murs, Russell Watson and John Barrowman are all set to visit. The Spa theatre in Scarborough boasts a six-night-a-week summer show, with the same cast performing in two separate productions during a season that stretches between May and September.
Starring this year are comedian Joey Howard and Spa leading light performer and director Linda Newport. In the Spa’s Royal Hall, there are concerts featuring the resident orchestra for fans of classical music. Up in the town, the Stephen Joseph Theatre is running some of Alan Ayckbourn’s ever popular work, while on the seafront, the threatened Futurist Theatre is a real giant of an auditorium. Attempting to fill as many of the 2,100-plus seats as possible this summer are Scarborough favourites Joe Longthorne, The Chuckle Brothers and Cannon and Ball.
In nearby Bridlington, the recently refurbished Spa theatre has a three-performance-a-week summer show featuring Yorkshire comedian Johnnie Casson and a cast of singers and dancers has been rebooked for another season, after Casson’s success at this venue last season. One-nighters from Jim Davidson, Freddie Starr and Dominic Kirwan also feature.
The area known colloquially as ‘Skegvegas’ takes in the resorts of Skegness, Mablethorpe and Chapel St Leonards. Acres and acres of caravan parks trade here, many supplying their own entertainment with on-park venues open most of the year in many cases. Most notably the Club Tropicana at Chapel St Leonards makes a compelling case for how high-class cabaret can be presented for the caravan folk. How do the theatres compete with such attractions? The Embassy Centre in Skegness has provided a real theatre variety success story over the last few years. Its location bang in the centre of the attractive Skegness promenade certainly helps, given the passing footfall trade.
Its selection of regular 2012 visitors includes Joe Pasquale, Cannon and Ball, Joe Longthorne and ace ventriloquist Paul Zerdin. The Pavilion theatre on Cromer Pier boasts an all-week summer show until mid- September starring magician Dain Cordean. Hunstanton’s homely Princess theatre is attracting the crowds with an assortment of tribute specials. Down the coast in Great Yarmouth, the Britannia Pier theatre has a regular summer line-up featuring comedy star Jethro and Paul Zerdin, while Jimmy Carr also pays a summer visit. The Pavilion Theatre in nearby Gorleston-on-Sea boasts a summer show with comedians Olly Day and Nigel ‘Boy’ Syer.
All of which is a shadow of what used play on the piers and promenades. But while the tribute and niche production shows continue to fill in the gaps left by the lack of TV faces, there is still much to venture out for at the seaside of an evening.
Today’s seaside show producers pursue younger trends to extend the appeal of modern variety and online marketing and astute observation of current trends is where it’s at. The holiday parks have taken much of the family trade and their show producers know what their audiences want. However, the seaside theatres must be in with at least a shout of survival, given the quality of the shows currently being enjoyed by families across the UK.