Michael Billington decries decline of regional theatre

Michael Billington. Photo: Daniel Farmer Michael Billington. Photo: Daniel Farmer
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Theatre critic Michael Billington has branded regional theatre “a shadow” of what it used to be.

He also said that venues outside of London were making “increasingly bland” production choices, blaming their shortcomings on a lack of funding.

Speaking at a Platform talk at the National Theatre, Billington said: “What worries me is the state of regional theatre, which is becoming… a shadow of what it was 20 or 30 years ago. It’s for reasons to do with finance, quite honestly. [There are] more and more co-productions going on at the regional theatres, more and more non in-house productions, and increasingly bland choices.”

The critic, who has reviewed theatre for The Guardian since 1971, named Sheffield Theatres and the Royal and Derngate in Northampton as exceptions to what he called the “worrying” state of theatre in the regions.

He added: “Almost no theatre now has any form of a company. So actors have lost that opportunity to grow and develop in regional theatre.”

Billington made his remarks while answering a question from an audience member, who asked him what he thought about the health of theatre today.

Concluding his response, he said: “It’s a difficult question, because the answer is so mixed and complicated. The theatre is brilliant in many ways, but I worry about grassroots and particularly regional theatre, and whether it will have the capacity to bring on the next generation of playwrights, actors and directors.”

He also warned that some theatremakers were sacrificing the quality of a play’s content by focusing on high production values.

He said: “We’re in an age where the sophistication of production – of sound, of light, of music – the things we see on stages are remarkable. Along with that, there may be a danger that we’re living in an age of heightened production values at the expense, sometimes, of the content of the play.”

Billington added: “A very esteemed director of my generation, whose name I won’t mention, said to me the other day ‘Michael, everything that happens now is a ‘show’, isn’t it?’. And there is something about that.”

The NT Platform event was to mark the release of Billington’s new book – The 101 Greatest Plays: From Antiquity to the Present – in which he names Jerusalem, King Charles III and The History Boys among the greatest plays ever written.