Why are theatres doubling up on shows?

Aled Jones will star in White Christmas at the Dominion Theatre. Photo: Alastair Muir.
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including 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.