Richard Jordan: Indoor and outdoor performance is bringing hope to the UK’s coastal towns

Philip Hoare at the Torbay Museum, from where The Tale starts. Photo: Paul Blakemore Philip Hoare at the Torbay Museum, from where The Tale starts. Photo: Paul Blakemore
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The writer Philip Hoare describes Torquay as “a place about appearance and disappearance, changing to suit the times and its visitors”.

He could be talking about many other UK coastal towns that were once top holiday destinations, where the biggest stars of light entertainment and variety would headline their summer seasons.

Today these towns often get described as “having seen better days” but that would unfairly dismiss them.

Earlier this month, the Social Market Foundation reported that the economic gap between coastal and non-coastal places had grown, with many overlooked by policy-makers. Spend time in any of these towns and you’ll see they have not given up the fight even though they are tackling significant challenges.

In a recent issue of The Stage, Amber Massie-Blomfield highlighted an example of how art is playing an important role in reinvigorating the coastal towns and bringing local communities together. She went to Torbay to experience the arts festival the Tale.

Created by Bristol-based public art company Situations, it uses Hoare’s writing to create a thrilling journey of cultural collision. It does this through a series of works and encounters made and delivered with local participation by individuals of all ages and demographics from across the region.

There is an obvious enjoyment and real sense of local pride that the project has brought the area with the communities getting involved as participants and audience members.

If the Tale is to leave a legacy, then it must be one where the community itself has been empowered to take ownership of its culture.

That’s similar to the foundation currently being laid in the coastal town of Morecambe. Listed in the UK’s top 10% most deprived communities, the town hosted a new fringe festival earlier this month.

These towns’ cultural future and well-being rests in what the community itself recognises and identifies as its own cultural beacons.

An event like the Tale, along with its multiple pop-up performance locations – whether that’s a shopfront turned into a theatre space, a quarry with a sound installation, a transformed swimming pool for a performance piece, or simply the paths and roads walked along as part of its immersive journey – afterwards afford a cultural connection and enduring memories for participants.

But memories can fade. Most would consider a theatre as the cultural landmark of a town or city for the community living there. It often provides a warm familiarity and is placed alongside the town’s other main landmarks with a sense of local pride – even if the local themselves visit infrequently.
The impression that a theatre’s appearance conveys to its community can also reflect an overall attitude and statement about the general state of its town – rightly or wrongly.

In the case of Torquay, it’s the Princess Theatre on the promenade. Although not short of recognisable names from Ken Dodd and Elaine Paige to Rob Brydon playing its stage, the first impression from the theatre building was not great.

Over the five days I recently spent in Torquay, audiences were greeted at the main entrance of the Princess Theatre with peeling posters that had not even been stuck up straight.

It’s such a simple thing to get right, but as a result, wrongly gave a first impression that there was no longer a sense of pride or care. That’s to do a great disservice to the warm welcome that awaits its patrons once inside the theatre’s front door.

Maybe more than any other landmark in a town, locals and visitors all look to what’s going on at its theatre, especially when walking past it.

By its very nature, any theatre building holds an association with emotion. If you are local and have grown up in that town, then the theatre, with its warm winking canopy lights, brings a comforting familiarity.

The community expects those buildings will always be there, but that is not always the case as was seen in the recent closure and scheduled demolition of Scarborough’s historic Futurist Theatre.

A venue may be closed for many reasons. But in areas affected by economic hardship, it can make a striking and depressing statement, as the boarded up Torquay Pavilion a few yards along from the Princess Theatre shows.

Hoare may describe such an image as a “site of lost memory”. But taking his rejuvenating journey of the Tale – and hearing the news of a new fringe festival in Morecambe – it is clear that among the challenges many coastal towns face that art can link across communities – that at the end of the evening there is still hope.