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Mark Shenton: Ian McKellen’s tour is a statement of intent for regional theatre

Ian McKellen's latest show is touring to 80 theatres across the UK. Photo: Oliver Rosser/Feast Creative
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Ian McKellen, who has recently completed a West End run in the titanic role of King Lear and is approaching his 80th birthday, isn’t giving up just yet. Last week he announced that, to celebrate that milestone he will be visiting 80 theatres across the UK with a new solo show, with all profits at each stop supporting local initiatives.

Dominic Cavendish, theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph, observed: “Great to see McKellen playing Above the Stag, Wigan Little Theatre and Questors, Ealing, as part of his tour – affirming support for LGBT fringe theatre, regional and amateur theatre as he goes.”

McKellen said: “Live theatre has always been thrilling to me, as an actor and in the audience. Growing up in Lancashire, I was grateful to those companies who toured beyond London and I’ve always enjoyed repaying that debt by touring up and down the country.”

His tour is an important statement of intent by a veteran actor showing us where he came from – and paying back his debt to it.

Not all actors do this. Some prefer to stay close to the home comforts of London rather than take to the road. But old-school actors still recognise their responsibility. When I interviewed David Suchet for The Stage in 2015, he said: “That’s what we were born to do – to go around and be travelling players… It is imperative that any actor who has any profile at all must embrace the tour and go out to meet the people who love him or her and want to show their appreciation. If they don’t, they shouldn’t be there.”

We are heading into testing times for regional theatre in the UK. Both attendance and revenue fell among UK Theatre’s member venues last year. This occurred despite a 2.9% rise in the total number of performances, meaning the average attendance per performance dropped from 445 to 424, with average ticket prices also rising by 1.5% over the period to £25.08. So fewer tickets are being sold for more money – and making less overall.

Major industry figures sense an impending problem. At the Theatres Trust Conference, held at the Lyric Hammersmith last month, Cameron Mackintosh said: “I firmly believe that if a lot more money was put into half a dozen [regional] centres across the country, and if the actors and creatives were prepared to go there, that’s how we’d ensure British theatre remains extraordinary for the next 100 years.”

Mackintosh pointed out that his own career was nurtured and developed in the regions: “I would not have a career if I hadn’t started off in subsidised theatre – Bristol Old Vic, Leicester as it was, Birmingham Rep and places like that. That’s where we all started. That’s where we learned our craft.”

It is not just actors, creative talents and nascent producers who are developed; regional theatre also provides lively community hubs for audiences. That delicate ecology, which contributes to Britain’s amazing success as a global exporter of theatre, is also threatened by the fact that the oxygen of publicity for regional theatre is being systematically starved by the diminishing resources that national newspapers now devote to it.

This is not a new phenomenon: back in 2012, Lyn Gardner wrote in the Guardian: “One of the best plays I saw last year was Lungs, an off-kilter love story by Duncan Macmillan. Did Macmillan’s play appear in the best-of-year round-ups? No, but that’s hardly surprising because no other national critic reviewed it. Why? Almost certainly because it premiered in Sheffield rather than at the Royal Court or the Bush in London.” As if to prove this fact, I ended up seeing Lungs when it appeared as part of a tour at Shoreditch Town Hall in London. Lyn was right – it was exceptional.

This is a problem that isn’t confined to the UK: in Los Angeles, the artistic directors of three of its leading theatres wrote about the loss of critical outlets in their community: “It may seem somewhat ironic that leaders of arts institutions would come out in favour of further criticism. It would be like fire hydrants getting together to come out in favour of more dogs. But, as artistic leaders who run three of the larger theatre organisations in Los Angeles, we’ve recently become worried… We depend on the voices of critics and arts reporters to help create a conversation with our community. If we let these voices slowly and quietly disappear, the consequences are simple and inevitable: fewer people will know about the productions, fewer people will purchase tickets and, eventually, fewer theaters will exist.”

Regional artists, audiences and critics are part of the same interdependent cycle of creation and support. We can’t afford to imperil any of them. And just as it is important that critics maintain their commitment to regional theatre, it is equally crucial that stars like McKellen do too.

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