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Mark Shenton: There’s life beyond London transfers

Paul Nicholas, Wendi Peters, Sue Holderness and Jeff Rawle in Quartet at Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham. Photo: Antony Thompson Paul Nicholas, Wendi Peters, Sue Holderness and Jeff Rawle in Quartet at Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham. Photo: Antony Thompson
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Theatre actors like to appear in London (or at least those that live there do). It means being able to stay at home, agents and casting directors coming to see you, critics reviewing you (these days you are generally more likely to be reviewed at the Finborough or Bush than in Salisbury or Northampton) and being available, at the drop of a hat, for other auditions, meetings or radio voice-overs, so you can actually earn some extra money while you’re doing that theatre job.

So the holy grail of a London transfer is always what many actors who do regional work will hope for. Right now, the West End has two shows that originated at Bristol Old Vic – The Grinning Man and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (at Trafalgar Studios and Wyndham’s respectively, but both delayed their moves so were substantially re-cast for London) while Everybody’s Talking About Jamie began its life at Sheffield Crucible.

This week, Jubilee moved from Manchester’s Royal Exchange to Lyric Hammersmith and this weekend Pippin moves from Manchester’s Hope Mill to Southwark Playhouse. Coming up are two imminent transfers from last year’s Chichester season: Caroline, Or Change to Hampstead and James Graham’s Quiz to the West End’s Noel Coward, while David Haig’s Pressure (originally premiered at Chichester in 2014) finally makes it to London to open at the Park Theatre in April, following its current regional tour, of which more anon.

But is it only about the London transfer? For some shows, it is working the other way around: after its current Donmar Warehouse run, The York Realist will go to its ‘home’ territory at Sheffield’s Crucible.

While a London transfer will inevitably increase a venue’s profile and potentially earn it valuable ancillary income, the first duty of any theatre is to serve its own audience. 

At the same time, it’s hardly surprising that theatremakers look towards the capital – after all, that’s where the biggest part of the UK theatre audience is concentrated. A 2016 Arts Council analysis of theatre in England, which surveyed 2,173 organisations, found that London accounts for more than 50% of all attendances.

The same report found that “touring is a challenge, but networks and collaborations are increasing on all scales to address this”. While it identified a “super-venue touring circuit” for large-scale shows – with their correspondingly high box-office returns – it also noted a “dearth of attractive middle-scale touring”.

Instead of being about the transfer, perhaps this is the area to address: the need for regional theatres to invest in more collaborations that spread risk and bring more rewards to their audiences.

That’s the model behind Music and Lyrics Ltd, a consortium of regional touring theatres set up to stage musical tours. It is due to tour a new, reworked version of Leslie Bricusse’s Doctor Dolittle. Likewise, the Touring Consortium Theatre Company is taking plays on the road – including the aforementioned Pressure, now touring ahead of its transfer to London’s Park.

These are commercial initiatives born out of, and serving, subsidised theatres. But there are still purely commercial producers committed to touring, even if they, too, are finding new models for doing so.

Recently, veteran independent producer Mark Goucher took up his first ever full-time job to become chief executive at Cheltenham’s Everyman – which he has just used as the launch pad for his own tour of Ronald Harwood’s Quartet. As he told me recently: “We’ll be doing what I call ‘the Harvey Nichols tour’ – we kick off in Cheltenham, and also visit Brighton, Bath, Cambridge and more.”