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Mark Shenton: Why is Hope Mill taking more risks on musicals than Leicester Curve?

Hope Mill Theatre artistic directors Joseph Houston and Katy Lipson with executive director William Whelton at The Stage Awards. Photo: Alex Brenner
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Critics always need to get out more – specifically, out of London more. Here at The Stage we pride ourselves on doing so, as much as we possibly can; and this was demonstrated by the winners of The Stage Awards last Friday.

The Stage Awards 2018: winners in full

I was on the judging panel, and when Hope Mill Theatre co-founder William Whelton collected the venue’s award for fringe theatre of the year, he recalled that when they opened the space in Ancoats, Manchester, they wondered whether anyone would come, and pointed out how much of an effect my early reviews in The Stage had on the venue.

Visiting the Hope Mill was a no-brainer for me. It was offering a rare outing of Jason Robert Brown’s early masterwork Parade. The theatre gave me something I wanted to see and delivered it with thrilling conviction in this atmospheric, versatile space. And it then kept getting me to come back with the courage of its artistic programming, with equally rare regional revivals for Hair and Pippin, and UK professional premieres for American musicals Yank! and Little Women.

No theatre can or should programme just for individual critics; but when you find a theatre so closely aligned with your own tastes, it’s going to stay on your radar.

Another theatre that has long been at the forefront of producing musicals is Leicester’s Curve. But while Curve offered the UK premiere of Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’ 2005 masterpiece The Light in the Piazza in 2009, there have been few equally bold choices since.

Instead, its biggest recent successes have been providing the launch pad for UK tours of Hairspray, The Wedding Singer, Mary Poppins, Miss Saigon and Sunset Boulevard: commercial partnerships that are, of course, the lifeblood of many regional theatres nowadays, especially ones that produce musicals.

Sunset Boulevard review at Curve, Leicester – ‘Ria Jones owns the show’

It was to Curve that Harvey Weinstein first took his musical version of Finding Neverland in 2012, before firing the entire team and relaunching a new version on Broadway. An original musical version of Water Babies sank without trace after premiering there in 2014. A musical adaptation of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole 13¾ fared better – it brought a story set in Leicester back home in 2015, before being revised for a London production at the Menier Chocolate Factory last year.

Part of the function of a producing house is to provide room for shows to fail as much as to succeed – and to try new material.

But I have been disappointed by the obviousness of some of Curve’s recent programming choices: Grease (which just two months later embarked on a separate national tour), Scrooge and this year’s planned production of White Christmas. It will also be launching a new stage musical adaptation of the film An Officer and a Gentleman, but this will not have an original score, so some risk is being mitigated.

Curve should be programming more challenging fare along with crowd-pleasers (not that the two are mutually exclusive: look at Everybody’s Talking About Jamie in Sheffield). As a musical theatre enthusiast, I should be among the target audience, but Curve has sadly fallen off the list of theatres I look forward to visiting.

Hope Mill and Curve are operating at different scales and business models – both in terms of capacity (Hope Mill has 120-140 seats; Curve up to 1,200 a night) and funding levels (Curve receives £1.9 million Arts Council England funding a year as a national portfolio organisation; Hope Mill is self-funded).

One could say this gives Hope Mill more freedom, but equally Curve is funded to take risks, not play it safe with titles that are perceived to be popular. Public money comes with other responsibilities, including pushing artistic boundaries and expanding diversity.

According to chief executive Chris Stafford, writing in the last published annual report for 2016/17, Curve had some 350,000 visitors, selling just under 250,000 tickets. It produced or co-produced 11 productions across various genres. Artistic director Nikolai Foster has pointed out that these included Pink Sari Revolution, Ishy Din’s Wipers and Ravi Shankar’s opera Sukanya – “all world premieres and not obvious choices. They challenged us and our audiences,” Foster said on Twitter.

But they hardly occupied a big part of its schedule. Pink Sari Revolution ran for two and a half weeks at Curve in 2017, where it was co-produced with Coventry’s Belgrade and West Yorkshire Playhouse, where it also played; Wipers was a studio play, again co-produced with the Belgrade and Watford Palace, that ran in Leicester for a week and a half in 2016; and Sukanya played a single night in 2017.

I would love to support Curve in the same way I’ve supported Hope Mill. I’ll soon be in Leicester for a week for this year’s National Student Drama Festival. But, despite an influx of aspiring theatremakers from across the UK, the theatre is dark for all but the opening day, when it has a kids show and drag tribute act.

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