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Lyn Gardner: Distinctive work made outside London is vital to theatre’s ecology

The Wardrobe Ensemble's Education, Education, Education at Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh. Photo: The Other Richard The Wardrobe Ensemble's Education, Education, Education has now transferred to London's Trafalgar Studios
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What does the play Education, Education, Education – currently at Trafalgar Studios – have in common with Touching the Void, set to open at the Duke of York’s later this year? And what is the connection between the musical The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ at the Ambassadors and Ned Bennett’s ground­breaking revival of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, which will follow Education, Education, Education into Trafalgar Studios?

The answer is that all of these shows started in the subsidised sector and in most cases outside London or from regional touring. I wish I had noticed this myself, but it was English Touring Theatre’s producer James Quaife and artistic director Richard Twyman who pointed it out to me.

ETT is behind Equus, which premiered at Theatre Royal Stratford East before touring to several major regional theatres, gathering fans along the way. It is a production that re­invents the 1973 play, giving it real substance and emotional ballast.

This is firm evidence, if anyone needed reminding, of how crucial regional theatre is to the British theatre ecology – how shows that have been supported and developed with and by regional theatres are colonising the cracks and corners of the West End. Indeed, the commercial sector would be looking a touch threadbare over the summer period if it were not for the subsidised sector.

Sweat has transferred from the Donmar to the Gielgud for a 50-performance run, The Son is going from the Kiln into The Duke of York’s, as is The Girl on the Train, which began at West Yorkshire Playhouse.

The Son review at Kiln Theatre, London – ‘tense and thrilling’

Often these shows are nimble and able to respond should the opportunity for a limited run arise. Then, of course, there are the long-runners bedded down in the West End such as Everyone’s Talking About Jamie and Matilda. The latter took years of development by the Royal Shakespeare Company and required the time and resources that no commercial producer would ever be able to provide.

In the West End, it sometimes feels no one is willing to open a new play or even a classic unless it is cast to the hilt with well-known actors. Without a big star name – or several – the odds are against the production. But what’s intriguing about this new clutch of shows heading into the West End is that none are built around celebrity names. Instead they are productions that have already proved themselves on the road, often in multiple cities with significantly different demographics.

As Twyman says, when ETT tours a show, it is always thinking hard about how an audience in Newcastle has a very different political and social reality than one in Bristol, and it has to be able to serve both. Having already proved that it can find an audience in different locations outside of London, the company is well placed to find a broad commercial audience in the capital.

Last time Equus was in the West End, in 2007, it starred Daniel Radcliffe fresh from Harry Potter duties. The new ETT production comprises, as Quaife puts it, a company of “absolute stars but no stars”. Although some of them may soon be.

As the commercial sector increasingly looks to marquee names to bolster box office and ensure immediate returns, it is left to the subsidised sector to develop shows over a longer period. I first saw Education, Education, Education at Edinburgh in 2017 and its route into Trafalgar Studios has been a circuitous one by way of the Royal and Derngate in Northampton and smaller-scale dates.

It is also worth noting that in an era of climate emergency, when we need to consider sustainability and longevity, we may need to think much harder about how shows can be built to have longer lives and meet more audiences in different places and contexts.

It’s great to see work made and cherished outside London being seen more widely, not least because we all know how fragile the local funding ecology is. It often feels that great work is being made in spite of, rather than because of, the continued inequalities of funding between London and the regions, the slashing of local authority investment in the arts and the way regional houses are increasingly responding to local needs and sharing resources more widely.

In the longer term, it seems likely that subsidised companies will look to make less work, but productions that potentially have a longer and more sustainable life and are seen by more people. That might lead some down the route of avoiding risk and making what they think are safer choices. But the commercial potential of shows such as Equus, Education, Education, Education and Touching the Void point to the fact that it is likely to be the distinctive work – even if it may not immediately seem commercial – that has the greatest possibilities.

Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner

Touching the Void review at Bristol Old Vic – ‘gripping, inventively staged survival story’

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