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Mark Shenton: It’s crucial for critics to get out of London and explore the riches of British theatre

Layton Williams and the company of Kiss Me, Kate at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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It is a critical duty – but also a rich personal pleasure – to get out of London. Living in the heart of the theatre bubble of London (and frequently New York), I know I need to stretch my wings, in every sense, and get out of those cities whenever I can.

Yes, the West End and Broadway are both centres of excellence (and occasionally crass, commercially driven pap, too) and act as a kind of showcase to the theatrical cultures of our two world centres of English-speaking theatre.

But it’s only a partial picture of the work being created across the two countries. The West End and Broadway may get the biggest headlines, the most press coverage and generate massive amounts of money for their backers (as well as substantial losses, too, when shows don’t work), but there are other worlds of theatrical endeavour that are more quietly developing the talents that will feed into that ecology, developing local audiences and giving a lot of pleasure on their own terms.

National newspaper coverage of regional theatre has diminished over the years – the Times and The Stage are now virtually alone in providing a consistent voice to regional theatre, though the Observer also publishes a single weekly regional theatre review by the well-travelled Clare Brennan. The Guardian reviews regional shows with a scattergun approach, distributing the patch with lower frequency than before among various critics, instead of the regular voice that used to be provided by Lyn Gardner.

Of course, I understand the editorial pressure: covering theatre around the UK is more expensive – travel and accommodation are involved, and the shows may be directly relevant only to a smaller cross-section of the paper’s readership than a London production that could run for months or even years and have a much larger potential audience.

But this week I bought my own rail ticket to travel to Sheffield to see its production of Kiss Me, Kate (which The Stage had already reviewed when it opened in December) and I couldn’t have been happier that I did. It has long been a favourite show of mine: who among those that love theatre couldn’t warm to this irresistible 1948 backstage musical about an out-of-town Baltimore staging of The Taming of the Shrew in which the company’s internal dramas mirror that of Shakespeare’s play?

Kiss Me, Kate review at Crucible Theatre, Sheffield – ‘energetic and vivacious’

Add Cole Porter’s swoon-inducing songs that include So in Love, Were Thine That Special Face and Where Is the Life That Late I Led, and it’s musical theatre heaven. But what was so thrilling about seeing it again in Sheffield was to see the astonishing cast they’d assembled, and the care and love poured into the show by director Paul Foster and the serial innovations of his choreographer Matt Flint.

Too Darn Hot, which opens Act II, exploded in a riot of energy and gigantic leaps that made it the most exhilarating version of this song I’ve ever seen staged, ferociously led by rising star Layton Williams (soon to take over the title role in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie). Dex Lee brought a heart-stopping agility to his performance as Bill/Lucentio, literally swinging from the top of the set at one point. And the vocal pyrotechnics of Rebecca Lock’s Lilli/Katherine and Edward Baker-Duly’s Fred/Petruchio virtually set the theatre ablaze.

This was classic musical theatre at its very finest, honoured with a production that would have been equally at home at the National Theatre (and I’d love to see it transfer there).

Regional theatre matters. And supporting it repays the effort.

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