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Richard Jordan: London theatre must connect with the rest of the country

John Godber and Jane Thornton in Scary Bikers. Photo: Antony Robling John Godber and Jane Thornton in Scary Bikers. Photo: Antony Robling
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In the run-up to 29 March – the original date scheduled for the UK to leave Europe – I wrote about being left disappointed by the UK theatre’s response to its imminent departure.

Therefore, last week, I was pleased to find myself sitting in the shadow of Westminster at Trafalgar Studios 2 watching Scary Bikers, a new play by John Godber which transferred from Theatre Royal Wakefield – where Godber’s company is based – and looks to tell a human story behind the 51.9% vote to leave Europe.

Godber’s play reflects a divided country and the unlikely friendship between a Leaver and a Remainer cemented on a cycling holiday through Europe, which begins on the day of the referendum.

Cynics might be quick to dismiss its plot-line as sounding old-fashioned, a meat-and-two-veg sort of a play. Any such attitudes could stem from a perception caused by the fact that Godber – like a clutch of other older writers – somehow seem to have been mostly written off by today’s London theatre industry.

It’s been several years since a Godber play was in the West End, making it easy to forget how many of them enjoyed long and credible runs. These included April in Paris, Teechers, Bouncers, Up ‘n’ Under and On the Piste.

Unfortunately for Godber, each new play he writes is often compared to his seminal work Bouncers, 35 years ago. This illustrates the power of that piece, but must also be frustrating, as he has written several successful and socially important works since.

London tends to wake up when there is a regional hit and then assume credit for it when it transfers

Writers such as Godber, Alan Ayckbourn, and Jim Cartwright may have seen their names vanish from West End marquees in recent years, but outside of London, their continued popularity remains impressive.

Ayckbourn will premiere his new play – his 83rd – Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre this summer, which will keep their box-office tills ringing. In 2015, Cartwright’s powerful new play Raz, exploring male culture and mental health through an endemic cycle of uppers and downers, received considerable regional success followed by a short London run at Trafalgar Studios 2.

In September, Godber directs a revival of his Olivier award-winning comedy, Up ‘n’ Under for 14 performances at Hull’s 1,159-seat New Theatre. Its programming, without star names, makes a strong statement about the confidence that the venue holds both in its writer and the play.

In recent years, when I have seen Godber’s work performed, I have been struck by the difference of experience between those performed in London and outside – not because of the performances but the audiences.

In London, it felt like the audience was watching with detachment. But seeing his more recent plays such as The Debt Collectors and Poles Apart performed regionally, I felt a stronger sense of audience engagement and connection to the characters and the writing.

This is achieved by the consistency of a writer’s output and by theatres programming the work that retains familiarity and focus. Regional audiences clearly feel invested in the journey of a writer who has stayed committed to premiering their work in these communities.

It is essential that the next generation of up-and-coming playwrights with a commitment to the regions – such as Luke Barnes, Charlotte Josephine, James Meteyard, Robert Farquhar, Maimuna Memon, Jon Brittain, Christopher York and Elliot Warren – are supported by the industry and given similar opportunities to their predecessors, across a range of stages that, in turn, establishes them over the widest communities.

The spotlight, and coverage, has frequently shone on London’s theatre scene and is not representative of the country. The skill of many established writers who are working and premiering their plays outside of the capital, and the lessons to be learned from them, is how they connect with audiences who may not see themselves as theatregoers or even like theatre.

It’s why Godber’s perceptive new play feels one of the most honest presentations of the Brexit crisis and will be bitingly relevant for many audiences up and down the country. They will recognise and connect with its characters and issues.

London tends to wake up when there is a regional hit and then assume credit for it when it transfers. But outside of this, it can be woefully disconnected with what is happening in swathes of the theatre industry.

Cuts to arts coverage often means less is reported about what is happening on stages around the country. Therefore, like Brexit, division has built up over time, and it has left some parts of the regional theatre industry feeling neglected for far too long.

Scary Bikers review at Trafalgar Studios, London – ‘refreshing Brexit comedy’

Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan

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