Now the whole of Britain's a stage

The provinces used to be an after-thought for London venues. But these days a West End run is just the start of it. Arifa Akbar reports on the boom in touring theatre

The Plymouth theatre-goers turned up despite the deluge of rain outside. For some it was their second or third visit. Others had driven from neighbouring towns to catch it while they could. Two and a half hours later, rapturous applause broke out across the auditorium as the cast of The Pitmen Painters took a bow.

For the past nine weeks, Lee Hall's acclaimed play of wartime miners-turned-artists has travelled to cities all over Britain, including Newcastle, Milton Keynes, Salford, Sheffield, Norwich and Cardiff, playing to packed houses.

The play, which became one of the most highly acclaimed serious plays in London with two sell-out seasons last year, returned triumphantly to the capital this week. The Pitmen Painters has proved such a success that producers are now in advanced talks to take it to Broadway.

A decade ago, the drama would probably never have made it to Plymouth. And even if it had, the original cast would undoubtedly have been jettisoned, forcing regional audiences to make do with second-string performers. Not so any more. Everywhere you look, there is evidence that the touring theatrical production is experiencing a revival.

The Pitmen Painters is part of a drive spearheaded by London's National Theatre to develop its touring arm, making new dramas available to audiences outside the capital. Since 2005, the theatre has increased its touring – 100 weeks of tours in 77 venues – with a particular focus on new writing and building working relationships with strong regional venues.

Some of the National's most star-studded productions – including Alan Bennett's The History Boys, Mike Leigh's Two Thousand Years, David Hare's Gethsemane, Mark Ravenhill's Citizenship and Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking – have all hit the road, many with much of the original cast.

Bennett's new play, The Habit of Art, will embark on an eight-week tour in 2010 while Nicholas Hytner's production of Hamlet, with Rory Kinnear in the title role, will see a UK tour the following year with Kinnear.

Regional venues, for their part, have been heavily redeveloped, undergoing a transformation from church-hall prefabs to sophisticated theatre spaces, which attract urbane audiences with an appetite for new writing and experimental theatre.

Examples include the new Lowry Theatre in Salford, the Curve in Leicester, the Nuffield in Southampton and two revamped theatres in Sheffield. A new venue was recently built in Aylesbury, and the building of the Rose Theatre in Kingston, Surrey, was championed by Dame Judi Dench and Peter Hall.

It has also been suggested that the recession is partly the cause, as it has encouraged collaboration and co-productions between London theatres and regional companies.

After their penultimate performance in Plymouth on Saturday night, the cast from The Pitmen Painters – most of whom trained at the Live Theatre in Newcastle in the 1980s and 1990s – reflected on this sea change. Michael Hodgson, who plays one of the five Ashington pit miners in the play, said it had brought "true diversity" to London.

The cast said the tour had elicited varying responses in the different regions. Dublin's audiences were quiet but gave enthused, standing ovations; Sheffield's audience was the most politicised, with former miners turning out to see the performance.

Andrew Speed, the National Theatre's company stage manager, who accompanied the actors on tour, said the state of regional theatres had been radically improved. "When I first started touring in 1985, some of them resembled urban scenes of devastation. Now I look at places like Sheffield and Cardiff and the regeneration is extraordinary. I've noticed huge changes in a lot of towns," he said.

Plymouth's Theatre Royal has a 1,300-seater auditorium and a more intimate space known as the "Drum" for the performance of new plays. It has forged links with London theatres including the Young Vic, the Barbican and the National.

Simon Stokes, the theatre's artistic director, said that when he arrived a decade ago he had resolved to introduce new writing to local audiences, even though he had been warned that they were not ready. He said: "When I started talking about using the Drum as a new play theatre, everyone told me it was ridiculous. They said: 'You can't have a Bush Theatre in Plymouth'. I didn't believe it.

"The first show was by Snoo Wilson, a weird surrealist. That was a co-production with Hampstead Theatre in London. I thought: 'Let's see what Plymouth will make of this'. It could have bombed, but I believe people respond to good writing, whether it is new or old."

A new three-way Theatre Royal production, Eurydice, is set to open in February before playing at the Young Vic. The Empire, a new play about Afghanistan, will be at the Royal Court before going to Plymouth.

Mr Stokes said there is a growing pool of talent emerging from regional venues. "There is a lot more talent in the regions than there used to be. There has been a change in regions – there is the development of sophistication on the governances of boards, and the redevelopment of cities such as Liverpool has also brought about greater sophistication," he said.

He added that there was an increasing "joining up" of London and regional theatres, but said he was unsure whether this was down to a "philosophical shift or economic necessity" caused by the recession. "London theatres are to some extent driven to save money in this climate, and are more likely to come to someone like us," Mr Stokes said.

Rachel Tackley, director of theatrical touring company ETT, said the firm's output had nearly doubled in the regions compared to the previous year. "There a demand for high-quality drama in the regions. Regional theatre is now a remarkably sexy thing to do. A lot of people are doing it. Audiences are bored of touring shows with Penelope Keith and Felicity Kendall starring in them yet again." she said. "Venues demand big names. It's not an audience of two men and a dog who might have heard of Shakespeare but still don't know of Ibsen. People want to see sets that don't wobble."

While regional theatres have held on to audience numbers despite the recession, in the same way as their West End counterparts – the Birmingham Rep, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Manchester's Royal Exchange have all exceeded last year's attendance figures – there is still some concern about their future as producers of new drama.

According to Sheena Wrigley, joint chief executive of the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, fewer new works are being commissioned. The theatre has trimmed its spending, as has the Royal Exchange in Manchester, with a freeze on staff salaries. Even Plymouth's Theatre Royal is planning redundancies in the new year.

Audience figures might make pleasant reading now, but Ms Wrigley said the burn may well be felt in the next few years. "We've cut the budget areas such as research, development and commissioning. It's not about box-office figures now, but the underpinning work that has to be done to keep that success going. Commissioning has been completely chopped this year."

Capital exports: Plays coming to a theatre near you...

The Habit of Art (National Theatre)

The highly acclaimed Alan Bennett play is due to go on tour around Britain with its original cast next autumn. Dates and locations are yet to be confirmed.

The 39 Steps (The Criterion Theatre)

Last year's Tony award-winning play is going on a regional tour to venues including Cambridge Arts Theatre, Connaught Theatre in Worthing, Hall for Cornwall in Truro, Alhambra Theatre in Bradford, Regent Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent and the Lighthouse in Poole.

Three Sisters (The Lyric Hammersmith)

Chekhov's classic play is due to open at the Lyric in January. The cast will then take it on a regional tour to theatres including Warwick Arts Centre, The Quays in Lowry, Oxford Playhouse, Royal & Derngate in Northampton and the Traverse in Edinburgh.

The Forest (Young Vic)

This production for young children is on at the Young Vic throughout December. It will then move on to Dance City in Newcastle, Lincoln Performing Arts Centre, Brighton Dome, Corn Exchange in Newbury and Opera North in Leeds.

The Catastrophe Trilogy (The Barbican)

This trilogy is due to open at the Barbican in March and will then move to theatres in Huddersfield, Eastleigh and Aberystwyth.

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