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.

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?