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
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis