Threatened regional theatres given lifeline by Smith's £100m boost

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The Independent Culture

The Secretary of State for Culture's £100m three-year boost to the arts may not be enough to save many regional theatres, according to theatre and acting organisations.

The Secretary of State for Culture's £100m three-year boost to the arts may not be enough to save many regional theatres, according to theatre and acting organisations.

Chris Smith this week announced the new funding for the arts budget, with an emphasis on helping regional theatres and setting up 12 creative partnerships between children and top cultural organisations.

Gerrard Robinson, chairman of the Arts Council, who used his New Statesman Lecture last month to call for an urgent cash injection to arrest the decline of regional theatre, described the announcement a "step change in support for the arts".

The additional money - rising from an extra £15m next year to £60m in 2002-3 and £100m a year in 2003-4 - will be a lifeline for regional theatres which have been running on a shoestring. But some organisations claimed yesterday that it was "too little, too late" and said many theatres would still suffer.

A spokesman for the actors union, Equity, said: "We've still got 18 months to go even before the first new money kicks in. How can theatres survive that long?"

Ian McGarry, general secretary of the union, said it was seeking "urgent meetings" with the Arts Council to address a number of concerns: that the money was not as much as Mr Robinson had said was needed; that the increase did not begin soon enough; and that not enough money had been earmarked for regional theatre.

Ludo Keston, general manager of the New Victoria Theatre in Newcastle-Under-Lyme, Staffordshire, which spent the last two years attempting to "trade" its way out of a £200,000 debt, said there was "still a huge amount of uncertainty".

"There are services that we would like to be offering to the community that we just can't," he said. The future of the theatre's programme working with young offenders and those with learning difficulties was unclear.

His cautious tone is understandable. Regional theatre is in crisis, caused by years of underfunding. In the past months theatres in Ipswich, Greenwich, Farnham and Leatherhead have closed because of lack of cash. And the acclaimed Octagon Theatre in Bolton is open only for limited periods. The Sheffield Crucible and the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds have also experienced difficulties.

But it is not just regional theatre that is suffering. The Government was yesterday accused of neglecting the arts in the West End of London. Stephen Daldry, former artistic director of the Royal Court and a director of the Old Vic theatre, said: "This Government simply does not seem to be interested in the arts in London."

A recent report from the Arts Council said that the 50 English Regional Producing Theatres, which include such successful operations such as the Almeida in Islington and Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden, had a gross accumulated deficit at March last year of £4.4m.

Earlier this month some of theatre's biggest names warned the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, of "crisis". Dame Judi Dench, Sir Michael Gambon, Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Derek Jacobi, Alan Rickman and Prunella Scales signed a letter saying "quality of productions in our regional theatres is seriously threatened".