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Theatre: Playing to full houses by the seaside

In the week in which the Royal Shakespeare Company announced a pounds 1.6m deficit, Allen Saddler assesses the cost-effectiveness of the company's new Plymouth residency.

With less than two weeks to go of the RSC's first Plymouth residency, it's clear that the season has been an outstanding success. Ticket sales at the Theatre Royal are up on the same period last year, when the theatre was presenting what is known as "popular fare". Ninety per cent attendance figures are reported for studio shows in The Drum and at the custom-built new space created within the Pavilions leisure centre complex. Total audiences for the RSC residency to date number 39,000, mostly coming from the Plymouth region, but with a healthy 5 per cent coming from as far as Wolverhampton and even Stockholm.

Roughly one in 14 Plymouth citizens have seen an RSC performance this season - an amazing response from a low-wage, high-unemployment region with problems of geography and access. Theatre-going is not made easy in the South-west: when the curtain comes down, there is no public transport out of Plymouth. It is as if the City Fathers have closed the gates and called a 7.30pm curfew. And yet Plymouth boasts the best-attended regional theatre in the country.

The RSC's declared aim that nobody should be more than 45 minutes away from one of its productions is hardly feasible for people living in Penzance or Falmouth, and yet theatre-goers from the far West have driven the hundred miles. And enthusiasts from Barnstaple and Bideford have tacked across Exmoor and Dartmoor to get to the RSC.

It's perhaps all the more remarkable, given the short history of theatre in Plymouth. Twenty-one years ago, when the RSC began its Newcastle residency, there was no theatre in Plymouth - though there was a Plymouth Theatre Company, a shoestring operation (funded by the council and South West Arts) which performed in school halls, drill halls and other adhoc spaces. When the idea of building a new theatre was first mooted, it was fiercely resisted in the Council Chamber, and only received the nod by a whisker. A barrage of anti-theatre propaganda continued while the building took place.

Plymouth is no stranger to the Bard. The Theatre Royal opened in 1982 with Peter Dew's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream; it has played host to Michael Bogdanov's marathon Henrys (three plays in one day) and to a highly experimental Tempest by Anthony Quayle's Compass Theatre, with Sir Anthony as a world-weary Prospero. But it has not been immersed in the Bard, until now.

Of the RSC's offerings, The Merry Wives of Windsor, starring Leslie Phillips and Susannah York, has been the star attraction, with Much Ado and Hamlet following close behind. But there have also been 80 per cent audiences for Cymbeline, while other difficult plays such as Camino Real and Little Eyolf, in the new Pavilions theatre, have had healthy support. Audiences speak of the quality of Adrian Noble's production. "Turgid," said one of Ibsen's Little Eyolf, "but wonderfully executed."

For an Arts Council-funded theatre to be hosting the Arts Council-funded RSC is piling subsidy on subsidy. The top seat price in Plymouth is pounds 24 (it's pounds 30 in Newcastle). But, without the subsidy, the price would be nearly three times as high. Given that the RSC's Plymouth residency offers many in the South-west our only chance to see this "national" theatre at first hand, let's hope the company's deficit doesn't stop it coming back next year.