Save our regional theatre, because if you can’t tread these boards, the show’s over

It's the Government's responsibility to fund regional theatre; plus are Albanians the last Europeans about which TV producers can be rude?

Share
Related Topics

There’s been some histrionic weeping and wailing this week by leading lights of the British theatre. They’ve warned us that threatened cuts in the Government’s arts budget could have a “catastrophic” effect on regional playhouses. Others have warned that the decline in repertory theatre means that future generations probably won’t have any more Judi Denches or Michael Gambons to light up their lives. It’s a very sad and gloomy chorus. If it could all be reduced to a single gesture, it would be that of Sir Donald Wolfit, the greatest theatrical ham, clutching the velvet curtain for support, hand to brow in passionate exhaustion, as he took a curtain call at the end of King Lear.

There are, however, two different theatre models under discussion here. One is the semi-legendary “rep” theatre whose demise was mourned this week by Sir Ian McKellen. In its classic form it was a small-town theatre with a resident company which put on a different play every week, or possibly fortnight. The plays were often wildly eclectic, from elderly standards such as Charley’s Aunt to Molière comedies, and the cast tended to feature the same “juvenile leads” and “character actors”.

A showcase for veteran hamminess, ingénue breathlessness and occasional flashes of brilliance, it was where the young amateur started his or her thespian career, learnt to time a comic line or stand on stage without resembling an outfitter’s dummy. Every actor of a certain generation had stories about their time in rep – playing Malvolio one week and a police sergeant the next. Think of the cast of Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval and you have the template.

Sir Ian said that Britain couldn’t henceforth produce actors of the stature of Ms Dench because “the current generation of actors won’t develop into good middle-aged performers because they won’t have been able to live from their work”. But this is disingenuous. The old-fashioned one-play-a-week rep hardly exists any more. And the majority of young actors would rather wait for their big break amid the new multiple choices on television than in draughty digs in Warrington. One may regret the decline of old-style, back-of-the-hall-darling theatrical apprenticeship, but it’s foolish to pretend it's salvageable.

The fate of British regional theatre is a quite different matter. It is in trouble, and it must be saved from penury. One has only to look at last year’s budget cuts to feel alarm for the future: the Shared Experience theatre company at Oxford Playhouse lost all its funding; so did the excellent Exeter Northcott Theatre in Devon; so did the Riverside Studios, where I regularly watched plays in the 1980s. Even the sainted Almeida Theatre, home to a string of hit productions, had its money slashed by 39 per cent.

Not all the casualties were big names. Among them was the Northumberland Theatre company. It might not put on plays that transfer to the West End, as many regional theatres do, but the company travels to remote villages and unites local communities for a few evenings in performance and words, light and colour, and inspires them with wonder as only the arts can.

Danny Boyle says he was inspired to be involved in the arts by working as an usher in the Bolton Octagon. London teenagers of my generation, who seldom had the chance to frequent the West End, were bowled over by seeing Equus at the Wimbledon Theatre or the 7:84 agitprop company at the Battersea Arts Centre. Even when cinemas and TVs came to preoccupy our leisure hours, stage performance smacked us amidships just as Shakespeare and Webster would have smacked our ancestors.

The Government is keen, as always, to stress the importance of private sponsorship or philanthropy, to underwrite local productions without bothering the public purse. If, they argue, there are sufficient numbers of Medicis out there, the arts will survive. But philanthropy, as Nicholas Hytner has observed, tends to target the metropolis and go where public subsidy has led. Only 20 per cent of private funding helps the ambitious but cash-strapped companies of Durham or Coventry.

The responsibility for saving regional theatre should rest squarely with central government. If local councils are given less money to parcel out, and asked to decide for themselves where it should go, local theatres will inevitably suffer. Decisions about arts funding should be made at the hub. It really is up to the new Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, to ensure that the rich but fragile web of local theatres across this country does not get slashed by borough-council short-sightedness or allowed to die of neglect. Or that really will be something to chew the furniture about.

How come Albanians are such fair game?

I caught a preview of a new Channel 4 drama called The Fear, out next month. It concerns a Brighton gangster called Ritchie who finds his empire threatened by interlopers. They deal in girl-slave trafficking, drug-running and the like, and their methods are brutal; they include dismembering the limbs and gouging out the eyes of anyone who crosses them. They live in a prefabricated slum and are all hideous, vicious and murderous. And they’re Albanian.

Watching them wage battle in the streets and fields of East Sussex, I couldn't help wonder if these inoffensive, though incontrovertibly rustic, people are the last Europeans about which programme-makers can be casually rude. You can’t feature Turks, Greeks, Croatians, Armenians or Kazakhs in negative roles on TV shows today without incurring diplomatic wrath. But Albanians are fair game, it seems. Or is it because the producers assume they haven’t any televisions?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

 

Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Patrick Diamond
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam