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

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped Commission £100k +: SThree: Trainee Recru...

Senior Automation Tester – Permanent – West Sussex – Circa £40k

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

KS2 Teacher Plymouth

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd...

KS1 and KS2 Primary NQT Job in Lancaster Area

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education is urgently...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Left: An illustration of the original Jim Crowe, played by TD Rice Right: A Couple dressed as Ray and Janay Rice  

The scariest thing about Halloween is seeing all the douchebags who think racial masquerade is okay

Michael Mark Cohen
Apple CEO Timothy Cook  

Tim Cook coming out as gay publicly for the first time matters to young men like me

Leigh Dowd
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes