Despite big funding cuts and several regime changes, regional theatres saw box office receipts rise. Sam Marlowe provides her top picks and hopes innovation and collaboration will develop in 2018
Regional box offices in general saw a welcome upsurge in 2017, but nowhere was celebrating quite like Hull. Crowned City of Culture – a title that passes to Coventry in 2018 – Hull benefited to the tune of £60 million in this year alone, and the rewards were artistic, too. The processional theatre event Land of Green Ginger spectacularly filled the streets with giant, magical creatures. Hull New Theatre reopened in September after a £16 million revamp; its first dramatic offering, aptly, was The Kings of Hull, a gritty love letter to the city by former Hull Truck artistic director John Godber.
Other theatrical highlights during 2017 included Maxine Peake’s haunting musical tribute to a local working-class heroine and her band of ‘Headscarf Revolutionaries’, The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca, presented in an absorbing, profoundly moving promenade production at the Guildhall, directed by Manchester Royal Exchange’s Sarah Frankcom; and Northern Broadsides’ Richard III, revived at Hull Truck by Hull-born Barrie Rutter, and starring an incendiary Mat Fraser. For Northern Broadsides, incidentally, this was also the year that marked the end of an era: Rutter, who founded the company 25 years ago, decided in July to step down as its leader after Arts Council England failed to increase its funding.
There was regime change elsewhere, too. At Nottingham Playhouse, Giles Croft departed last month after an 18-year tenure; successful productions under his artistic directorship included The Kite Runner and Rat Pack Confidential. He signed off with a well-received Cherry Orchard, leaving incoming theatre chief and Nottingham native Adam Penford to steer the Playhouse into the future.
Meanwhile, others were busy making their mark in new roles. At the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, artistic director Paul Robinson’s first summer season served up Jim Cartwright, Amelia Bullmore and, of course, Ayckbourn – old and new.
At Chichester, chief Daniel Evans enjoyed a cracking run. The musicals Fiddler on the Roof and Caroline, Or Change were both hits. Githa Sowerby’s rarely performed The Stepmother, directed by Richard Eyre, was a gripping revelation, while new plays by Deborah Bruce (in a Headlong co-production) and Edna O’Brien also proved popular. Blanche McIntyre’s characteristically intelligent revival of Acykbourn’s The Norman Conquests was admired, too, and Jonathan Munby directed Ian McKellen in a piercing King Lear.
Evans left big shoes to fill at Sheffield Theatres, where his replacement, Robert Hastie, took over. Hastie oversaw the opening and transfer of the hugely acclaimed new musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, now strutting its stuff in the West End. And his inaugural production was a powerful, stylish, 21st-century Julius Caesar with Samuel West – himself a former Sheffield AD – playing Brutus. Of Kith and Kin, a stimulating new drama about gay parenting by Chris Thompson, was co-produced with London’s Bush Theatre. Indications are that this is a leadership that will prove more than capable of building on Sheffield’s already impressive reputation.
Jonathan Church preceded Evans at Chichester. This year, he took over Bath Theatre Royal’s summer season, starting out with a solid programme of crowd pleasers, among them a pair of tried-and-tested popular dramas: Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van and David Hare’s Racing Demon. The season’s surprise critical hit, though, was an Australian adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.
There was something more audacious afoot in Liverpool. At the Everyman, artistic director Gemma Bodinetz and executive director Deborah Aydon reintroduced the theatre’s repertory company after 25 years, hiring 14 actors to perform five plays during six months. They were revitalising a history of rep at the theatre that in the 1970s saw the Everyman launch the careers of, among others, Julie Walters and Antony Sher. The experiment – which is ongoing, with 2018’s season now announced – yielded two stand-out shows: the opening production of Fiddler on the Roof and Manfred Karge’s Brechtian drama The Conquest of the South Pole. And the atmosphere of inclusivity and creative excitement in the theatre’s handsome, recently refurbished building was unmistakable. There’s little doubt that the Everyman is being whole-heartedly embraced by the Liverpool populace that it serves.
And, of course, theatres and companies also continued to work collaboratively to produce high-quality work in the teeth of savage cuts to local authority funding. English Touring Theatre, for example, worked with co-producers from Northampton to Leeds, Kingston to Coventry, Leicester to London. And Headlong took hit productions People, Places and Things and Labour of Love out of the West End and on the road. The National Theatre of Scotland and National Theatre Wales showed a robust, unremitting commitment to ambitious, boundary-busting theatre that explores new and unexpected spaces, and that speaks to the realities and concerns of its local audiences.
In a climate where every penny spent must be justified and fought for, no one would pretend that surviving in regional theatre is getting any easier. But in 2017, there was still plenty across the UK to provoke, excite and entertain.
Best and worst
BEST SHOW OF THE YEAR
This dark, dazzling Kneehigh adaptation of the sprawling Gunter Grass novel has haunted my dreams ever since I saw it: scary, seductive and thrilling.
WORST SHOW OF THE YEAR
Colin Blumenau’s stultifying touring production of this workaday stage version by Tim Luscombe was one of the less inspiring contributions to the Jane Austen celebrations in the year that marked the bicentenary of her death.