There have been excellent productions and outstanding performances. But I’d like to notice some of the theatres and Directors who maintain the energy of British theatre in difficult times.
Sam Walters took Richmond’s Orange Tree theatre from a lunchtime pub operation in 1979 to a purpose-built auditorium with a year-round repertory of full-length evening shows, making him a hard act to follow.
Harder when incoming Artistic Director Paul Miller was greeted last year by news the theatre’s Arts Council funding would be axed during the year’s programme he’d just announced.
Yet Miller, now on his second season, continues and refreshes the Orange Tree’s mix of new plays with rare revivals. His first season seemed to create its own classics with Deborah Bruce’s The Distance returning to Richmond – and visiting elsewhere – besides being produced in America.
Meanwhile, the theatre lighted on one of the most interesting new writing voices in Alastair McDowall, whose Pomona has reappeared from last autumn, at a larger theatre-in-the-round, the Royal Exchange in Manchester, the city where the action’s set.
It’s hard to believe Chichester’s Festival Theatre was on the brink of closure when Artistic Director Jonathan Church arrived in 2006 (he leaves for Sydney Theatre Company this year). It now has a positiveness going beyond the succession of individual successes, enlivening the atmosphere of Oaklands Park. Who’d have thought a 1,000+ seater would commit several weeks to not one, not two, but three plays by Anton Chekhov – not one, but two of them ones not a lot of people know about?
Among such glittering surprises, let’s not forget last year’s pop-up Theatre on the Fly. Excellent, intimate productions in a kind of log-cabin theatre. I particularly treasure the moment when an apple discarded by one character through the opened rear wall during Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills was leapt on enthusiastically by a passing dog.
No changes yet announced, but likely to be pending at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake. This must seem an idyllic place to run a theatre, and doubtless often is. Yet it doesn’t take much by way of cattle disease closing footpaths in an area popular with walkers, or flooding around a town reliant upon visitors to make for anxious nights.
Keswick’s had both in the decade and a half of its permanent theatre’s existence. But what’s remarkable about Ian Forrest’s regime over the period is the way TBTL has become part of the town’s culture, involved with many of the Festivals by which a culturally aware tourist town thrives – books, jazz, film and others help sustain and integrate a theatre that meanwhile has steadily developed its core summer season.
Alongside the comedy and mystery elements of the main-house, Forrest has given expression to narrative voices from local writers in the spring productions. And, vitally, identified an audience for more varied work in the Studio, remodelled and enlarged several years ago, now meeting keen, critical responses from audiences who clearly identify with the lakeside programme.