Gary Longden's view
The pace of reviewing is such that one year can blend into the next. But January provides the occasion to reflect back on the previous twelve months and reflect on a year of Midlands theatre.
The Midlands continues to be a hotbed of professional and amateur stage performance, with the latter just as strong as the former. Both camps face familiar, and similar, challenges. Auditoria need to be filled, bills paid, outgoings carefully managed, while giving the audience both what it wants, and what they think it wants.
The most artistically daring and risky productions can bankrupt companies, the most bland and familiar can save a company financially. Even an amateur musical theatre company, putting on a big show like Witches of Eastwick or the King and I at somewhere like the Lichfield Garrick, can find themselves risking the best part of £40,000, and that is with no payment to the cast, and a modest purse being paid to the Director, Musical Director, and then the musicians on the night. The rest goes on hall hire, costumes, royalties and publicity. Success often equates to only a few thousand pounds profit even with sell out audiences. Failure can mean losses in excess of £10,000, with the sceptre of personal liability hanging over Committee members.
I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting Opera Impresario Ellen Kent at Wolverhampton Grand a few years ago. “What are you doing in Wolverhampton on a cold February Tuesday night to see a show that you created and have seen dozens of times before?” I enquired. “To look at the audience” came the canny reply. It is good advice to any Theatre Artistic Director, or Amateur Company President.
Zizi Strallen as Mary Poppins
I saw my fair share of 70’s comedy in 2016, particularly Alan Ayckbourn. The period sexual paranoia and social angst of the genre is wearing thin. The audience is almost overwhelmingly over 65 years old. The young casts are looking increasingly uncomfortable performing the material. Its inevitable demise over the next decade or so will go unlamented by me.
By contrast I saw the Rocky Horror Show, also from the 1970’s, for the third time, this time at the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham and was shocked by the age of the audience, at least a third of whom were under the age of thirty. A production which has reinvented itself for a new generation.
A concern I have, pretty much across the board, is that in a multi-cultural area, the ethnic audience is either sorely under- represented, or entirely absent, at most shows. There are no easy answers, or quick fixes, but reaching out to this significant audience should be on the agenda for all artistic directors.
So, what were my highlights, and lowlights?
Best Pro Musical – Mary Poppins, Hippodrome, Birmingham. Big ticket prices were matched by big production values and a star in the eponymous lead, Zizi Strallen, who filled Julie Andrews’ shoes with ease. Mathew Bourne’s choreography was scintillating.
Best Amateur Musical – Hairspray, Lichfield Garrick, Sutton Coldfield Musical Theatre. Sally Baxter’s Direction was exemplary in one of the best feel-good productions I have seen. Production values were high, the cast jumped even higher.
Best Pro Play – The Damned United, Derby Theatre. A tour de force played as a home game in front of a partisan and loyal crowd. Vitally, it also brought in a significant number of people who never come to the theatre.
Best Amateur Play – Visitors, Sutton Arts Theatre. Barrie Aitchison is one of the finest directors in the Midlands. This powerful study of dementia stood head and shoulders above the rest.
Best First Run – Holding Baby, Birmingham Uni. A stunning, and original study of cross-generational parenting by Jan Watts.
Best Comedy – Jack and the Beanstalk, Sutton Arts. Husband and wife team Mr & Mrs Whitehead have cracked this Pantomime thing, villainous Chris Commander’s Crowfoot was superb.
Most Disappointing Show -Round and Round the Garden, Lichfield Garrick. A strong cast failed to breath life into this Ayckbourn offering, which had probably been dead for some time before they tried.
Best Amateur Musical Perfomer – Kitty Roberts, Hairspray, Lichfield Garrick
Best Pro Musical Performer – Kay Murphy, Rocky Horror, Alexandra Theatre Birmingham
Best Amateur Actor – Ashleigh Aston, Holding Baby, Birmigham University
Best Pro Actor – Andrew Lancel, Damned Utd, Derby Theatre
Honourable mentions should also go to Priscilla Queen of the Desert at Wolverhampton Grand, and Flare Path at Derby Theatre.
Another good year overall with Derby Theatre leading the way on professional productions, a testimony to the fine work of Artistic Director and CEO, Sarah Brigham, and Sutton Arts leading the way on amateur ones. But 2017 holds much further promise…