Theatre in Yorkshire has been in rude health in 2018

It's been a good year for theatre around Yorkshire. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad looks at some key moments.

Kay Mellors Fat Friends the Musical.
Kay Mellors Fat Friends the Musical.

A slightly odd article for an odd week. Betwixtmas, I’ve heard it christened; the odd moment between the festivities of Christmas and the merriment of seeing in the new year.

Next week I’ll give you a flavour of the theatre offerings heading our way next year, but today I’m going to look back on a year of theatre in Yorkshire. To take the whole year in a couple of pages is impossible, so instead I’m going to pick out a few moments that I think were key in the story of Yorkshire Theatre 2018.

First of all, the closure and indeed death of the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I was asked to go in to the Playhouse back in June for an off-the-record chat with the people in charge of the theatre.

They wanted to sound me out about an announcement that was coming: that the theatre was going to revert to its original name of Leeds Playhouse. I warned the people at the theatre that I fully expected to receive phone calls at BBC Radio Leeds and see letters in the Yorkshire Post from people angry at the decision.

It’s the big regional theatre in 
West Yorkshire. Ditching the regional title might suggest to 
some that it is a theatre only for Leeds, not the wider area. The good folk at the Playhouse made the announcement, through the pages of The Yorkshire Post and elsewhere and, as predicted, the calls came in to the BBC and the letters to the YP. A surprising number were in support of the decision. The Playhouse bosses knew what they were doing.

The name change marks a rebirth, a new start. The building is currently closed for a major redevelopment, the results of which we will see in Autumn 2019. It continues to make work in its pop up theatre.

Something else the Leeds Playhouse has done that has been significant this year has been to have a rep company for the first time in over two decades. A rep, once the way the vast majority of regional theatres operated, is an ensemble of actors who play all the roles in plays through a season. Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre is one of the few that follows the tradition – more on that venue later. A rep is a wonderful thing and brings a real depth to the enjoyment the audience has when watching the plays that make up the season – watching actors who you feel you have come to know shift into different roles is fascinating.

While Leeds Playhouse’s rep had a lot of fanfare, there was another rep working slightly north of Leeds when Harrogate Theatre brought back a rep for the first time since the 1950s. The audience at this beautiful theatre were able to enjoy three plays, Boeing Boeing, Dial M For Murder and Noel Coward’s Private Lives all performed by the same cast of nine. Maybe it signals the return of the rep, an expensive business for a theatre, but a training ground that brought us some of the great classical stage actors of the past century.

Back in July Hull Truck, the theatre brilliantly led by Mark Babych, announced a ‘new inclusive casting policy’ which would ensure ‘each season of home-produced work will have an equal split of gender balances across all creative teams’. The theatre also announced it would increase the number of opportunities for BAME and disabled actors. It was an important announcement and the kind of bold thinking needed to ensure theatre itself remains relevant in the future.

In Scarborough I spent quite a lot of time watching Sir Alan Ayckbourn up close as I worked on a project with the master playwright. I was invited to the read through for Better off Dead, play number 82, and it was humbling to see how one of our greatest living playwrights is full of all the same insecurities we all have. His play was wonderful, not an Ayckbourn classic, but one that we will grow to love more over the years, I think: a story of an irascible author facing his own mortality in a darkly funny piece of work. The reason I focus on it as a highlight is because every new play by Sir Alan is one.

I would also point out Kay Mellor writing a musical version of Fat Friends, York Theatre Royal announcing that this is Berwick Kaler’s final curtain as the famous pantomime dame and Sheffield Crucible’s artistic director finding a real confidence and rhythm at the venue as significant moments of this year.

There is a final thought I want to mention which will continue to have an impact in the future that, while theatre-related, is not entirely theatrical. It is the work of Slung Low Theatre company. Based in a series of railway arches in Holbeck, South Leeds, they have spent this year pushing at the boundaries of what theatre is and means, with an arts college and a brand new home. This is a company we will look back on as having defined theatre.