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Regional Theatre Isn't Dead

Updated: Dec 3, 2018

A visit to Bristol

I've been to Bristol a couple of times in the last week and I marvel at what is on offer to theatre-goers in that city.

Tobacco Factory
Tobacco Factory

On one evening last week, I attended a board meeting at Tobacco Factory Theatres and saw the new 84-seat space, the Spielman Theatre with its retractable seating and availability for use in the same day by youth groups and visiting professional companies. It's a black box but it has windows onto the street that let in daylight and excellent air circulation as well as being equipped for use as a cinema. This little gem is just along the corridor from the main in-the-round space which seats 250 -- and the spacious and convivial bar area.

It's made the Tobacco Factory Theatre a very attractive place to visit as well as to work – as a board member for the last two years, I am amazed at the rapid changes that have happened to the place since Mike Tweddle took over at Artistic Director. Much had been set in motion by Ali Robertson and Lauren Scholey before him, but it’s a transformation nonetheless.

I got a cab down to the newly re-opened Bristol Old Vic at the end of the Board Meeting and I was just in time for the 8pm performance of CLYBOURNE PARK by Bruce Norris, performed by the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. I last saw this play with Sophie Thompson and Martin Freeman at The Royal Court in 2009. I loved it then and that was before I’d actually read the 1958 play on which it is based, A RAISIN IN THE SUN by Lorraine Hansberry. Now I know the original well, I was especially keen to see the sequel again. The students were outstanding, especially in the hilariously satiric second half. This is simply the best production that I’ve ever seen by the Theatre School – it was directed by the Principal, Jenny Stephens.

Bristol Old Vic Frontage
Bristol Old Vic

I worked at Bristol Old Vic from 2010 for three years and this was my first visit to the new Weston Studio. I sat with the Artistic Director, Tom Morris, and this was also the first play that he’d watched in the new Studio. The changes that have happened to this building in the last few years are breath-taking. The new reception area is a vast open space with a long bar and numerous tables, benches and chairs - open from breakfast to closing time every day. It is like a great informal salon for anyone to meet; artists, actors, writers, audience members, even people who never go to the theatre but long for a day-time space as genial and beautiful as this. The bare brick walls are massive and stunning. The architects behind the restoration are Haworth Tompkins, the people who designed the new Young Vic, amongst most of the other restored iconic theatre buildings in Britain.

It is fair to say that this very same building looked depressed, gloomy and tired when Tom Morris and Emma Stenning took it over 9 years ago. Tom and Emma have completely transformed the entire buildings – the main auditorium is completely refurbished, they have superb rehearsal spaces and a technologically innovative Heritage Programme.

At a time when regional theatre is under such threat, Bristol, for so long inactive in comparison to other cities like Glasgow, Leeds, Newcastle and Manchester, has finally caught up and looks to become a magnet to visitors from home and abroad.

And what it must be like to be a resident theatre-goer in Bristol now…so much to see, such great spaces to watch plays in. And that is not to mention the other arts venues in the city like Colston Hall, the Arnolfini and St George’s that are also in the course of major renewal.

I hope very much that Arts Council England and local government recognize the incredible achievements of the individuals who have led this comprehensive renaissance in Bristol and will continue to fund their activities.

I will continue to visit Bristol regularly – and I hope that these great spaces will inspire great work.

John Retallack



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