Summer? What summer? Of course we’ve had press nights rained off at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park mid-performance (though I wasn’t there myself, fortunately); but nothing epitomises the dismal summer so far than the early July ruse of producer Howard Panter to treat critics to a pre-show fish and chips on the beach, beside the beautiful outdoor carousel, on the Brighton seafront before the opening this week of the new Theatre Royal Brighton Productions initiative — and to find us huddled on cold, wet metal chairs against the wind and damp.
Howard may be a deity of the West End and regional theatre — he and his wife and co-chief executive Rosemary Squire have been named the most powerful people in British theatre for the last three years running in The Stage 100’s annual survey — but he’s not quite God. Even he couldn’t fix the weather. But can he fix the problems of touring theatre with this project?
To Howard’s credit, he’s not a theatre owner simply sitting back and counting the rental income (not to mention booking fees and bar takings) that his stable of theatres generate, but proactively working to help fill them and build audiences with good product. As well as being our single biggest theatre owner, ATG is now becoming one of our most prolific commercial producers; it has long backed Sonia Friedman Productions, which is a wholly owned subsidiary, and is now arguably the most powerful transatlantic producer of plays there is.
But SFP is now just one of a stable of producers working under the ATG banner. They have also extended producing partnerships to Broadway director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell and producer Tali Pelman as well, while the parent company under Panter’s direction is also establishing Manchester as a major launch pad again with shows like All New People, Ghost the Musical and the imminent 9 to 5 - the Musical starting their lives there under their auspices. ATG are also co-producing the current season of Royal Court transfers to the Duke of York’s, and the recent UK tour of Monty Python’s Spamalot that will play a summer season later this month at the West End’s Pinter Theatre.
So there isn’t a busier producing company in Britain. Of course, it is not entirely selfless — as the UK’s biggest theatre owner, it also has the largest number of seats to fill every night, with 39 venues in its portfolio, either as owners or operators. This week’s launch of Theatre Royal Brighton Productions seeks to put this venerable touring venue — for too long at the mercy of the often indifferent product out there — back on the map in every sense. The journey from London on the fast train is just an hour, so it’s easy to get to.
And the city has its own long theatrical pedigree; many actors have based themselves here, from Laurence Olivier to its current leading adopted native son Neil Bartlett. I saw Bartlett most recently on the Theatre Royal stage in May presenting a gorgeous retrospective of his own work as part of the Brighton Festival, which I reviewed for The Stage, where I wrote, “Just like the Theatre Royal, Brighton, that he characterises here as ‘beautiful and battered’, Bartlett is himself more wizened now, but he’s still the wisest of them all in distilling personal experience into poetic polemic that speaks to everyone.”
Chris Luscombe’s own touring productions for the Theatre Royal Bath and ATG amongst others, have often played the Theatre Royal, and in a programme note for his inaugural production as the home company he tells Al Senter why it is one of his favourite venues. “It’s that combination of Shaftesbury Avenue and sea air. When you’re in the theatre, watching a show, it feels very metropolitan. Then you come out into the street and you can hear the seagulls and smell the ozone. And because so many actors and other theatre professionals live in Brighton and come to the Theatre Royal, you feel that it’s a sophisticated and a knowledgeable audience which contains a lot of pretty shrewd judges.”
Unfortunately one of those judges was me, and in my Stage review for his debut production at the helm of a resident company here of Pinero’s horse-racing comedy Dandy Dick, I wrote, “The first show out of the starting gate runs a losing race, unfortunately.” But it’s early days; next up is a major revival of Joe Penhall’s multiple award winning Blue/Orange, so things can only get better.