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Regional Theatre

Volume 604: debated on Tuesday 5 January 2016

[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered regional theatre.

When we think of theatre in this country, many minds inevitably turn to one place: the west end. With its big musicals, high production values and ability to attract all-star casts, the London theatre scene dominates perceptions of British theatre, but we too often forget the importance of regional theatre to British cultural life. Although regional theatre has a broad definition, it is generally used to refer to theatre outside of the London heartland.

I called this debate for two reasons: to celebrate the success of Britain’s regional theatres and to raise awareness of the challenges to their long-term viability. The west end is often the showcase of our best theatre, but it does not exist in a vacuum; it exists because it is fed and sustained by the talent of regional theatres across the country. Regional theatre is the grassroots of the theatre system in this country, but critically it is also the home of excellent theatre in its own right. Innovative, challenging and thrilling theatre is being created to an exceptionally high standard, rivalling any nation in the world. Regional theatre is not and never should be second best. Yes, some of the work created regionally will transfer to London or the global stage, but there is so much collaboration happening between regional centres of excellence, from one region to another.

Regional theatre is so often where the careers of some of our best British actors and actresses begin and where some of our most innovative plays and productions start their lives. Sir Ian McKellen’s acting career began at the Bolton little theatre. Sir Antony Sher took his first acting steps at the Frinton summer theatre. Jonathan Pryce started his career at Liverpool’s Everyman theatre and Sheila Hancock began her work as an actress at the Kings theatre in Southsea and the New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth in the 1950s. Those actors and actresses are not only national treasures—a much overused phrase—but also reflect some of the many cultural exports shaping perceptions of British culture overseas. Indeed, Hugh Bonneville of “Downton Abbey”, “W1A” and “Paddington” fame took part in six productions at Colchester’s Mercury theatre in 1988 and 1989, long before he was a household name. The stint took him to roles as diverse as Petruchio in “The Taming of the Shrew” and the pantomime dame in “Dick Whittington” at Christmas. All great careers have to start somewhere.

Regional theatre is also the incubator of some of our best new plays and original productions. Some very successful new plays in recent years have started life in our regional theatres. The play “ENRON”, which is about the Enron scandal, started life at the Chichester Festival theatre in 2009 before being moved up to bigger venues in London, as did the recent smash hit “Gypsy”, which was filmed for TV this Christmas. “On the Shore of the Wide World”, a play about three generations of a Stockport family by Mancunian playwright Simon Stephens, opened at the Manchester Royal Exchange in 2006 before transferring to London’s National Theatre.

I understand that much of our regional theatre is not self-financing. It relies on subsidy from the Arts Council and local government to ensure its year-to-year viability. In Colchester, the Mercury theatre’s income is 30% grant income, with the other 70% earned, but as the previous director of the theatre, Dee Evans—she held the role for 14 years—once said:

“If you invest in the work and it’s good, people will come”.

Public subsidy helps sustain many of the great productions that our regional theatres put on. The Mercury recently underwent a £580,000 refurbishment, with £400,000 provided by the Arts Council. The funding refurbished the studio theatre, increased capacity to more than 580, improved disabled access and installed better soundproofing. It was the biggest investment in the theatre since its opening in 1972. The funding will help open up the theatre to more school and community groups and ensure that even more people can enjoy and participate in quality theatre locally.

My hon. Friend just mentioned the New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth, which also completed a major extension and refurbishment last year, supported by bodies including the Parity Trust, Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund. Its key partner is the University of Portsmouth, which is now sharing part of the site. Does he agree that that kind of collaboration between theatre and education is a great way to safeguard the future of our theatres?

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. Regional theatres are the very best at collaboration, at working with local partners and, in particular, at getting young people involved in arts and culture locally, so I totally agree with her.

It was a great pleasure to be invited to speak on the stage at the opening of the studio. I am unlikely to make the west end after that performance, but I have instead fortunately found a calling in Westminster. They do say that politics is show business for ugly people.

No, my hon. Friend does not need to intervene. It is very kind of her. The thought is there.

Investment in our regional theatre is not just a sunk cost; it has real economic benefit in our towns and cities. The latest research from the Mercury theatre shows that every £1 of grant aid that the theatre receives generates £3 locally in Colchester. The economic impact of the Mercury theatre on our local area was £3.6 million —a not insignificant sum.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. In my constituency we have Buxton opera house, which is fabulous and well worthy of a visit by any Member. We also have the Buxton festival, which is an opera and literary festival that was graced by the Prime Minister a few years ago. The benefit that the theatre brings to the local economy is huge. It is not just the people coming to see the productions, but the people coming to see the theatre and the whole cultural aspect on offer in the High Peak. That is another benefit that regional theatres bring to rural communities such as mine.

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point about a trend that can be seen nationally. Recent research for the Arts Council in August showed that theatre subsidy helps support more than £2.2 billion of private sector activity. Although theatres are becoming better at sourcing their own moneys—regularly funded theatres are now earning 62% of their total income, which is six percentage points more than four years ago—the report said that very few regional venues could justify a claim to be profitable were all subsidies removed.

Investment in our theatres not only has a strong economic impact, but is critical to the health of the acting professions and the creative arts. Research from 2013 on the effect of publicly funded arts on creative industries found that 62% of those working in subsidised theatre believed working in the sector to be highly important to a successful career in theatre. Respondents were more likely to say that publicly funded theatre gave greater opportunities for presenting challenging work and new work and for providing sufficient time to experiment than big commercial theatre.

I have two major theatres in my constituency, and the Kings theatre is running a course on stage pyrotechnics this weekend. It is open to anyone with an interest in a career in theatre. It takes on a lot of apprentices, too. Does my hon. Friend agree that that kind of activity is a good thing for local theatres to be supporting? It is important that theatres appeal to people with an interest in what happens backstage, as well as on the stage.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The more locally skills can be developed and enhanced, the better. It is important that regional theatres offer those skills, particularly to young people locally. I totally support that.

Theatres are more focused on reflecting the local communities in which they operate, creating benefits for social cohesion and integration as well as for education, health and wellbeing. In 2015, Arts Council England published an excellent evidence review, which evidences the total benefit of the arts to society and the economy.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. I have in my constituency the only example of a regency playhouse in the country. We have the historic value of the building—it is 87% self-funded—and, as it reaches out, it is very hard to put a price on its social value. We reach out to Women’s Aid and work with them. We reach out to children with physical and mental disabilities and to Suffolk Age Concern. We also work with the YMCA, and young people who are homeless and without work have come to work in the theatre. Does my hon. Friend agree that a price cannot be put on that?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend that we cannot put a price on social cohesion and integration with communities. It is a crying shame that so many former theatres now belong to Wetherspoon and other pub chains or are now cinemas. Once we lose our regional venues, they are lost for ever to commercial ventures. I totally support the point made by my hon. Friend.

We are in tough financial times and the Government still have a sizeable deficit to eliminate. The pot of money that the Arts Council and the Government have at their disposal is not limitless. However, it was very encouraging to see the Chancellor increase the cash going to the Arts Council at the autumn statement by around £10 million a year. I hope this generous increase in funding will help the Arts Council to fund some great restoration and innovative projects in our subsidised regional theatres outside London.

Let us think about what the extra money could do in our regional theatres. In the previous Parliament, there were small cash cuts to theatres in receipt of more than £250,000 a year. However, BBC research on 62 of those subsidised UK theatre companies between 2009 and 2014 produced encouraging results. It found that those theatre companies were producing more plays, increasing production levels and introducing new writing. It is fantastic to see our theatres defying expectations and being innovative to boost funding streams and new productions.

Such good news is reinforced by recent box office ticket numbers from UK Theatre, which show that total audience numbers, performances and ticket takes are all up on the previous year. However, the report shows that there are still severe challenges ahead for regional theatre. The big family musicals that we all know and love dominate our regional scene, accounting for £1 in every £4 taken at UK theatre box offices.

Moreover, overall ticket sales for plays fell by 278,000 in 2014, and on average auditoria were only half full. Equally, the category of auditoria of principally producing theatres—theatres that produce most of their own work, like the Mercury in Colchester—saw a decline in performances and ticket sales in the past year. Although I am delighted to say that the Mercury bucks that trend with 10% audience growth in the past year, there is a national pattern, which we ignore at our peril.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on presenting this debate today. I was a frequent visitor to the Mercury in my early years, so it is a privilege to be able to intervene in today’s debate. My constituency has the Theatre Royal, which, like the Mercury, creates its own productions. Does he agree that the matter is not simply about subsidies, but about reducing subsidies owing to the current economic times? We need to look at the excellent work of the previous Parliament in allowing tax credits to enable productions to happen, thus enabling regional theatre to pump more money into local communities to educate people and also help younger people to access theatres.

My hon. Friend makes a really good point. There are innovative ways of funding regional arts and theatre, and Government subsidy is not the only option. Having said that, it will take time. We have already seen 6% year-on-year growth, so we know the subsidies are coming down. Regional theatres are doing better and better every year and doing more and more in their local communities, but for the time being, subsidy is still required to ensure that those excellent facilities and the service they provide are maintained.

I hope I have been able to do this important topic justice in such a short space of time. We should be proud of having such a strong theatre scene in our capital, but great culture and theatre is not only for the great and the good in London. When regional theatre does well, our whole cultural scene benefits. Audiences have greater access to quality theatre; budding performers and writers have the chance to innovate and partake in new material; and the local economy is boosted. No one could accuse the Culture Minister of missing an opportunity to take the stage, and I look forward to hearing his response on what we can do to develop regional theatre and ensure it gets its fair share of funding to inspire a new generation to visit and partake in our country’s theatre scene.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. As we are talking about all things artistic, may I say that I thought you produced the most artistic Christmas card of 2015? The picture of you with a hot steaming mug of tea gazing over the Thames from the House of Commons Terrace took prominent place on my mantelpiece over the Christmas period.

Before I move on to the main debate, may I also pay tribute to the former shadow Secretary of State for Culture, the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher), who was sacked this morning by his leader, much to the annoyance of many Labour Members, which is perhaps why we do not see a single Labour Member here to take note of this important debate? I have lost count of the number of shadow Secretaries of State and shadow arts spokesmen that I have seen in my more than 2,000 days in this office. No doubt we will see another one shortly. However, at the moment cultural policy in the Labour party remains leaderless—not that it matters much, because cultural policy has strong leadership in the Government. It is a pleasure to see five of our most prominent Back Benchers showing that that leadership extends throughout our party.

I begin on an embarrassing note: I have not yet visited many of the fine theatres mentioned in the debate. That is extraordinarily embarrassing.

Among his many attributes, the Minister is a mind reader. An invitation is flying across the room towards him. He is more than welcome to visit either the regency theatre that I mentioned or the John Peel Centre in Stowmarket, which is a modern version of somebody really reaching out into my local community and giving good service.

I would be delighted to find the time to visit. I am embarrassed because I spend a lot of time visiting theatres in the regions. Equally embarrassing is the fact that the Mercury theatre is run by somebody I know well, Steve Mannix, who I bumped into at a round table that we held recently to discuss our forthcoming White Paper. Stephen Barlow, who runs the Buxton festival, is also a friend of mine.

All the different theatres cited by my hon. Friends the Members for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), for High Peak (Andrew Bingham), for Bury St Edmunds and for Bath (Ben Howlett) deserve our recognition and congratulations. The debate was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), who, as he pointed out in his maiden speech, represents the true capital of our country: it was Colchester long before Londinium. He is using this debate to highlight that Colchester is one of the cultural capitals of our country. The remarks made by him and my other hon. Friends chimed well with me, because I have returned fresh-faced after our two-week break to complete work on our forthcoming White Paper on culture.

I want to bring out two themes. First, culture does not begin and end in London. There is a lively debate about the amount of funding that goes to London’s arts institutions as opposed to institutions that exist outside the capital. It is good that my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester has highlighted the thriving artistic scene in Colchester. Also, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds talked about the work that her theatre does with Women’s Aid, children with special needs and Age Concern.

The other theme relates to how important culture is to so many different aspects of our lives. A thriving cultural scene not only brings great economic benefits to an area in terms of tourism and inward investment; it also brings immense social benefits in terms of being able to use culture to reach out to different communities.

On the national picture, it is true that although my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester was right to point out concerns about regional theatres, on the whole they continue to thrive. Box office takings in 2014, the last year for which we have figures, were worth more than £400 million, and 18 million tickets were sold. As a whole, theatre made a contribution of almost £5.5 billion to our economy. Interestingly, despite the debates over arts funding, that is a significant increase of more than 7.5% since 2008. The sector employs almost a quarter of a million people, and almost 3 million tourism visits a year include a trip to the theatre, musicals or the opera—twice as many as the number of tourists who visit a sporting event.

As I said earlier, theatres contribute massively to our regional cultural life, and the Government obviously play an important role in supporting regional theatre. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester was quite right to point out that although many such theatres thrive and survive in terms of the audiences they attract, they also receive Government support. Last year, the Arts Council provided more than £150 million to theatres throughout the country through a range of funding programmes. About £100 million of that money went to theatres in the Arts Council’s national portfolio, including the Mercury theatre, which, as my hon. Friend pointed out, has recently benefited from a refurbishment of its studio that was partly funded by the Arts Council. I welcome my hon. Friend’s remarks about the Chancellor’s settlement for the arts. It was great to hear that he is prepared to maintain arts funding and, judging by the response from the artistic community, the words he uttered during the spending review were almost as valuable as the money he has given. He said it is a false economy to cut the arts and recognised the significant contribution that they make to our lives compared with the amount of funding they get.

The Mercury theatre receives more than £750,000 a year in public funding from the Arts Council and, as I said, it has also received a capital grant for its refurbishment. It is a significant local employer and a major driver of the restaurant and hospitality economy in Colchester. I was particularly pleased to see how the Mercury theatre and other artistic organisations in Colchester are now working together, which is perhaps the third theme of the White Paper. Artists, makers and designers are working together under the “Made in Colchester” banner, which is a fantastic idea that should inspire other towns and cities. The artistic organisations in Colchester have worked out that by working together they make a more effective contribution than they do working individually. The Mercury puts theatre at the heart of the cultural life of the community it serves and makes work in Colchester that reaches local audiences and its community while also generating critical attention regionally and nationally.

I congratulate the three theatres that have been nominated for The Stage’s regional theatre of the year award: the Royal & Derngate theatre, the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester and the Chichester Festival theatre, which my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester mentioned. Of course, it was at the Chichester Festival theatre that “Gypsy” started its life. If you have not yet seen Imelda Staunton in “Gypsy”, Mr Evans, I urge you to find one spare evening to see that absolutely stunning show. That theatre is another good example of an organisation funded and supported by the Arts Council, including by its £12 million capital investment programme. Such investments help local theatres to develop resilience by giving them the right buildings and equipment to both deliver their work and become sustainable businesses.

It is important to point out that the regional theatre of the year for 2015, the Nuffield theatre in Southampton, also has strong ties to the local university. It is important that we recognise the contribution that universities make. For example, Derby theatre is supported by its local university. Sheffield Theatres is the only theatre to have won the regional theatre of the year award twice, in 2013 and 2014. It is the UK’s largest regional theatre complex, with 2,500 seats across three theatres, producing incredible theatre in Sheffield. I hope I have shown that there is a rich and diverse theatrical life all across the UK of which we should all be proud. It is also important to note that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester said, touring plays an incredibly important part in the theatre landscape. A lot of great productions start life in our regional theatres, and many of those theatres host great productions that start their life in London. The Arts Council continues to support that work through its strategic touring funding programme, the funding for which has been maintained.

An important and relatively recent innovation is the introduction of theatres tax relief, which has been available at 25% for qualifying touring productions and 20% for other qualifying productions since September 2014. It encourages theatre production throughout the UK and provides a strong incentive for touring productions. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has worked with UK theatres to undertake a number of workshops throughout the country to discuss the relief and how it operates, and they have been well attended, including by many regional theatres. It is too soon to say precisely in pounds, shillings and pence what contribution theatre tax relief is making to theatre production in this country, but I know anecdotally that many theatre producers are grateful for the tax relief, which is pushing their productions into profit. It is important that occasionally theatre productions do make a profit, because that encourages theatre producers to take the next risk and put on the next production.

I mentioned in my opening remarks that there is a lively debate about the amount of funding that goes into London and to other areas outside London. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester made that point very effectively in his speech. It is important to say that when we came into office around 60% of lottery funding went outside London. That has now risen to 70%, and the Arts Council has an ambition to go further to reach 75% by the end of 2018. It is also following the same strategy with its national portfolio organisations. In 2012, 49% of funding went to London and 51% went outside London. By 2015, that had changed to 45% in London and 55% outside London, so there is good change there. It is also important to acknowledge the Chancellor’s work with the northern powerhouse, because that gives an indication of how culture is moving into the mainstream of policy. As part of the northern powerhouse strategy, culture has been put front and centre. For example, there has been a £78 million investment in the new Factory theatre and exhibition complex in Manchester.

This year I suspect there will be an ongoing debate about local authority funding for theatre and, indeed, other arts organisations. I reiterate how pleased I am to see so many of my hon. Friends talking about the success of their local theatres and other arts organisations. As I said earlier, they highlight the wide contribution made to local communities beyond simply artistic productions, important though they obviously are. I am very clear that any local authority that sees itself as having to make some Faustian trade-off between investing in one part of its activities and investing in culture is, to echo the Chancellor’s words, making a false economy. Investing in local theatre and arts organisations brings enormous dividends for a relatively small amount of funding compared with a local authority’s overall budget. To see a local theatre or arts organisation close is not simply to see a building close its doors; it potentially cuts off many different communities from the benefits that that organisation brings.

I conclude by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester for securing this debate. It has been a terrific start to 2016 for me to take part in this Westminster Hall debate, and I will be responding to the first Adjournment debate of 2016 as well. Now that the Chamber is filled with Opposition Members, I repeat my tribute to the former shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Barnsley East, who will be sadly missed on the Front Benches because he was effective and passionate. My five hon. Friends who have participated in this debate show that there are many effective and passionate spokesmen for the arts in the House, and I welcome their remarks.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered regional theatre.