The Play's the Thing!

It was Lord Olivier who said it: “I believe that in a great city, or even in a small city or a village, a great theatre is the outward and visible sign of an inward and probable culture.” So what does it say about my hometown Derby, that over the last few years we have managed to let our city's professional theatre fall into chaos? In a Comedy of Errors performances are now split between the unimaginatively named Derby Theatre - in the former Derby Playhouse and now leased and run by the local university, the tiny Guildhall Theatre - once a courtroom and council chamber, and the Assembly Rooms - a concert hall. Theatrical seasons seem short and sporadic and most of the local population struggles to understand which performance will take place in which location. Meanwhile the old Hippodrome Theatre, once the home of variety theatre and pantomimes and a Sleeping Beauty if ever there was one, remains, hopefully temporarily, in the hands of a man under whose watch damaging fires and subsequent 'repair' work managed to leave much of the building in a heap on the auditorium floor. The situation is undoubtedly worrying because, whether you prefer Shakespeare or Charles Perrault, a city of its size without a theatre is just plain wrong. It’s perfectly ridiculous to suggest that a city of almost a quarter of a million residents – and a potential audience catchment of twice that – cannot support a provincial theatre.

It’s certainly not that there isn’t enough interest; I used to be a regular at the Derby Playhouse and the place was always packed. Neither am I convinced that the Westfield Centre is to blame. The Playhouse closed, blaming the newly expanded shopping centre, in which it stood, for its problems. The fact that it had always stood in a shopping centre seemed to evade those in charge. As did the various machinations with the council about overly-ambitious and highly expensive productions.

I don’t know the answer, but I do know why I eventually abandoned the Playhouse. Not because I didn’t enjoy the entertainment on offer – although there did seem to be a strange obsession with trying to incorporate the expensive revolving stage into almost every production – but because the place was just so darned uncomfortable.
Anyone who ever ventured inside will tell you that the auditorium was always hot and airless, even after expensive “improvements”. At the interval you’d find scores of theatregoers heading for the exits to take the air before wondering whether they could bear to go back inside. What the refit did achieve was to remove any element of character from the building’s interior.
I’m not one of those people who dislikes everything modern; in fact I love modernity and I may be the only person left in the city who doesn’t yet hate the rather brutal architecture of Quad - our new arts centre.
But a theatre should feel special – not like the budget airline check-in area at East Midlands Airport. There’s simply nothing like a gorgeous, old-fashioned, dark, luxurious theatre. Nottingham’s Theatre Royal and Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre are prime examples.
Returning Derby’s theatre to the then still intact Hippodrome would have been perfect. But when it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in the Duke of York’s in London’s West End, or a former cinema like the Palace in Mansfield. It’s the thrill of the greasepaint that matters.
For some, of course, that thrill is too much. I’ve a friend who never goes to the theatre because she is so terrified that an actor might make a mistake that she cannot bear to watch.
Then again, I have another friend who claims to be a passionate devotee, but who, 20 minutes into the first act, is always sound asleep. You can set your watch by him.
Yet even he would have struggled to doze off during one performance in Nottingham last year. There must have been a dozen large school groups in attendance. Hemmed in on three sides, I bemoaned my misfortune as hundreds of teenagers bobbed up and down, waved at their friends and chucking sweets to each other. I’d forgotten how loud you like things when you’re 15.
One girl had clearly never even seen a theatre before. She was so used to watching telly that her teacher had to explain to her that she was about to witness real, live actors, not a projection on to a screen. You couldn’t make it up.
As the lights dimmed, several embarrassed teachers hushed the exaggerated squeals of delight, but still I feared for the rest of the afternoon. I needn’t have worried: five minutes later, the teenage audience had fallen into silence, every one of them transfixed by what was going on before them.
At curtain’s fall they all jumped to their feet, cheering and whistling wildly. Their reaction wasn’t conventional, but it was genuine, and it was testament to the power of theatre.
Because, despite the apparent artifice of its props, plots and players, a visit to the theatre is one of the most “real” forms of entertainment. If the cinema is an escape from reality, then theatre is surely a journey straight into it.
There is nothing more intimate or immediate than watching a group of talented actors love, laugh, fight and mourn their way through a well-crafted story. You’re in their characters’ world, and each time it’s as thrilling and magical as the first. That is perhaps theatre’s greatest gift.

But there is a glimmer of hope, that that young people of Derby's future generations, might yet be able to enjoy a full-on theatrical experience in traditional surroundings. As I write, those who had intended to restore the old Hippodrome before its unfortunate experiences are once more looking to the future. If they can gain possession of the building it can be rebuilt and reopened and what a jewel it would be! At last touring, repertory and amateur productions might yet find a permanent home.

The Derby Hippodrome after 'repair' work. Thankfully work is now under way to protect the structure with a view to restoring it to glory.