Monday, March 11, 2013

A Rose by any other name would….. ?

Those of us who live in striking distance of Richmond Upon Thames (that’s a lot of people!) are rather spoilt for choice when it comes to the theatre. We can, of course, be in the West End or the South Bank in half an hour or so. We can watch a Panto or a big scale musical in Wimbledon just down the road. And in Richmond itself we have both a vibrant commercial theatre (“Richmond Theatre”) and the remarkable subsidised “Orange Tree Theatre” – the latter called with only a slight bit of hyperbole “A pocket sized National theatre” by Michael Billington. There is also, in Kingston, the Rose Theatre (in the photo) – about which more in a moment.

Richmond Theatre is a “receiving theatre” – it takes touring companies who spend a week in residence as part of the “Ambassador Theatre Group” strictly commercial enterprise. It’s a business – and a very good one. The programme in the current season is  mixed. Highbrow (Euripedes’ “Medea”, Moliere’s Misanthrope ) to fairly lowbrow (“9to5” a Dolly Parton Musical) but there is a pattern. Generally there is a Star name to catch the punters’ attention. Robert Bathurst, Rachel Stirling, Julian Glover, Lenny Henry, or it is a popular revival – “Abigail’s Party”, “The Woman in Black”, “Yes Prime Minister”. Each production plays for five or six nights plus a matinée.  
The “Orange Tree”, a tiny theatre in the round, is no less professional although their programme is the complete opposite of their colleagues down the road. It is a producing theatre and has no visiting companies at all. It is not a fixed group of players like the National but casts for each production. Some actors do appear quite frequently but others fit in a few weeks at the Orange Tree between other work. Each play is on for about four weeks and audiences are at around 90%. There are no star names, no familiar old chestnuts of plays and nothing that is “in your face” commercial. But the keen theatre-goer will see extraordinary productions of fascinating plays – often neglected masterpieces. It attracts a different audience to Richmond Theatre – although there is certainly some overlap. Richmond is sometimes quite cerebral – the Orange Tree always!

So what about the Rose Theatre in Kingston? It is a large modern theatre built some ten years ago to a broadly Elizabethan design. A lozenge stage and no proscenium arch. The design, architecture and stage concept was the idea of Sir Peter Hall for whom the project was to create a producing theatre for Shakespeare, Greek and Modern Classics. Think “Royal Shakespeare Company” – one of Sir Peter’s old stamping grounds of course. An important link was to be with the Drama Department of Kingston University. But this concept for the Theatre was soon abandoned and Sir Peter Hall had little hands on involvement once the Theatre’s artistic Director Stephen Unwin was appointed ( he remains, however, Director Emeritus).  In place of the RSC model the Rose has become a mixture of producing theatre and receiving theatre. Over 20 original productions have been presented as well as the Rose hosting touring theatres – in the same way that Richmond Theatre does. It is a theatrical hybrid on the one hand and a useful community asset (for concerts, talks, school events  etc.) on the other. Unlike the Orange Tree the Rose receives no public funding and whilst Kingston Council remains supportive most of the Rose’s income comes from ticket sales.  I have been to most of the Rose’s productions but unlike the other two theatres in this piece I have rarely seen it full (Judi Dench’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” the exception on the night I was there). Sometimes the house is embarrassingly small – I would guess less than a third full for the recent very good production of Noel Coward’s “The Vortex” for example. Judi Dench brought the punters in (at a price of course – her Agent won’t let her tread the boards for less than she is worth"!) There were no star names in “The Vortex” and I suspect that the audiences suffered as a consequence – and there’s the rub. The basic economics (helped by Lottery funding) of The Orange Tree work. And the strictly commercial emphasis of Richmond Theatre works as well. But the Rose's hybrid looks economically very shaky indeed. The Rose has around 900 seats to fill every night – about the same size as the National's Lyttelton.  The break-even house will be well below capacity of course but not, I suspect, as low as some productions like “The Vortex” deliver. Two years ago the very future of the Theatre was thought to be in jeopardy and today the economic basis of the Theatre remains extremely difficult.

As a very keen theatregoer I relish the richness of the local theatre scene in South West London and have greatly enjoyed many of the Rose’s productions and also many of those from visiting companies which have played there. But it is a strange theatre. The tip-up bench seats are excruciatingly uncomfortable and the high ceiling doesn't help the acoustics. Sightlines are good but some productions have to be shoehorned into the stage space and shape – and I understand that the facilities for the actors are far from ideal.
Sir Peter Hall’s original concept for the Rose was dead in the water before it even started. But in its place there is a confusion of focus not helped by the lack of a suitable economic rationale. I doubt that the Rose can exist as a 100% producing theatre and in all honesty I’m not sure that with the National Theatre with its three stages only half an hour away this part of London really needs a producing theatre at all (other than the special case of the Orange Tree). Which points, I think, to the Theatre becoming a commercial enterprise  - part of Ambassador or Delfont Mackintosh perhaps. If this happens then some proper seating and a major upgrade of facilities for cast and customer would be necessary. Stephen Unwin the genial and talented Artistic Director who is to leave the Rose at the end of this year showed in his days with his English Touring Theatre that a theatre company can work well even without a permanent home. Better that the Rose morphs into a receiving theatre hosting companies like this than it succumbs because its scheme for locally produced productions is too grandiose and uneconomic.