The Wicked Stage: What’s happened to musical theatre in the South West?

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Last September I left the bright lights of London for the countryside of North Devon, where my family now live. I grew up in Birmingham before the move to the South East so I have always found theatre very accessible, especially musical theatre. So I was struck to find a distinct lack of musicals down here in Devon. Many of the big tours don’t come past Bristol and even those that make it to Plymouth are two hours from where I live.

That isn’t to say North Devon has never seen a musical, it’s just that they seem to be older shows performed by amateur groups or tours that have been going for such a long time that the only place they have left to go are the smaller venues.  My local venue, the Queen’s Theatre at Barnstaple (seats: 600), is teeny compared to The Palace Theatre in London (seats: 1,400) or the big theatre of my home town – Birmingham Hippodrome (seats: 1,935). So my part of Devon is at a serious disadvantage in terms of the size of its theatres, affecting which shows and tours they can receive. A recent change I have noticed is shows coming to Plymouth’s Theatre Royal (seats: 1,315), such as the new Phantom of the Opera tour starting in February. Phantom is a hard show to fit anywhere due to its status as a mega musical and is currently in rehearsal for its reinvention which no doubt includes downsizing parts of the show. Avenue Q is also starting its tour in Plymouth this month and seems to be purposely going for slightly smaller cities and venues – an example is its tour of the Midlands and going for Wolverhampton and Coventry instead of the obvious choice of Birmingham.

As part of my research I looked at which shows have been to Plymouth and Barnstaple, and which shows are coming. The bigger venue has the two shows I mentioned above, but it also has South Pacific and Oliver! coming, which are quite new tours. Barnstaple has only one national tour coming so far and that is Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I’m not knocking the show, in fact I got tickets before Christmas to see it with my older sisters, and I also saw it in London. What bothers me is the fact the tour has never actually stopped – producer Bill Kenwright has had this national tour going for the past 20 years and the only part to change are the performers. Sets, costumes and acting are still the same, so it isn’t sending new blood to us theatregoers of North Devon. It is also a show originally intended as essentially children’s theatre, so it isn’t a good example of what musical theatre can do – musicals have moved on in many ways since Joseph‘s conception in 1968.

But not all productions require lavish sets and big orchestras; some shows were developed for the complete opposite. Jason Robert Brown started his career in writing music for piano bars and coffee houses. This is how a lot of writers in New York hone their craft which makes the work fairly easy to put on, such as Songs From A New World or The Last Five Years. Other writers who are deemed less commercially viable include Stephen Sondheim, but shows such as Gypsy are very popular, and with a filmed version of Into The Woods in the pipeline with Disney maybe now is the time to tour these shows. If North Devon can cope with a production of Equus, which is surely a bit more controversial for rural Devon, than a Sondheim show should be easy.

The reason that I’m passionate about the lack of newer shows coming to smaller areas of Devon is because it makes musicals less accessible for young people. I’m lucky in that I went to University in Buckinghamshire with the West End just a short train ride away, but people younger than me don’t have that opportunity. The local college offers courses in musical theatre and put on many productions and no doubt the internet has facilitated a lot of learning. However, I just find it hard to believe that it can beat that feeling of seeing it live in a theatre and having that shared theatrical experience.

Image by Jame Mcintyre.