Doncaster's new £22 million arts venue, Cast, officially opens this week (6 September), and, when I visited recently, there was a distinct air of business (and optimism) around the place.
Opening the cafe early in August was undoubtedly a help – an attractive indoor-outdoor cafe giving onto the new Sir Nigel Gresley Square with its water feature and happily soggy children – but there was plenty more going on than that. Parties of various sizes were touring the building and a children's drama class was preparing to put on the first performance in Cast – in front of parents in one of the smaller spaces.
The building, while stylish and with occasional quirky features, seems to me extremely practical, well adapted to purpose. The 620-seat main theatre is not afraid to incorporate old-fashioned features in the form of a sweeping and capacious circle (approximately 250 seats), but there's nothing old-fashioned about the exemplary sight-lines: interestingly Cast has a single-price policy because there are no bad seats.
The Second Space (or Studio Theatre) is particularly exciting, a simple box apparently, but with a state-of-the-art technical set-up and an all-round (or all-square) balcony of considerable potential. Capacity is up to 200 depending on configuration, and there are further spaces (notably the Drama Space and the Dance Space) which can be used for rehearsal or performance.
So the venue, designed by RHWL Arts Team, is splendid, but how successful will Cast be in involving the community of Doncaster in the new project? While the Civic Theatre (now closed) has been successful in a fairly unambitious way, Doncaster has no great theatre tradition. The 19th century Grand Theatre, a listed building, has been dark for some 50 years, resisting all attempts to bring it back to life – unlike, for instance, Wakefield Opera House. The fact that the amateur societies that were the lifeblood of the Civic are coming on board, either scaling up to 620 seats or adapting to the flexible Studio, is promising, but what else can Cast do to reach out to Doncaster?
Kully Thiarai has worked successfully at such theatres as Contact in Manchester and Leicester Haymarket and has been in post full-time as Cast's Artistic Director since late 2012. Recently Kully worked as a free-lance director, including work on the Cultural Olympiad for the London Olympics, but, as Cast is not essentially a producing house, her opportunities for directing will be limited. However, as she points out, much of her career has been in combined administrative and creative roles, so she is happy to limit herself to directing the Cast pantomime, Cinderella (opening on 5 December). Her vision for Cast is based very much on community, on making something that is unique to Doncaster. I find, for instance, that the name comes from "Cast" being "the heart of Doncaster", with overtones of heavy industry and dramatic performance. Kully is clear that Cast is to be more than a theatre in the town centre. The youngsters already making use of its space and facilities augur well for the future.
Which leads to The Glee Club. In association with the Right Up Our Street project, funded by Arts Council England's Creative People and Places, Cast will be producing at least one major work a year in addition to the pantomime.
In 2014 it is likely to be site-specific; in 2013 the opening production is a revival of The Glee Club, by Doncaster playwright Richard Cameron, directed by Esther Richardson and starring Northern Broadsides regular Richard Standing.
Described as "a song-filled comedy", The Glee Club focuses on a group of miners from Edlington in the 1960s. If that's not an acute enough focus on Doncaster, The Glee Club plays at Cast only on Thursday-Saturday, a presentation based on the company touring working men's clubs and miners' welfares in the old mining communities for the other evenings. The launch is likely to be a major community affair, with A Cast of Thousands filling Sir Nigel Gresley Square from 6.00 pm on 6 September 6, followed by Open House for the following weekend.
The programming for the Launch Season is a well-balanced mix of drama, comedy, music, dance and children's shows, always with the awareness of the Yorkshire connection: September includes performances by star singers Kate Rusby from Barnsley (22), Bradford's Gareth Gates (25) and Skipton's Clare Teal (28). In drama Rich Seam Theatre Company brings Royal Flush to the Second Stage on 4-5 October, celebrating Thomas Crapper of Thorne, written by Doncaster's Nick Lane and performed by Matthew Booth, from a little further west in Normanton!
Popular though one-night musical events are, Kully Thiarai is well aware that running some of the bought in shows for more than one night helps to establish identity. Apart from Royal Flush, The Mikado (Opera Della Luna, 26-27 September), Twelfth Night (Filter Theatre, 15-19 October) and, in the Second Space, Lip Service with Inspector Norse (18-19 September) caught my eye.
For the full programme and other information about Cast, visit www.castindoncaster.com.
- Ron Simpson