A Place on the Map

Lichfield sits in the heart of England. Half an hour to the south is Birmingham; another hour and you're in Stratford-upon-Avon. To the north are the glories of the Peak District on the east and Manchester and its sprawling conurbation to the west. Stoke-on-Trent and what's left of the Staffordshire potteries make up its western boundary. And right there in the centre sits Lichfield which, up until now, metropolitan theatregoers could be forgiven for dismissing with a 'never heard of it' shake of the head.

No more. History has a long arm and, in an initiative that puts many larger projects to shame and reminds us of the dangers of becoming too London-centric and ignoring the vitality of theatre outside London, Lichfield have got themselves two brand new theatres - a beautiful 490-seater and intimate studio - for a mere £5million. What's more, they're situated in a building regarded as state-of-the-art in terms of its ecological ventilation and fresh-air system. All of a sudden, Lichfield is about to put itself on the theatrical map as well.

It couldn't happen to a nicer place. A cathedral town of great charm Lichfield's artistic and intellectual credentials go back a long way. In the 18th century, it was home to the great diarist and lexicographer, Dr Samuel Johnson. Charles Darwin's grandfather Erasmus and the poet and essayist Joseph Addison were also 'famous sons'. But, from a theatre point of view, Lichfield's greatest export was and is David Garrick, the legendary actor (1717-1779), who lived here before moving to London to make his name and fortune as one of the capital's most powerful actor-managers as owner of the Drury Lane Theatre.

Garrick was a moderniser, a radical whose introduction, during a 25-year career, of concealed stage-lighting, banning of audiences from the stage and professionalising of its practitioners helped pull British theatre into the modern age. Most of all, by the revolutionary nature and realism of his own acting, he made theatre sexy!

Next week, that legacy takes another step forward when the Lichfield Garrick - so named in the great actor's honour and currently under the enthusiastic leadership of its young artistic director, Paul Everitt - launches its official first season, headed by Corin Redgrave, currently regarded as one of our own jewels in the British theatrical crown.

Recruiting the Redgraves

Redgrave, Garrick, Lichfield - it's a felicitous union, all ways round. Fifty years ago, Corin's father, the equally revered Sir Michael Redgrave, campaigned to save an earlier version of the Lichfield theatre, The David Garrick Memorial Theatre, then a weekly rep. Run by the famous critic Kenneth Tynan, its repertoire included Pirandello, Shaw, O'Neill and Farquhar's wickedly acute social comedy, The Recruiting Officer which, suitably enough, opens the new Lichfield Garrick's seven-week inaugural season and is followed by Maureen Lawrence's Resurrection.

Both plays - presented by Redgrave's Moving Theatre Company, a company formed by Corin with sister Vanessa and wife Kika Markham ten years ago - more or less chose themselves, according to Redgrave. The Recruiting Officer's connections with Lichfield date back to the 18th-century when Garrick himself, then a precocious young 11-year-old, appeared as Sergeant Kite in a production of the play in his hometown. Farquhar's comedy is even set, not a million miles away, in Shrewsbury. Redgrave - playing what he calls "the outrageous poseur, Capt Brazen" and directing alongside longtime friend and colleague, Annie Castledine - describes The Recruiting Officer as an "extraordinary tour de force of a play... by a very young, very profligate, very careless genius".

Redgrave's other choice, Resurrection equally has its roots in the locale. Lawrence's two-hander, first staged at London's Bush Theatre in 1996, features that other Lichfield alumni, Samuel Johnson in a play Redgrave and Castledine have been wanting to do for the past decade. It was Castledine who originally suggested Lawrence write something as a tribute to Johnson as part of the great man's bicentenary. Dealing with Johnson's final years, the play reveals a secret - the existence of a ward, Frances Barber, from the West Indies - and raises issues of freedom, liberty and race. Redgrave plays Dr Johnson and - a mouth-watering prospect - Jeffery Kissoon, Barber.

Future developments between Redgrave's Moving Theatre and Lichfield must, of course, await the test of time and the results of this first season. Everitt - formerly of Theatre Royal Stratford East, Joan Littlewood's old stamping ground, and a fierce fan of Littlewood's vision of theatre as fun and community ownership - hopes the continuing presence of Redgrave and his company will act as a spur and inspiration to local writers and actors.

A Debt of Gratitude

The last word however, from one great actor of another, should go to Redgrave: "I think every great actor probably strikes their audiences as being more lifelike than any actor that they'd seen before, and more resourceful. And that has to be reinvented in every generation. Garrick seems to have done it perhaps more triumphantly than any other actor because to speak of Garrick is to speak of a man who re-invented the art of acting and projected it with such panache onto the stage of London that he, his plays, his acting, his companies, the actresses, became the talk of the town.

"Garrick did us a great service. He made acting gentlemanly, professional in the sense that acting no longer had to apologise for itself. It was projected as one of the great arts. For that, we who work in the theatre should be eternally grateful to him."

The Recruiting Officer opens 16 September 2003 (following previews from 10 September) and runs to 27 September. Resurrection runs from 8 to 18 October 2003 (previews from 2 October).