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Derby Playhouse Faces Closure via Property Deal

By • West End
In the wake of the closure for refurbishment of Bristol Old Vic and the surrounding furore about its artistic future (See News, 4 Jun 2007), the news is not good from Derby Playhouse (pictured), one of Britain’s most successful regional theatres.

The Playhouse opened in 1976, the same year as the National Theatre on the South Bank, and is a victim of its situation in a property development worth £350 million. Stephen Edwards - the joint artistic director, who joined the theatre in 2002 alongside Karen Louise Hebden - suspects that the theatre is about to be flattened and replaced by a branch of John Lewis.

The Derby Playhouse, which has never been fashionable with critics, does in fact have one of the most extraordinary local audiences in the country. Despite being located in the middle of a concrete shopping centre, that audience has turned up in droves for a consistently popular theatre programme over the years.

The recent production of Stepping Out cleared its budget by £45,000 and this year’s Christmas show, Treasure Island, has a box office advance of £200,000. The losses recently have been sustained during an enforced two-year re-build by the Westfield property company, which has owned the site since 1999, and there are no reserves or assets for the Playhouse to draw on. In such crises in the past, the major stakeholders – the Arts Council and the City Council – have been willing to bring forward grants. In this instance, while the Arts Council has forwarded £70,000, the City Council has not responded.

Stephen Edwards believes the City Council, already £7 million over budget this year, needs the cash from a department store replacement at the shopping centre. Edwards told Whatsonstage.com that the chairman of the Playhouse resigned ten days ago at the intransigence of the City Council, which has signalled its willingness to liquidate the theatre company for the sake of six weeks. Edwards has now installed himself in the foyer and intends to resist the bulldozers to the very last.

Derby was Alan Bates’ home town. The late actor opened the Playhouse as Trigorin in a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull in June 1976. Apart from anything else, it would be a slap in the face of his memory, and an insult to the local playgoers, if Edwards’s act of resistance is the final tragic performance on the premises.

- by Michael Coveney

For further comment & opinion on this & other matters, visit Michael Coveney's blog.


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