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Reinvention and transition at the Playhouse

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James Brining, Artistic Director of West Yorkshire Playhouse, introduces the first full season of his tenure in uncompromising terms. He uses terms like “reinvention” and “transition” as though he means them and, at the Autumn season launch, his body language is a visual complement to his frequent references to energy and excitement. His approach is not all gung-ho, however, and he has thoughtful things to say about the need for collaboration, both within the theatre and with other companies, and about the need to balance maintaining a national and international profile with being rooted in West Yorkshire.

In fact, in the season running from September to the end of the Christmas shows, there are only four West Yorkshire Playhouse productions in the main auditoriums, but each of these is likely to be a major event and the low number is balanced by projects spread throughout the building and by touring productions. Pretty obviously, in times of austerity, it could be deemed extravagant to mount a lavish production for a three or four-week run at one theatre. Hence there are two co-productions and a number of projects that encourage new writing without huge outlay.

James Brining’s first production in Leeds is an exciting event by any standards: Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd – the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Brining has history with the show. He speaks feelingly of seeing the 1993 National Theatre production with Alun Armstrong and Julia McKenzie, recalling the impact on him of the South Bank of 20 years ago, Cardboard City and all. In 2010 his Dundee production of Sweeney Todd garnered a TMA award, but had only a short rep-company run. The 2013 version puts that right, with a month at West Yorkshire Playhouse (September 26-October 26) before spending November at co-producer, The Royal Exchange in Manchester.

In the Courtyard at the same time is the World Stage Premiere of a play that began life on Radio 3. My Generation by Alice Nutter, once of Chumbawamba, now a successful playwright, fulfils the demand for linking the regional and the national perfectly. Set in Leeds, it traces political and social changes through 40 years of one family – and, as Brining emphasises, these are national developments, not just changes in life in Leeds. Lest it should sound a bit solemn, it’s worth noting that live music is in the hands of Harry Hamer, a fellow-Chumbawamba alumnus.

And then it’s the family/children’s shows for Christmas. Award-winning director/choreographer Liam Steel (fresh from taking charge of the musical staging for the film Les Miserables) transforms the Quarry Theatre into the humid jungles of India for Rosanna Lowe’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, while, for the little ones (2 years and up!) there is a co-production with the Lyric, Hammersmith, which is so secret we won’t even know the name until next week.

The list of touring productions impresses, but it seems to me that the most telling sign of the new regime may be a development of something the Playhouse has always been pretty good at: treating the whole site as a theatre. A Play, A Pie & a Pint develops an idea originated at Oran Mor in Glasgow by staging short original plays at different spaces within the Playhouse before an audience settling down with a bite to eat and something to sup. Furnace, the Playhouse’s vehicle for developing new work, continues, now joined by The Playground, a series of scratch performances in the foyer.


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