Playhouse takes centre stage in Rotary talk

Roy Todd at Morpeth Rotary Club
Roy Todd at Morpeth Rotary Club
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Morpeth Rotary Club

ROY Todd, Morpeth man and previous student at King Edward VI School, was welcomed at Morpeth Rotary Club to talk about Alnwick Playhouse.

He is Chairman of the Playhouse Trust and had been Headteacher at Alnwick’s Duchess’s High School when Morpeth Rotary member Michael Duffy was Head at KEVI.

The Playhouse opened in 1925 as a 700-seat cinema and occasional music hall, but by 1979 it was no longer commercially viable. Alnwick District Council was going to pull it down to build sheltered housing.

The Northumberland Theatre Company (NTC) — a professional touring theatre to rural areas — needed a base and Martin Houghton, Artistic Director, persuaded the council to buy it for them.

The downstairs provided space for a rehearsal room, props, workshop and costumes, but they did not need the rest of the building.

Around 1983 a group of local people had a conversation on a street corner in Alnwick. They included Roy, Bill Hugonin, the Duke’s Agent, Fred Calvert, a Territorial Army officer, Norman Luke, a solicitor, and others with links to banks and building societies. They thought it would be wonderful to buy the upstairs and convert it into an arts centre.

They discussed costs with a charitable trust and the Arts Council, based on first estimates of around £90,000. It took until 1990 to raise the £500,000 that was really needed. They brought in John Bishop, a theatre architect from Sheffield, to create the stage. They already had a raked auditorium and although the seats had been designed for the smaller and shorter people in the 1920s, they managed to create an arts centre.

The two founding principles are that the theatre should be community-based and that it should provide a whole spectrum of events.

It would be a venue for the theatre club, the stage musical group and the choral society, with around 40 per cent of activities community-based. It would also provide a window on the world, with 60 per cent of events covering the whole spectrum of entertainment, with drama, dance, theatre, music, jazz, opera, folk, pop, tribute bands (every seat usually filled), and high and low-brow and for different audiences.

It was opened in December 1990 by Duke Harry, who was himself very keen on art and the West End. The first show was put on by NTC, the landlords downstairs — the Playhouse is a tenant of NTC.

Since the 1980s, NTC had produced plays touring the whole of Northumberland, but now they tour all over rural England.

In 1994, the cinema at Alnwick Corn Exchange ended and the reel-to-reel equipment was given to the Playhouse, where a cinema was introduced. The downstairs front of the Playhouse at this time was occupied by Humble’s Estate Agents, who were moving. NTC bought it for half-a-million pounds and extended and enlarged the premises. Bondgate Gallery also left and so they got an art gallery as well.

The first manager was a local lad who had attended the Duchess’s High School then gone to Leeds University. Steve Cowton had the enormous task of running the Playhouse for the first 16 years. He moved on to become the Artistic Director of the Lowry in Salford.

From the early days, a useful and successful development was Friends of the Playhouse. The population of Alnwick is around 8,000 and there were 2,000 friends.

Other groups have been attracted, including a concert band, mat-makers, stitchers, three young people’s drama groups for different ages, and a photographic society.

Today the Artistic Director is Jo Potts, who came through an inspirational drama teacher, Chris Heckels at Benfield School, Newcastle. Many North East TV actors came through the same route, including Lee Hall who wrote Billy Elliot and the Pitmen Painters.

NTC had serious cuts in 2012 when they lost the whole budget of £440,000. The Playhouse lost £40,000, but that was only about 7 per cent of its budget. It maximised its income by investing in digital cinema. It can now access the full range of films as they are released.

It has 262 seats and four wheelchair spaces.

A great source of improved income has come from streaming top-quality live performances from around the world. They include the National Theatre, This House, Helen Mirren in The Audience, the Bolshoi Ballet from Moscow and Glynbourne opera. Streaming costs £30 a session and a share of the box office.

Plans include a café bar that could be open all day, acting workshops for schools, community arts events at weekends, and reconfiguring the auditorium to give more leg room.

The programme includes Evenings with…, for example Michael Portillo and Chris Mullen, a new play about the monks of Holy Island, a cricket forum, a play about Dr Beeching followed by showing a trip on the Wanny Line before closure, and The Night Ball at the Northumberland Hall.

Roy very much hopes that the people of Morpeth and district will see the Playhouse as their own theatre. Programmes were given out to encourage this process.