Well, Chester does actually. But that doesn’t mean the city has not been producing professional, ground-breaking, innovative and popular theatre during the past 12 months.
Well, Chester does actually. But that doesn’t mean the city has not been producing professional, ground-breaking, innovative and popular theatre during the past 12 months. In this special report, MICHAEL GREEN – who has been covering the local arts scene for almost 30 years – takes a look at what has happened in 2012 and concludes we should be thankful for what we’ve already got
Theatregoers have been pouring out of two city centre venues in the run-up to Christmas having enjoyed a wonderful night of entertainment in Chester.
Yes, you read that right. Theatregoers in Chester. It may sound like an oxymoron to most people who have long regarded theatre in the city to have suffered the same fate as cinema – a thing of the past.
But December has seen sold-out runs of Theatre in the Quarter’s magnificent production of A Christmas Carol at Chester Town Hall while the stalwarts of Tip Top Productions have been packing them in for their panto presentation of Cinderella.
Now I haven’t had the pleasure of catching the Tip Top panto but I did have the privilege of seeing the Dickensian adaptation and have no hesitation in declaring it as good as anything that is being produced in the more established theatres around the North West.
All of which gives the lie to the widespread assumption that since the Gateway closed all those years ago, theatre in Chester has been dead and buried.
It’s an assumption which would be quickly challenged not just by Theatre in the Quarter and Tip Top but also Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre, Jigsaw Theatre Company, Chester Theatre Club, etc.
There is little doubt that many people in Chester are excited by the prospect of the new theatre development at the much-loved Odeon building in Northgate Street.
With the possibility of two cinema screens and a new location for the central library, it is an ambitious project which befits the status of a city like Chester. Always assuming it does eventually see the light of day!
But even if all goes according to plan, the venue will not open its doors until some time in 2016, which still seems a long way off.
Therefore, there seems no better time to celebrate what is being done now in the name of theatre in the city, especially after a year which has included a number of artistic highs for some of the aforementioned groups.
Let’s start with Theatre in the Quarter, the group which began modestly in the Garden Quarter area of Chester and which now attracts professional actors with impressive track records and huge reputations to its productions.
Staging something as exceptional as A Christmas Carol and making the most of its magnificent setting of the Town Hall is a splendid achievement in itself but 2012 has seen other milestones reached for this ambitious company.
Theatre in the Quarter artistic director Matt Baker worked with 200 singers, dancers and musicians to present a version of his Olympic Torch anthem Across the World at Chester Racecourse on May 29.
The anthem was first performed by 700 people and six giants at Chester Amphitheatre on March 3 as Chester’s contribution to Music Nation – a UK-wide celebration of music organised by the BBC and Locog (London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games).
Then in June, the company unveiled the world premiere of The Chester Giants, a new opera written by Matt Baker and Helen Newall, which was presented by hundreds of performers, including soloists, choirs, musicians, dancers and drummers, at the historic amphitheatre.
It will take something incredible for Theatre in the Quarter to top all this in 2013 but if there is one person who can manage that feat, it’s Matt Baker.
Showbiz with style seems to be the hallmark of the well-established Tip Top Productions which was originally set up in North Wales but made Chester its home in August 2007 when it took over the studio space in the basement of the old Chester Gateway Theatre building.
That act in itself won the hearts of city theatregoers who were overjoyed to see Chester’s much-missed Gateway venue at least partially continuing the stage show tradition.
Tip Top have attracted a number of visiting performers and companies since then but the Forum Studio Theatre has been best used as the setting for the group’s own crowd-pleasing shows which this year have included the aforementioned Cinderella, an acclaimed production of Calendar Girls (which was visited by the play’s Cheshire-based author Tim Firth), serious drama with Death Of A Salesman and a brand new play You Decide, by the writer of Sunny Rhyl, Chester playwright Paul Kelly.
The company will also be quick off the mark in 2013 by staging The Vagina Monologues – no doubt another in a long line of productions which are habitually sold out.
A discussion of theatre and Chester could not possibly be complete without significant reference to the Chester Theatre Club which has been part of the fabric of the city’s artistic community for five decades.
Enthusiastic amateur actors have found always found a welcome home at a club which has long been able to boast of having its own theatre – the delightfully named Little Theatre in Gloucester Street in Newtown.
Chester Theatre Club reached a major milestone in 2012 when it celebrated its 50th anniversary and did so in style with a gala performance of Bedroom Farce by Alan Ayckbourn.
Among the guests were some of the original cast of Bedroom Farce which the club produced in 1989 – Kay Whittle, Bill Smith, Louise Morgan and Chris Bradley.
Chairman Jane Barth praised the original members of the theatre club for having the enterprise and farsightedness to buy the old Christ Church School in 1962 and work so hard to convert it into the club’s new home.
It was purchased from the council for the grand sum of £4,000.
Today the Little Theatre continues to thrive and is an award-winning club which produces six full productions a year. It has recently started a successful youth theatre which puts on regular showcases.
Other on-stage highlights during 2012 have included We Are Three Sisters by Blake Morrison, about the Brontë sisters, while 2013 offers such attractions as Safari Party by Tim Firth, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Lettice and Lovage by Peter Shaffer.
From the most established theatrical offering in Chester to the city’s newest jewel in our cultural crown - Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre.
This project is the brainchild of Chester Performs – the organisation which was set up to keep arts alive in the gap between the Gateway closing and the city getting a new performing arts venue – a gap that is proving to be a lot wider than anyone could possibly have feared.
It was a group that took a while to find its feet as bad weather hit such events as the Screen Deva open air cinema festival while the inventive but esoteric Up The Wall left most people scratching their heads in bewilderment.
All that changed when the organisation hit paydirt in 2010 with Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre, echoing the world famous offering in Regent’s Park but skilfully remodelled to suit Chester audiences and the city’s own beautiful city centre park.
The past three years have brought outstanding productions of Shakespeare comedies Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and Twelfth Night.
But the box office safety of those presentations has been matched by the riskier venture of commissioning brand new plays – a family-friendly version of Hercules in the first year followed by Glyn Maxwell’s riotously wonderful take on the Merlin legend last year.
The same writer’s Twelfth Night sequel for 2012 – Masters Are You Mad? – was something of a mis-step but there was still an undeniable thrill in witnessing new work being unveiled in a Chester setting.
All of these groups will be doing everything they can to make sure 2013 is as memorable for city theatregoers as 2012 has been. But there are even more exciting things ahead in the coming months.
After the alarming demise of Chester Festivals during the autumn, it was a relief to see Chester Performs quickly step into the breach and promise that Chestival will be back, bigger and better, for 2013.
And there is one heck of a buzz building around the five-yearly production of Chester Mystery Plays which, for the first time, will be staged inside Chester Cathedral this summer.
So by all means keep counting the days (months, years?) until the Odeon-based theatre finally opens its doors but don’t let that stop you seeking out the theatrical gems which are already on our doorstep.