Why this is the worst time for touring theatre in generations

Hairspray, the musical UK tour - Mark Senior
Hairspray, the musical UK tour - Mark Senior

It goes without saying that British theatre has experienced unprecedented upheavals over the past couple of years. For obvious reasons, the convulsions afflicting institutions such as the National and our totemic West End have tended to take centre stage.

Barely remarked on, though, has been the Cinderella of the profession: the touring network – that critical and intricate ecosystem of theatres and roving companies, dependent on a complex panoply of creative and technical talents. It’s engulfed in crisis right now, and in a way that eclipses the trouble that has been happening elsewhere in the sector.

The effect of the omicron wave has sent bookings off a cliff. Veteran impresario David Pugh, who enjoyed success last autumn with a regional tour of Private Lives starring Nigel Havers, is adamant: “This is the worst time for touring in living memory.”

Louise Chantal, who runs the Oxford Playhouse, offers a stark indication of how turbulent things are: “We had four mainstage touring productions [for this year] cancelled in 24 hours last week,” she says.

Some companies are shunting tours to next year, while some producers can’t get investment – “theatre angels”, the backers who stump up money with a view to supporting theatre and making a decent return, are wary of making commitments at the moment.

Imogen Stubbs in the RSC production of The Two Noble Kinsmen, 1987 - Photostage
Imogen Stubbs in the RSC production of The Two Noble Kinsmen, 1987 - Photostage

Touring has always been tough, but the logistics are tougher than ever – what with variations in Wales and Scotland in terms of restrictions, and soaring costs for everything from fuel to the wood that would be used for building sets.

Among the recent casualties are the musical Bring It On, co-written by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, which was scrapped, a fortnight from its first tour date, after Covid infections hammered its London run at the Southbank, resulting in hundreds of thousands of pounds in losses. Another big musical, Fat Friends, composed by Nick Lloyd Webber – son of Andrew – has been shelved. A new play, Two Cigarettes in the Dark, starring Penelope Keith, which was to have started an eight-venue tour next month, has also bitten the dust for now.

Dead certs and some feelgood hits are helping stave off catastrophe for the time being. Les Misérables on tour in Liverpool is selling well, Hairspray had a ball recently at Sunderland Empire and Six – the runaway hit about the wives of Henry VIII – can be relied on to pack houses.

But many mid- to large-scale venues (which range from around 200 seats to around 2,000) are still struggling to make ends meet. They need a constant flow of decent theatrical “products” to sustain themselves and, in turn, provide the stable bases that make touring worthwhile.

Before the pandemic, the sector was precarious but held together. Recent and current statistics are, inevitably, piecemeal, but in 2018, leading umbrella organisation UK Theatre calculated that its regional theatres had audiences of 18.8 million – more than the West End that year – the bulk of these attracted by the visiting productions. That kind of rosy picture is now in jeopardy.

Bring It On, the musical - Helen Maybanks
Bring It On, the musical - Helen Maybanks

Terminal decline would be a tragedy given that touring has been part and parcel of how the country became a world leader in the form – a feature of Shakespeare’s day, boosted after the Restoration and then, thanks to the railways, flourishing from the Victorian era long into the 20th century.

It’s not just a question of resources (although an emergency Arts Council strategy would be welcome), but also care, attention and love. “My mission in the next two to three years is to make touring seem a noble art. The glamour has gone away,” says Edward Snape, who chairs the League of Independent Producers.

Of course “glamour” was only ever in intermittent supply. Hermione Gingold once memorably quipped about fellow actor Donald Wolfit, that stentorian Shakespearean and stalwart of the mid-century provincial stage, “Olivier is a tour de force, and Wolfit is forced to tour”.

But at its best touring offers transformative nights out, brings people together, holds a mirror up to the nation. There’s an infectious romance to the road that pioneering companies like Fuel – which dots work all over the place – Wise Children and Paines Plough do their utmost to foster.

All the same, the current crisis is throwing into stark relief a long-standing issue: the dearth of toured quality drama. Michael Harrison, producing the touring musical of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, notes that where once regional theatre programmes were stuffed with visiting plays and had only a few musicals, the ratio has flipped. “I came across a 1994 programme for Newcastle Theatre Royal and there was Derek Jacobi in Macbeth and Imogen Stubbs in Saint Joan. Imagine a season like that now.”

Sir Ian McKellen - Getty
Sir Ian McKellen - Getty

Indeed, a more highbrow offering with a star name attached can reap rewards (as the touring production of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets with Ralph Fiennes has proved).

Jonathan Church, producer of Two Cigarettes in the Dark, believes that such well-known names should do their bit on the road. “If ever there was a moment when we need the acting community to support touring, it’s now,” he asserts. “Heroically, some actors, like David Suchet or Penelope Keith, are prepared to do an old-fashioned regional tour – they believe that’s part of their job. But there are some actors who, if you try to persuade them to do more than two regional venues as well as London, it’s like pulling teeth.”

We will certainly need the Ian McKellens of tomorrow, valiantly sallying forth to far-flung parts to help inspire our attendance. McKellen raised the flag for the value of touring with his 80th-birthday show in 2019, visiting 80 venues of every shape and size. At the same time, the onus should be on us as well to get out there and cheer our touring players on.

Alastair Whatley has just launched Into the Night, a digital drama about the Penlee lifeboat disaster of 1981, to help boost the fortunes of his company, Original Theatre (originaltheatre.com), which takes quality drama out on the road, most recently A Splinter of Ice, about Graham Greene and Kim Philby. Passionate and committed though he is, he’s wondering how much longer he can keep going: “I’m at the point where I’m thinking ‘Frankly, is it worth it?’”

Practitioners like Whatley are caught between funding authorities, star names and us, reliant on each to play their role. If audiences wait indefinitely for the all-clear, the touring world as it was will become a memory. Now, we the audience must give touring theatre’s stalwarts a helping hand.

Original Theatre’s Into the Night is on demand to Feb 20: originaltheatreonline.com. Bring It On is at the Southbank Centre to Sat; www.southbankcentre.co.uk; more information; uktheatre.org/; www.ruraltouring.org; www.theatrestrust.org.uk