It is three decades since an appeal was launched to raise funds for a new theatre in North Staffordshire.
Donations locally amounted to more than £1m and three years later, in August 1986, the £3.1m New Vic Theatre opened its doors.
Markedly different from its competitors, as one of the few ‘producing’ theatres it has always prided itself on nurturing local talent and telling stories of life here in the Potteries.
The New Vic as we know it now may have opened in the Eighties but it actually traces its roots beyond North Staffordshire and back to the late 1950s when the Victoria Theatre Company, the brainchild of director, actor, designer, lecturer and writer Stephen Joseph, became the first in the UK to perform permanently ‘in the round’.
In other words, the audience surrounded the area on which actors would perform.
Originally based in Scarborough, the company toured the country and took its 250-seater ‘theatre’ with it.
One of its regular haunts was Newcastle-under-Lyme which led to the planning of a permanent home in North Staffordshire.
On October 9, 1962 the Victoria Theatre opened its doors in a converted cinema on the corner of Victoria Street and Hartshill Road, Hartshill.
Under the guidance of founder and director Peter Cheeseman, the Vic earned an international reputation by creating musical documentaries.
These included productions such as The Knotty (1966) Fight For Shelton Bar! (1974), Miner Dig the Coal (1981) and Nice Girls (1993).
These documentaries tapped into the experiences and recollections of people across North Staffordshire because, as the late Mr Cheeseman was oft heard to say, ‘in the local is the universal’.
In The Knotty, for example – a play charting the history of the North Staffordshire Railway – the voices of former railwaymen from the age of steam were recorded and used in the production and some were actually in attendance on its opening night.
Around 280 productions were staged in Hartshill before the New Vic’s purpose-built theatre was unveiled to the public and during those years actors such as Ben Kingsley, Bob Hoskins and Roy Barraclough graced the stage.
Suddenly theatre critics from national newspapers were visiting Stoke-on-Trent of all places. Who would have believed it?
After a terrific fund-raising campaign locally and the successful bidding for grant aid, the move to the new venue almost doubled seating capacity to around 600.
Potteries-born actor Freddie Jones and Robert Powell, who cut his teeth as an actor at the former Victoria Theatre, were among the guests of honour on the opening night – August 13, 1986.
Peter Cheeseman, who was awarded a CBE in 1998 for his dedication to theatres, produced 393 plays, directing 147 of them himself and remained a passionate advocate of theatre-in-the-round. He died in 2010.
The New Vic Theatre is his and Stephen Joseph’s great legacy and these days more than 100,000 people watch the nine productions each year at the renowned theatre in Basford.
These include work by the New Vic Borderlines team which works with some of the most disadvantaged communities in our area such as young people at risk of offending and adults with learning difficulties.
One of my favourite New Vic productions was the Hound of the Baskervilles in 1997 in which this unique theatre setting was somehow transformed into the bleak, eerie moors of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mystery.
Thirty years after the initial fund-raising campaign, the New Vic continues to inspire and draw admiration and rightly so.
Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia.