Our New Vic is the legacy of a pair of great theatre pioneers

Peter Cheeseman at the New Vic Theatre.

Peter Cheeseman at the New Vic Theatre.


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.

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Why not try the theatre? You might just enjoy yourself

It would certainly make for interesting reading if the people of North Staffordshire were surveyed to ask them whether or not they go to the theatre on a regular basis.

I suspect the numbers who would answer ‘yes’ are pretty small. Maybe 10 per cent at best.

The truth is that, aside from the annual trip for a Christmas pantomime, most families don’t give much thought to watching live stage productions.

It’s simply not high on their list of priorities.

While tens of thousands flock to watch Premier League Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium once a fortnight and 5,000-plus visit Vale Park to see my lot play, local theatres are forced to eke out an existence.

This is a crying shame when you consider the wonderful venues we have here in the Potteries.

In The New Vic at Basford we have Europe’s first, purpose-built theatre-in-the-round putting on many home-cooked shows every year as well as top-drawer touring productions.

In Hanley we have no less than three superb auditoriums. The newly-refurbished Mitchell Youth Arts Centre, the magnificent Regent theatre and the grand old Victoria Hall.

Those of us with long memories may still wince at the city council’s Cultural Quarter overspend but no-one can say the project didn’t gift us two bloody great, very distinct city centre venues.

In addition, we shouldn’t forget the Queen’s Theatre in Burslem and equally fine Stoke-on-Trent Repertory Theatre on Leek Road.

All of the above put on superb live entertainment but, sadly, this is very often in front of half-empty houses.

Despite being privately-run businesses, many theatres rely heavily on local authority subsidies which – in the current climate – are harder to justify than ever before.

So why the apathy? Why aren’t more people choosing the theatre for a good night out?

Some people will doubtless blame the cost – although it’s certainly less expensive than tickets for a football match (depending where you sit) – and probably on a par with a trip to the cinema.

Others will blame the lack of variety and the quality of the shows on offer.

However, the reality is that if you look across all our local venues there is usually something to suit the taste (and pockets) of everyone.

If you ask me I reckon the reason that most people don’t go to the theatre is because a) they view it as the preserve of the middle classes or b) they’ve never experienced a live show. Or both.

Perhaps it’s the fault of schools. Or perhaps it’s our demographic.

I know some blokes who wouldn’t dream of setting foot in a theatre – preferring to sit in their local boozer or in front of the telly every night than stepping outside of their comfort zone to watch a stage performance.

The great tragedy of this is that they don’t know what they are missing and the theatres are missing them.

The great irony is that local drama schools are filled with bright-eyed, enthusiastic and multi-talented youngsters itching to perform in front of bigger audiences.

Many of them, along with a few contestants who are a little longer in the tooth, will be taking part in this year’s Stoke’s Top Talent competition which kicks off in less than two weeks’ time.

All of them, I know, would dearly love your support.

The show is called Stoke’s Top Talent but in truth the acts will come from all over The Sentinel’s patch – from Biddulph and Congleton to Newcastle, Leek, Stafford and Stone – as well as the Potteries.

Through the competition, which offers cash prizes and a pantomime contract, they will get to appear on stage at the Victoria Hall and possibly The Regent theatre where the heats and grand final will take place.

Among the 170-plus acts taking part in the auditions will be bands, singers, musicians, dancers, impersonators, magicians and comedians.

The competition is championed by our own stage star Jonny Wilkes who gives up his time for free to work with the contestants and compere the show.

Stoke’s Top Talent is the reason that teenage dancer Aaron Corden, from Abbey Hulton, is now living the dream of working towards a career in musical theatre.

Self-taught from watching videos of Michael Jackson on the internet, he once carried a bench from Northwood Park to The Regent theatre to provide a prop for his act.

Having performed as a dancer for none other than Take That and the Black Eyed Peas over the last 18 months, he is now one of the top students at a prestigious performing arts school in Cambridge.

But a week on Saturday Aaron will be back at the Victoria Hall where his journey began, to watch this year’s hopefuls as they try to impress the judges.

Why don’t you join him and a very partisan crowd for the auditions?

It is a free-of-charge family day out and gives people who have perhaps never seen inside the place which recently played host to made-in-Stoke-on-Trent rock god Slash the chance to look around.

As someone who’s been lucky enough to appear in panto at The Regent and be a judge for Stoke’s Top Talent, I can assure you that you’ll be in for a treat.

*The auditions for Stoke’s Top Talent are free to watch and take place at the Victoria Hall in Hanley from 10am on Saturday, July 28 – with the call-backs the following Saturday, August 4.

The closing date for entries for Stoke’s Top Talent is Friday, July 20, and anyone interested in entering can download the application form by logging on to: http://www.stokestoptalent.com

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday