Why the show must go on at Royal & Derngate in Northampton...history demands it!
‘The existence during all these troubled years of a repertory theatre in Northampton must have made a great difference to many people’s lives in the town.’
So read this ‘understatement’ by the great JB Priestley way back in 1948, referring to the fact that our wonderful theatre company had continued, unbroken, throughout the Second World War.
Between September 1939 and May 1945 in ‘weekly rep’, audiences could see well over 500 plays!
Indeed, it was during a run of Priestley’s ‘When We Are Married’ that the town and the nation celebrated VE Day.
Then, through thick and thin, the theatre continued throughout the ensuing years... until March 2020.
Lockdown! And, regrettably, our beloved historic theatre and her young sister, Derngate, remain dark.
Derngate is, of course, more recent; an inspired creation of the 1980s giving some 1,500 audience members the chance to witness major touring productions, leading entertainers and breath-taking music, notably with the Royal Philharmonic as its resident orchestra.
Built on the site of the old bus station, Derngate was ingeniously connected to the old theatre, forming a world class centre of entertainment.
Little did the eminent architect CJ Phipps, the man responsible for Her Majesty’s, The Garrick and the Vaudeville theatres in the West End, know how loved his Northampton ‘Opera House and Theatre Royal’, as it was originally known, would become.
It has come a long way since it opened on May 5, 1884, when Twelfth Night’s prophetic opening words – “If music be the food of love, play on, give me excess of it” – were declaimed!
The words “play on” seem frighteningly uncertain, for in a recent edition of The Times, the Royal’s artistic director, James Dacre, wrote a cracking article, headlined ‘My theatre is in financial intensive care’.
More recently, Quentin Letts, The Times theatre columnist, echoed the plight, but with praise: “Theatre civilises. It gentrifies. More than any other art form, it is a civic force field.”
He gave Northampton’s Royal &Derngate a mention as a local source of pride.
What many may not realise is that Northampton’s theatres, in particular The Royal, have earned an enviable national and, yes, international reputation.
Once, the Rep was a cosy local house feeding local audiences, but now productions from Northampton regularly hold their own in the West End and, as Dacre pointed out, a couple have even been transferred to the big Hollywood screen, including one of his.
It was ‘End of the Rainbow’, directed by Rupert Goold OBE, director of productions at The Royal from 2000–2005.
It transferred to the West End and to Broadway and was nominated for Olivier and Tony Awards. Goold went on to direct the Hollywood movie version, renamed ‘Judy’, winning Renée Zellweger an Oscar in 2020.
The Hollywood movie, The Two Popes, was adapted from the play, The Pope, directed by James Dacre, which premiered at the Royal in 2019.
The two lead performances received nominations for Oscar, Golden Globes and Bafta awards.
Is it any wonder that we should be proud and should long for the day when our theatres re-open.
What a party we will have!