Features Published 6 July 2020

Stories from Theatre Royal Plymouth

When news of redundancies hit, Laura Horton collected testimonies of what Theatre Royal Plymouth meant to artists and audiences. Here are 10 of them.

Laura Horton

Theatre Royal Plymouth. Photo: David Partner. Prints are available at https://www.davidpartner.co.uk with 25% of the profits going to the theatre’s fundraising campaign

Within half an hour of getting the news of redundancies about Theatre Royal Plymouth, sobbing and snotty nosed, I knew I had to channel my own anguish into something positive otherwise it would engulf me. Although I am obviously pleased that there is now a rescue package, I will not be resting on my laurels and will continue to campaign. There is a wide theatre ecology (reflected in many of the stories I have collected) and that must not be forgotten. No person left behind.
Laura Horton

The closing of the theatre has left a big hole in my life already. I’ve gone from seeing maybe 2500 people on a matinee day, to no people sometimes now. It’s a massive upheaval for me.

After The Big Issue offered me a pitch outside the theatre I got offered a free ticket to a show called In My Mind I’m Dreaming. I wasn’t sure how I’d react to it because of my mental health problems and I sat next to the usher and explained that. But after five minutes I thought okay this is fine, and after ten minutes I realised it replaced my bad thoughts. It was a different world and I thought – I quite like this. I wish I could do this. The theatre helped with my rehabilitation.

It took about a year to get used to the pitch, and at first it was hard work, but the people coming to the theatre got to know me. They’d be going in and I could tell them what I knew about the production, if any of the cast had been out to speak to me and so on. Over time my mental health improved.

I started doing Our Space at TR2 and that gave me the tools to talk to people properly – devised theatre is really good for that. Jade would tell us we were doing well and it would help with our confidence.

I replaced my thoughts of ‘where’s the next beer’ with my time at the theatre. I’ve now been in a sold-out production on the Drum stage and I’m in education – it’s been massive in my life. I’ve gone from being what you might call a street urchin to a proper person. My life is utterly changed and I’m distraught that the theatre is currently closed. I really miss it.

I think in many ways my time at TRP and performing with the young company quite literally saved me. I started performing in the Drum when I was around 18, only two years after the sudden death of my older brother. I never thought I could be happy again after his death, but the summer of 1999 was one of the best periods of my life. I played a leading role in the Young Company’s production of the lost domain. The friendships I found through being a part of the Young Company are still some of the close friends I have today. It was the Young Company that gave me the confidence to go to drama school and work as an actress before setting up my own theatre company back here in Plymouth ten years ago. It truly was, and is, a remarkable place and I know so many people that have such magical memories of the joy it brought to their lives.
Beth Hewlett

There are too many positive memories I have of working at Plymouth as an early career playwright, learning the craft (I still am). The first thing you notice is the sense of ‘place’ the building has within the community. Like literally, in the city centre, where all roads seem to lead to it, and around it, meaning when – as is so common in places like this – the surrounding retail businesses shut up shop at the end of the day, there’s not a lot else to draw people in, meaning that the hundreds sometimes thousands of people teeming into the centre are there for one thing – a night out at the theatre. Being together, sharing in something, with your neighbours and those travelling across Devon and Cornwall.

That sense of community extends to the work inside the building too. I LOVED spending time in the infamous canteen, where backstage stage crew and technicians would sit alongside the touring actors and local artists and musicians to talk about the work or chat nonsense, almost unique these days in any theatre where everyone buggers off alone to Pret.

But I think one of my happiest memories will be opening my play Monster Raving Loony in the Drum (the building’s studio space, designed to take risks and champion new voices). It was a political satire about the Monster Raving Loony party and partly because I’d done some political plays in London and partly the subject matter we got a ton of London critics and political commentators down to see it (not always easy). The night before we had given tickets to local students who had really invested in the show, giving the company huge vocal encouragement, laughing and playing along. Now the Great and the Good were here, including Quentin Letts and other sketch writers. But this was still Plymouth, with no airs and graces, and the show was interactive, the audience being a part of the lead character’s mad political party. So as every night, gave them all party hats to wear, fake noses, made them join in with our skiffle band – which they did. I’ll never forget that night going back to the nearest hotel after opening, knowing that the nation’s critics had been booked onto the same floor as me, and as I settled into bed, the surreal thought that all along the corridor people were typing their judgements only inches away – not the case in the capital. But more importantly, they were writing about Theatre Royal Plymouth, and it’s unique place in the cultural world. Which was huge, for new writing. And has to be, must be, again…
James Graham

TRP was the making of me, both personally and professionally. It has always been a venue where the people matter, so to be going through a redundancy procedure must be unfathomably difficult for all involved. I remember being a kid and going to see the panto, starring Les Dawson. My dad worked for Royal Mail and they’d arrange a trip for all the families to go for cheap, and it was such a joyous thing; that shared experience was something special even at a young age, and underlined just how much the theatre matters to the people of this city.

When I was getting ready to do my GCSEs I didn’t know what my long-term ambitions were. My drama teacher at school suggested I consider auditioning for a part in Theatre Royal’s production of Union Street – a large-scale community project specifically about the city. I thought I might as well; I didn’t have any other plans for the summer, and reasoned there’d also be girls there (going to an all-boys school meant this was always appealing!). So I auditioned, and I was successful – marking the beginning of a 20-year relationship with a theatre that means so much to me. Being in the Young Company made me realise just how much I wanted theatre to be my career. And it felt like that theatre cared about me. When I had to delay going to uni for a year because I couldn’t afford to go straight after sixth form, TRP offered me my first paid work as a trainee practitioner. And they have kept offering me opportunities over the years.

It would almost be easier for me to tell you what I haven’t done at TRP than what I have: I spent a good chunk of time working on Box Office, both before I went to London to pursue my dreams and when I came back from London because I was broke; I’ve assisted on and led workshops for pretty much every age group imaginable, ranging from preschoolers to over 70s; I worked in the Development department talking to individual givers who were, almost to a person, lovely older people who wanted to give the theatre money because they loved coming to shows; I even gave the first public tours of TR2 when it opened. I know their spaces inside and out, because the company knows its staff is part of its family.

Many venues would find it easy to make redundancies at a time like this; the age-old ‘upstairs/downstairs’ dynamic, which exists in a number of venues, would mean many senior jobs would be safe whilst those at the bottom of the food chain would be gone. But how can you make easy cuts at a place like TRP? The people are the foundations upon which it succeeds.
Dan Baker

I was a huge supporter of the Theatre Royal Plymouth before it even opened its doors (in 1982). So many people were calling it a white elephant and in those early days I sat watching Jesus Christ Superstar play to a half-empty theatre, but it wasn’t long before word got around about this amazing place that sat in the heart of Plymouth. I nowadays it’s a sell out. I was so proud to take our dance school to perform on its stage in the Summer Spectaculars; we also performed the Wizard of Oz in the Drum. But the best buzz of all is when I sit in auditorium to watch my former pupils, now professional dancers perform in the many productions that it brings to our region. We must back the Arts.
Sue Cook

I am an LGBTQ+ artist and teacher working in Plymouth. Last year, the Theatre Royal gave me a platform to stage my show, Faggot, in the Lab. Faggot was a semi-autobiographical piece about having a “gay voice” and associated discourse around that. It spoke of homophobia, internalised homophobia, and conversations I had with other people about their perceptions. The theatre is crucial to tell stories. It allows us to learn and to see ourselves reflected in others so that we can grow in return. My parents saw that show and my Dad apologised to me in case he, in any way, caused any hurt or upset to me growing up as a young queer kid. He hugged me and he cried. That show helped spark conversations with colleagues about the dialogue we use, and it is now shaping my ideas when considering embarking on my PhD research. The theatre gave life to that. As a child, growing up in 80s/90s homophobic, working class Plymouth, the Theatre Royal was always a safe space. A space to be yourself and share stories. I have attended this theatre, I have worked for this theatre and I have performed in this theatre. I now teach theatre to young people and the impact the Theatre Royal has on them is huge. It gives them a place to visit and a place to work.
Colin Davey

I was fortunate enough to join the inaugural Theatre Royal summer youth theatre in 1986. I remember the two summers it was held with great fondness, visiting the Drum every day to work, to explore and to play. The Theatre Royal in those days was new, and it had an atmosphere that was fizzing with excitement. It was a producing house, and under the creative and colourful eye of Roger Redfarn it flourished. My family and I visited almost every week seeing Shakespeare, farce, Agatha Christie, Opera, ballet, musicals, comedies, straight theatre and the famous pantos… The Theatre Royal was a magnet, every floor hosting visitors front-of-house, while backstage hummed with activity.

I cannot express how fundamental my years at the Theatre Royal Plymouth were for the formation of the person, and the actor, I am today. It was within those walls – and elsewhere in rehearsal – that I learned the importance of ‘company’, of collaboration, of serious study, of professionalism and respect for an audience. It forged friendships that have lasted for over thirty years, and a community of people spread across all industries, who spent precious hours creating and then performing productions over the years the youth music theatre existed. Through lockdown generations of the youth music theatre have met every week to chat and to reminisce.

The Theatre Royal is not just a building, or even just a playhouse, it is a living being, one that has inspired, moved, excited, frightened and enthralled the population of. Plymouth and beyond. It has produced work that has toured, graced stages in the West End and won awards. It has been a social hub as well as a cultural standard bearer. It has celebrated special events for the city and introduced children to the magic of live theatre. To hear that this great building is in such dire straits is heart-breaking. I for one owe the Theatre Royal Plymouth a huge debt, one I can never repay.
Daniel Goode

The Drum has been like a second home to Graeae. A beautiful space where we have co-produced shows including Solid Life of Sugar Water by Jack Thorne and more recently One Under by Winsome Pinnock. It is a place where disability and access is understood and embraced. The care and support, plus dramaturgical expertise from Simon Stokes, David Prescott and the team, has always been exceptional.

It broke my heart to hear of redundancies as The Drum is the lifeblood of unheard voices, a platform for the disenfranchised and a hotbed of theatrical gems. We need theatre now more than ever as it is through the telling of stories we learn to heal together. People of Plymouth need their theatre and the sense of being back together as a community, sharing this new world we now live in. A world that still has and must have The Drum in it.
Jenny Sealey, Artistic Director & CEO, Graeae Theatre Company

When I was 15 and starting my blog, I reached out to TRP and said that I’d love to review some shows. At that point, TRP had very little clue about bloggers but opened their arms to me and we created a wonderful partnership, which has spanned seven or so years. From there, a fully-fledged blogging scheme was launched and bloggers were utilised as a great asset within the theatre. From my work through blogging, TRP invited me for different pieces of work from marketing support, acting as a Young Rep and stewarding, to my first stage management job. They saw my potential and continued to offer me opportunities to get involved and further my aspirations for theatre, whatever department that may be. They have artistically provided inspiration through the theatre I’ve seen (at The Drum in particular) as well as opening their arms to providing many thoughtful opportunities which has undoubtedly got me to where I am today, starting my career at Kneehigh.
Ellie Woolman

As a teacher, I worked with young people with mental health issues and many of my students suffered with social anxiety and low self-esteem. A visit outside school was often fraught with difficulty but the staff at the Theatre Royal always helped provide a safe and comfortable experience for my students. We were offered visits behind the scenes and this was a great favourite with the young people. Several students went on to join the Young Company where they gained a sense of self-worth and an opportunity to flourish in the arts.

Saving the Theatre Royal isn’t just about the finances. The theatre gives us a chance to escape from our usual lives, an opportunity to embrace our differences, to laugh and challenge our thinking. A place of enchantment where, in the semi darkness, we ride the magic carpet of dreams and come away refreshed and more open-minded than when we entered.
Babs Horton

You can support Theatre Royal Plymouth by donating to the theatre’s emergency appeal


Laura Horton

Laura Horton is a publicist and playwright. She has worked in PR for the last twelve years, from in-house at Theatre Royal Plymouth, National Theatre and Somerset House to freelance across the arts and education. As a playwright she has written two full-length plays, Hidden by Things and Labyrinth Diet, both on hold due to the pandemic. Her next two writing projects are: Giddy Tuppy as part of 2.0 Fest at The Space and Summer of Birds for Plymouth Fringe. Horton has also written articles about hoarding disorder for The i and Huffington Post.



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