Swimming Pool v Theatre for Exeter

I’ve been challenged by a resident on my views on Swimming  Pool v Theatre.

And I can only guess that by theatre, they mean a large city centre theatre to rival the Plymouth Theatre Royal, as Exeter DOES have both theatre venues and theatre companies, offering a wide range of exciting theatre and other entertainment – quite often serving up productions not seen this side of Bristol.

Exeter Corn Exchange (Capacity = 500)

*Exeter Northcott (Capacity = 460)

Barnfield Theatre (Capacity = 287)

*Exeter Phoenix (Capacity = Seated 216; Standing 450)

Cygnet Theatre (Capacity = 100)

*Bike Shed Theatre (Capacity = 80)

And in addition, there are theatre companies that produce their own work, and tour nationally and internationally:
*Theatre Alibi 

Le Navet Bete

And of course there is a relatively new an organisation based in Exeter which brings people together to design, promote and produce extraordinary live experiences.

Each of the organisations marked with an * is recognised by Art Council England to be of such benefit to overall arts offer  of the area and the UK that they are designated as a National Portfolio Organisation [NPO] as they play a vital role in helping ACE meet its mission of great art and culture for everyone. Each NPO receives a commitment of 3 year funding for their activities

As a professional theatre sound designer, I would love to be able to deliver a 1200 seater theatre capable of presenting large scale touring shows – but  such a theatre is likely to cost somewhere in excess of £47m to build and the city council would have to pay around £350k each year to a commercial operation to run the venue.

I can say this with some confidence as that’s what happens at the most recent civic theatre to be built in the UK – the Waterside Theatre in Aylesbury.

Just to be clear, I am not dismissing such a proposal out of hand – what I cannot support is a theatre that requires significant subsidy to operation. If a private enterprise came forward, I am sure that a compromise could be found. But there are no such propositions coming forward – either here in Exeter, or elsewhere around the country.

However, there is a case for a for a multi-purpose entertainment venue, which will need to be at least revenue neutral, if not income generating.

I am currently hopeful that the Theatre for Exeter Development Group will soon be commissioning an options appraisal  to  examine the feasibility of just such a venue as I know Cllr Rosie Denham, as the Portfolio Holder covering arts and culture, has helped them develop the brief for a consultant.

Although no site in the city centre has been identified, there are some obvious options that could become available in the next 5 years.

As to the Leisure Complex – there is a robust business case that shows that the facility will be generating a significant income for the city council at a time when national government is reducing central funding to local authorities and expecting them to be financially self-sufficient by the time the Revenue Support Grant is removed from councils by 2020/21.

Thus, the Leisure Complex will in time allow us to continue to work for the good of the city and its residents,  and – if a the options appraisal can give a viable case for a cost neutral/income generating venue – help finance that venue in the future.

I hope that helps clarify my position.

Steve Knightley’s call for a city-centre theatre for Exeter

A video by Steve Knightley made at Nottingham Playhouse has re-opened the debate a city-centre theatre for Exeter.

Posted on his Facebook page, the Show of Hands folk singer used the video to criticise Exeter City Council’s decision to build a swimming pool and lesuire centre rather than a ‘proper theatre’ on the bus and coach station site.

Early on in his video Steve says:
“One of the only county town I can think of that doesn’t have a proper theatre”.

I would dispute that observation – Exeter DOES have its own theatre – the Exeter Northcott – albeit not at the heart of the city centre.

And I would like to place some of Steve’s comments in context.

I’ve been lucky to have earned a living in the theatre profession since 1978.

I’ve been a passionate advocate of live theatre – and if I thought that I could offer a viable 1200 auditorium on the bus and coach station site, I would be fighting wholeheartedly for one rather than a leisure complex.

And it ‘s not the cost of building it – my estimated cost of £47m (see earlier blogs) could be afforded.

It’s the revenue running costs that stymie the plans.

The most recently opened similar venue (the Waterside in Aylesbury) costs the local authority around £350k a year to run.

Yes, COSTS  Aylesbury Vale District Council.

Even if full every night of the year, the local authority would see no additional financial benefit any profit would go to the commercial operator – ATG.

And what does £350k mean to Exeter City Council – that’s the same amount was we spend tackling homelessness (and not just rough sleeping) across the city each year.

And what about the specific theatre mentioned by Steve – the Nottingham Playhouse.

During the 1980’s I worked at the Leicester Haymarket (and a further 15 years living there before relocating to Exeter in 2004), just a 30-minute train ride away from Nottingham so I know the Playhouse well.

The 750-seater auditorium as opened in 1963, around the time Mr G.V Northcott was negotiating with the Board of Directors of the old Exeter Theatre  Royal in Longbrook Street.

History tells us that these negotiations were unsuccessful and as a consequent we are left with the legacy of the “theatre up on the hill” – the 480-seater Exeter Northcott.

For many years, both the Nottingham Playhouse and the Northcott Theatre were run and funded on a similar basis – a regional theatre with a resident production company presenting productions on a 3- or 4-weekly cycle.

Both were supported by the Arts Council of England [ACE], and received subsidies from local authorities.

Over those years, the funding models changed. And there were the various problems at the Northcott (especially in 2005 and 2010) resulting in a restructuring and a rethink on how the funding operates. Throughout these periods Exeter City Council have continued to fund the Nothcott, while ACE has considerably reduced the subsidy to the theatre.

Conversely, during the same period Nottingham Playhouse has seen its ACE subsidy rise – to around £1.2 per year, that’s around the same figure Plymouth Theatre Royal receives.

The Express & Echo reported the recent visit of ACE’s Chief Executive, Darren Henley [Arts Council England boss visits Exeter to celebrate its ‘magnetic pull for arts and culture’, 21 October 2015].

Darren was accompanied by Phil Gibbey, Area Director for ACE, South West. Both made encouraging noises about the success of arts and culture in Exeter – but they were less enthusiastic about any plans for a theatre to rival Plymouth Theatre Royal.

And let’s be clear – the Nottingham Playhouse for all that £1.2m per year subsidy from ACE DOES NOT have a programme similar to that  in Plymouth. NO Lion King, NO major musicals, NO An Inspector Calls. NO No.1 touring productions.

And why is that? Because Nottingham – at three times the size of Exeter, and a much more populous catchment area – also has the Theatre Royal, a 1200-seat venue that has been there since 1865.

If we still had the Theatre Royal in Longbrook Street, I think Exeter would be seeing a similar offering to that being presented at the  Nottingham venue.

But we don’t. So we can’t.

Exeter has been left with the legacy of Mr Northcott’s failure to secure a city centre theatre back in 1962.

Back to Steve’s belief that Exeter most be one of the only county towns that doesn’t have its proper theatre.

Not far from Notitngham is Derby. It’s a 14 mile drive from Nottingham to Derby.  Also 30 minutes on the train from Leicester, I often visited the venue during my 25 years in Leicester.

Back in the 1980s, Derby had its own city centre producing venue – the 535-seat Derby Playhouse, which opened in 1975 and ran until it went into administration in 2008 (note that year!).  The venue is now used by the University of Derby, who use it as a professional and learning theatre.

But what Derby did have in the city centre was the Assembly Rooms – a 1200 seater auditorium but the venue was never capable of taking the No.1 touring productions that visit the Plymouth Theatre Royal.

Instead it was more akin to Exeter’s Corn Exchange – albeit it somewhat larger – in programming events.

You might notice I use the term “was” – the building was badly damaged following a blaze in an adjacent car park and the private sector is being asked to come up with plans for new large-scale “performance and entertainment venue” for the city.

With many of the leases for shops on South Street coming to end in 2020, perhaps the Theatre for Exeter Development Group could look to work with various partners – including the private sector – to develop plans for a new performance venue on or around the site of the current Corn Exchange?
Maybe with the income from the new Leisure Complex,  ECC could afford to be part of that vision?

#Theatre4Exeter | The Boat Shed – a new theatre for the Quay

Screen shot 2015-07-11 at 09.13.37

The article Boat Shed: Plans for £4m theatre and nightspot at Exeter Quay [E&E, 09 July 2015] unveils the ambitious plans to turn derelict MacLaines Warehouses at Exeter Quay into a £4m creative space, which will include a new theatre, live music hall, cafe/bar, bakery and indoor market.

Firstly, I must declare an interest. I am a member of the Board of the Bike Shed Theatre – a position I hold as much because I’m a theatre practitioner (in my free time I am a freelance theatre sound designer) as well as being an ECC councillor.

Secondly, I do NOT see this an alternative to any plans to come forward from the Theatre For Exeter Development Group for a theatre in the city centre.

Thirdly, the business plan takes into consideration the financial reality of the current political climate – and seeks to maximise earned income rather than expecting government subsidy. That said, there is the hope of securing investment from three main funders: Heritage Lottery Fund, the European Regional Development Fund and Arts Council England. We’ll also expect to raise smaller amounts from trusts and foundations, local businesses and generous individuals.

McLaine's Warehouse in 1870
MacLaine’s Warehouse in 1870

David Lockwood, Director of The Bike Shed Theatre explains the plans…

Two years ago, I was shown around the empty warehouses that used to house the Maritime Museum down on Exeter’s quay. The intention had been to find a site for the Bike Shed to move in the Summer months when people don’t want to be down in a cellar so much. Two things immediately became apparent:

  • it would take a huge amount of time, effort and money to get these spaces open for a pop-up Summer retreat;
  • if you were willing to spend the time, effort and money, you’d be able to create something phenomenal and unique for the city.

Since then, we’ve been dreaming about what we could do with the building and for the last nine months we’ve been working with some brilliant people. including the leading international theatre architects Haworth Tompkins, to present a feasibility study to the owners of the building, Exeter Canal and Quay Trust. On the 6th July, we presented our plans.

Our intention is that the building will include:

  • a 250-seat flexible theatre;
  • a smaller double-height space for comedy and live music;
  • a cafe, bar and bakery;
  • an indoor market for local craft, design, food and drink;
  • co-working space and studios for creative companies;
  • rehearsal rooms;
  • space for outreach and education work.

We want to create a space that is more than just a theatre. In fact, more than just a traditional arts space. We’re keen to have a sense of openness between the performance spaces, creative working areas and social parts of the building. Our aim is that the new space – provisionally called The Boat Shed – will be accessible to all, a creative and social part of civic life for all curious enough to want to pay a visit.


So where now? We’ve kindly been given two years by Exeter Canal and Quay Trust to start raising the funds needed to convert the space. Whilst we’re doing this, we’re keen to show people around the building and are inviting ideas from the public. We’ll update you regularly with news of our progress and opportunities to come and view the space.

Normally at the start of a capital project, you’d be asked for money. But at this stage we’d rather have your ideas. So if there’s anything you’d like to see in the space – however boring or outrageous – please get in touch. I’m on davidlockwood@bikeshedtheatre.co.uk. I look forward to hearing from you.

Read more about the plans for The Boat Shed as an engine room of creativity planned for Exeter’s historic Quayside.





David, and all at the Bike Shed

David Lockwood
David Lockwood

#Theatre4Exeter | Opera for Exeter?

As I was writing my previous letter, I received another letter about the ‘iconic’ building – this time lamenting the fact that Ellen Kent Productions were not able to present any of their 3 touring opera productions in Exeter.

This is my response:

I’ve just picked up your follow up letter, and was reminded of one of your recent questions “why can’t Exeter have better productions?”

I see that you’ve attached details of three operas being toured by Ellen Kent Productions.

I’ve always heard some scathing comments about this particular company on my travels, so I did a little research

The “impassioned and sultry” description from The Observer was from a production back in 2001 – it is worth reading the full review by Fiona Maddocks to get her full comments, but here are some other selected quotes

It’s Moldova – don’t expect La Scala
The east Europeans who criss-cross the country with classics are competent, not innovative

The clipped quote was in full was “The impassioned and sultry Carmen was a Ukrainian”

Ms Maddocks also said “The stagings were woefully staid but not without spectacle. Musically they were secure and professional with some notably good singers. The orchestra, though thin in string sound – no surprise on poor quality instruments – played more than competently.”

So you have to wonder why a quote from 2001 is needed, when Ellen Kent has produced at least 2 other version of Carmen in recent years.

Have things improved since 2001? Not if this  2 star review of Madama Butterfly  by Rupert Christiansen published in the Daily Telegraph in 2012 is to be believed

Madama Butterfly, Ukrainian National Opera, Touring
This touring production is hardly the last word in finesse but its simple approach may suit some tastes

“The formula remains constant: there is no call for novelty or experiment: familiar repertory in ‘traditional’ stagings is delivered by robust Slavic voices, with no nonsense about interpretation. The schedule works the musicians like Trojans, on terms which no British union would tolerate: the result is an air of exhausted routine, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend these productions to anyone of exigent or sophisticated tastes. But for the casual or occasional operagoer they deliver a basic package which may provide an evening of uncomplicated pleasure.”

“The biggest disappointment of the evening, however, was the dreadful orchestral playing, under the baton of a conductor Gheorghe Stanciu who evinced no love or understanding of this wonderful score. Cramped into a horrid little pit and driven by his jogtrot tempi, the emaciated band sounded half-dead, with quavering brass and desperately stringy strings.”

So much for the full orchestra! Ms Maddocks also comments on the string sound 10 years earlier.

And Mr Christiensen mentions the musicians being cramped into a horrid little pit – I’m not familiar with Eastbourne’s (I assume) Congress Theatre but I have knowledge of others venues  on the touring  list, and I would suggest that many too could be described as having similar cramped pits and questionable acoustics for opera.

Once again, these are my personal views.

#Theatre4Exeter | An ‘iconic’ building on site of Bus Station

I have been in long-term correspondence over the Exeter City Council’s ‘iconic’ building on the site of the Bus and Coach Station…here’s the latest instalment.

I hope that these discussion help you realise that the decision over the future direction of the Bus & Coach Station development site is much more considered than many people realise.

If you have been following the story closely, you will know that the option to develop the site was awarded to Land Securities and Crown Estate back 2010.

Under the deal,  Land Securities would  draw up proposals for the site  and would be granted a long- term lease by the Council, which  would still own the freehold.

The developer would then pay  for the redevelopment of the site  and lease units to retailers.  Land Securities will now draw  up a feasibility plan and the Council will have the final say  on any proposals.

SEE: Land Securities seal Exeter bus station deal (WMN, 17 March 2014)

Of course this was under the previous LD administration when Leader Adrian Fullam had a letter in the E&E City centre theatre idea is unrealistic (15 March 2010).

Most of his comments then are still valid now.

As a consequence of the recent article in the E&E (“New bus station site plans are due within weeks” 13 June 2015), you highlight 4 points

1) The plans are expected to include a multi-screen cinema
As Adrian pointed out back in 2010, Land Securities are “Land Securities is a commercial company”. The same is true of their successors on the project, TIAA Henderson Real Estate.

They are now responsible for regenerating the current Bus & Coach Station site – they are investing £70m in the project – of course, they will be expecting to make a  substantial return.

The terms of their option gives them full control (subject to the usual planning restrictions) to make best use of that land as they see fit.

As to whether a multiplex is finally delivered on the emerging site is simply a matter of economics.

Each and every one of the 3 multi-screen cinemas operates on a commercial basis – if not, they would close down.

I am assuming that TH Real Estate and Crown Estate have had the relevant conversations with a cinema chain and/or independent and reckon they can get a financial return on delivering a new cinema on this site.

2) It is understood that a new swimming pool is needed to replace the Pyramids.
To be clear the leisure complex is going to much more than a swimming pool, it will have gym and other facilities – more details from Exeter Active, and you see outline details of the building design on Gale and Snowden’s Swim4Exeter page.

Initial design drawing [Gale and Snowden]
Initial design drawing [Gale and Snowden]

As it stands, the research and business case shows that the new leisure complex will NOT be an Olympic-sized pool. I’ve tried swimming in Commonwealth Pool in Edinburgh and it really is daunting.

I am really exciting that this ‘iconic’ building can be built to PassivHaus standards.

I for one would be seriously worried if the new leisure centre were located at one of the suggested alternatives – Arena Park. Many bus route have been threatened by withdrawal of services and I fear that this situation will only get worse in the future.

I want a facility that is easily accessible to all – not just those that can rely on private car use.

I haven’t got the actual usage details of Riverside to hand, but a report to Scrutiny – Economy in January 2014 reported an INCREASE of 44,000 customers at Riverside Leisure Centre in comparison to year one, and a significant rise at the Pyramids Swimming Centre with an increase of 29,000.

I haven’t seen the documents that outline the projected use of the new complex of 500k to 1m (New Exeter swimming pool will ‘attract a million visitors a year’, council claims E&E 19 March 2015), but let’s remember we are talking about visits to the gym and other facilities as well as swimmers.

And to put that in to some perspective – if Theatre Royal Plymouth were open to provide 9 performance a week, there would be an audience of some 1500 (in the 2 venues) per performance, that’s 13,000 each week and totaling 702,000.

But I would once more reiterate that each visitor to Exeter’s Leisure Complex would bring in an income to the Council.

Currently, TRP is a National Portfolio Organisation [NPO] of Arts Council England [ACE] and receives funding to the tune of £1,185,500 – this is committed for the next 3 years. Note I use the phrase committed, rather than guaranteed, as ACE have have stated this could be reviewed if they themselves receive cuts in Government funding.

For your information, the following Exeter-based Theatre Companies receive annual NPO funding from ACE:
Bikeshed – £75k
Northcott – 125k
Alibi – £241k
Kaleider – £110k
and Exeter Phoenix is an NPO for Combined Arts – £125k

As I’ve mentioned in previous correspondence, I think that a new theatre venture in Exeter would be very unlikely to attract such significant funding from ACE.

In addition to susbisdy from ACE,  TRP currently enjoys revenue grant support of £665,000 from Plymouth City Council. The freehold of the Theatre Royal Plymouth (built in 1982) is owned by PCC and let to the operator at a peppercorn rent.

The reality is that a new theatre would cost residents for each and every seat sold.

As a city cllr, I am committed to retaining as much of the current green open space as possible, and any building on the site of Belmont Park would reduce the capacity available for events such as Exeter Respect.

The amphitheatre is an open space within the new development that I would imagine would be used for ad hoc events and informal gatherings (even a new location for the Farmers’ Market?) – rather in the way that Coventry’s Millenium Square is used – rather than for formal money-making initiatives.

3) No reference is made to building a much-needed theatre
I think that in my previous thoughts I have taken issue with this view – the theatre is desired but there is no NEED.

I will admit that’s my view – but with over 5 years of active doorstep work within Cowick, I can honestly say the issue of city centre theatre has been raised with me ONCE. I can take you to the resident, it was so memorable.

I see constant letters from the same people regularly appearing in the E&E expressing their desire, I understand the economic benefits if a city centre theatre, I want “the arts and culture an economic driver of the growth of the city”.

It’s just my view of theatre differs from yours. That’s why I do back the desire of the Theatre For Exeter Development Group to carry out a full feasibility study for the project.  What I’m not prepared to so is fully fund that study – and I believe the T4E Development Group aren’t expecting the City Council to do so.

I would be willing to place a bet – that the feasibility study would find that the financial case for a 1200 seat theatre capable to presenting Number One tours (those seen at TRP) will not stack up.

And I’m willing to place a second one – that a 800-900 seater theatre would be financially viable.

What do I do then?

Ignore the study and plump for the unsustainable venue you want, or the one that we can afford and support?

At the meeting of Exeter Civic Society where the T4E Development Group came into being, there were many who mourned the loss of the resident Artistic Director and repertory nature of the programme at the Northcott.

I have high hopes that the appointment of Paul Jepson up on the hill will start to address these issues – and I feel that his plans will be much more than “developing local production in co-operation with Exeter University”.

You also make mention of parking at the University – there is NO shortage of car parking spaces, albeit a couple of minutes walk away from the theatre. There is also a useful bus service that runs the city centre (and to my home in Heavitree). It is certainly much more accessible to the city centre than Warwick Arts Centre is to Coventy.

The future of the current Pyramids site is still to be decided – I personally would like this to be a major music venue like the Academy chain seen around the country – but I fear I, too, will be disappointed!

You bring back the 1962 closure of the old Theatre Royal – there has been a replacement for this – the Northcott. That was the legacy I inherited when I joined the council in 2011 – I wish different decisions had been taken back then, but they weren’t. We have to progress from where we are now,

Funding cannot be redirected from the ‘unnecessary” cinema no funding from ECC is  being directed there – as I explained earlier, that’s a commercial decision for TH Real Estates and Crown Estates.

The “unnecessary” amphitheatre is something I desire, and have fought hard to retain in the plans – once again there is NO ECC funding for this

Can I refer you to the Bus and Coach Station Development Principles from June 2012 which outlines desires for this sort of  space to be delivered.

4) The City Council must be aware that the small shops are steadily closing in the city
Yet I see thriving independent shops along Paris Street – The Real Food Store (declaration of interest, I’m a minor shareholder), Jelly, The Sandwich Shop, the gift shop (UPDATE: Hyde & Seek!) – and I for one want to see this independent network retained and grown once the new development comes to fruition.

As I say, I’ve given it a lot of thought, as have many of my colleagues.

I’m sure we’ll correspond more once the planning application for TH Real Estates and Crown Estates is lodged with ECC.

#Theatre4Exeter – My thoughts on the Rose Theatre in Kingston

Following the publication by the Express & Echo of my letter on how I saw the financial viability of a 1200-seater city centre theatre, I have been amazed by how many compliments I’ve received. But others have questioned my views and suggested alternatives.

One such was asking why that city centre theatre couldn’t emulate the Rose Theatre in Kingston – a conversation of an Odeon Cinema – and one of the options mentioned by the Theatre for Exeter Development Group.

Here are my thoughts on the subject:

The overwhelming majority of voices I’m hearing is for a competitor to Plymouth’s Theatre Royal – with an auditorium seating in excess of 1200 and presenting the touring productions of musicals and theatre that constitute the programme in their Lyric Theatre. There are other models – costing considerably less, but I believe not meeting the *demands* of those currently calling for this large city centre theatre.

The Rose in Kingston is an interesting model – 900’capcity circular auditorium inspired by the shape of an Elizabethan theatre, but by no means looking backwards.

The thrust stage juts out into the auditorium, giving a new perspective to the relationship between performer and audience member. This alone would rule out the major shows the majority of correspondents in the E&E are calling for.

But it does reflect the kind of theatre I would like to see.

So to the construction costs – yes only £11m!

However, we don’t own the Odeon, so someone would have to find the money to buy it in the first instance. And that’s if the Odeon would consider selling someone the building.

It’s worth noting that the 2012/2013 annual accounts of the Kingston Theatre Trust (which manages the Rose) show the venue made a loss of more than £200k – this despite continued funding of £500k from Kingston Council and a further £380k from Kingston University.

However, I will acknowledge that there may be other models of financing and funding that might work – that’s why I need to see a viable business case.

If I were to play devil’s advocate (and second guess the final report), it is probable that the conclusion of Theatre For Exeter Development Group will be that a 1200-seat theatre is economically unviable, and it will recommend a venue with a capacity 750 – 1000. Will this placate those calling for a rival to the Plymouth Theatre Royal – NO.

Could I back this with an accompanying 10 year action plan as proposed by the T4E development Group – a qualified YES I was (and have been all through this debate) careful not to say NEVER to a city centre theatre. With an ailing and failing Pyramids, we need a swimming pool (actually, it’s really a leisure complex!) NOW.

Is it possible to have *better* theatre without a new #Theatre4Exeter?

Since entering into the debate over a new #Theatre4Exeter, I have been asked if we could have better theatre in our existing venues, including the Northcott.

Citizens are asking it is  simply because of capacity, as  It would seem more sensible to try to improve provision in an existing venue than to begin the monumental task of raising money for a brand new one.

As a theatre practitioner,  here’s my considered response:

My earlier blogs were written to challenge the notion that ECC cllrs hadn’t even considered the possibility of a new theatre for the Bus & Coach Station redevelopment site. As outlined in those response, I and others certainly have.

It’s good to get beyond the rather stilted debate of “why worry about the financial viability, we have to a city centre theatre because we are the city city of Devon and better than Plymouth” and instead move onto “why do we want (need) a new city centre theatre”.

I’m not one for the politics of envy, and certainly don’t subscribe to theatre envy.

I grew up in Plymouth – in the time when their only theatres were the late lamented Athenaeum and the tin shed that was described as the Hoe Theatre.

The first professional theatre production I saw was a modern dress touring production of “Julius Caesar” at the Athenaeum, produced by the Northcott. It started pop icon Brian Protheroe (still remember “Pinball”) in the lead – and making his first appearance on stage, Robert Lindsay was spear -carrier extraordinaire.

I saw the production as it was the set text for my English Literature O Levels.

But that was theatre/drama to me back in the early 1970s…school classrooms and passing exams.

That changed when I went to Salford/Manchester in the early days of the Royal Exchange – and why I now work in theatre.

Back then I remember standing on the top of the Plymouth Civic Centre and peering down into the pit that would become the foundations of the nascent Plymouth Theatre Royal.

So back to the question. Why can we have better theatre? I would counter that with another question – what is better theatre?

Let me try and explore this – It is something I have thought long and hard about.

Plymouth is big enough to put on Number 1 tours – those big dramas and musicals.

The stage is big enough for the largest productions and the technical facilities are in place to support these shows.

Around the back there is space to load/unload 3 40′ articulated trailers at the same time. This isn’t a requirement for a Number 1 show – but it certainly makes the venue attractive.

But the main selling point is the capacity – 1500 seats makes the budgets economically viable, but still they have to charge in excess of £50 for the larger shows.

Many shows originate at TRP because of a £8m facility pm they have in the city – TR2 situated in the Cattewater in a glorious setting. It is here that they build sets, not only for shows that appear on the TRP stage but elsewhere. When I last visited TR2 (with ECC cllrs and officers) they were building a set that was going directly to Russia.

Similar they have props workshops and costume makers based in a great wardrobe based at TR2.

But most importantly, TR2 hosts rehearsal spaces – not only big enough to rehearse those musicals that appear on the major stages, but large enough to do so with a full band. No more draughty halls were I rehearsed Me and My Girl before it’s run at Leicester Haymarket before it transferred to London, and cast and band only coming together in the final days on rehearsal on stage.

When a production is booked to play at a theatre there is normally an exclusion clause, preventing the show being presented at any nearby theatre. The radius for this exclusion is normally 50 miles – so I was surprised to se both “Birdsong” and “The Mousetrap” to appear on the bills of both TRP and Exeter Northcott.

The reason for this exclusion is to protect producers profits and ensure an audience at a theatre.

For TRP, their business plan covers a reach of Lands End to Taunton and beyond. For many similar theatres, they would find many times a similar reach within 30min drive or so. The reason is obvious, much of Devon is rural – and to the best of my knowledge sheep don’t much enjoy the theatre. And half the radius takes in The Channel – a similar observation says fish also avoid the theatre.

A new 1200+ theatre in Exeter would often be excluded from the shows that appear at TRP for over a year, and both venues would be reaching out for a similar target audience.

So back in March 2012, when Steve Bloomfield first suggested a theatre on this site and Cllr Pete Edwards suggested that it would not be good for either venue. In truth, Cllr Edwards wasn’t too far wide of the mark.

And TRP would have the better hand – already in receipt of major subsidy from ACE and building many of the shows that appear on their own main stage, The Lyric.

The above assumes that bigger = better.

The Northcott, with a capacity just shy of 500 attracts small- and middle-scale tours and is funded by ACE to do just that.

There are the obvious limitations of stage size, technical facilities and audience size. But there are other factors in play – the University limits movement of HGVs on the Streatham Campus making it difficult to stage productions that need more than 1x 40′ articulated truck.

But the Northcott DID host the first performances of the relaunch Rambert Dance Company (now touring to No 1 venues) in 1994 – I know, I was touring with them then.

But there ARE advantages – the Northcott stages some of the best medium scale productions around.  Indeed, if they weren’t seen at the Northcott, they wouldn’t be seen in the SW Peninsula this side of Bristol.

In my touring days with Shobana Jeyasingh we never performed beyond Taunton – now with the demise of the Brewhouse as a professional venue, SJDC are now regular visitors to Exeter.

I maintain that Headlong and ETT are among the best theatre producers around, and in the past I have travelled considerable distances to see the work of Footsbarn. Each of these are now regular vsitors to Exeter.

So at the Northcott, they are trying to present the best of the productions that are around – in my view, each season gets stronger, and the last and current seasons have had artistic input from Board Member, Paul Jepson who is a theatre director in his own right.

Once again I say bigger doesn’t equal better.

I am a veteran of many productions at the original Bush Theatre – 80 seats above a pub in Shepherds Bush.

I was sound designer on the first-ever production of Jonathan Harvey’s “Beautiful Thing” that premiered there in 1993.  It went on to do a middle-scale tour, was booked into the Donmar and from there transferred into the West End – before being made into a film.

The cast list over all those versions I worked on was a casting agents dream – Mark Lethern, Jonny Lee M inlet, Philip Glenister, Diane Parish, Rhys Ifans, and Hugh Bonneville.

Memories form this production far out way those from 10 years at Leicester Haymarket where I worked on major musicals and many productions that transferred to the West End. The best experiences for me during my decade normally happened in the 120-seat Studio Theatre.

I see a similar vibrancy and potential to emulate the success of the Bush right here in Exeter in the form of the Bike Shed Theatre (but I will declare an interest, I am on the Board of Trustees!).

One of the best theatrical shows I have seen since moving to Exeter since 2004 was “A Conversation” staged as part of the 2014 Ignite Festival – simple but effective staging packing a powerful punch with engaging performance from Nigel Barrett.

So no, to me bigger isn’t the same as better.

My visits to see theatre in Plymouth normally end in the Drum, not the Lyric.

When I talk to theatre practitioners in Plymouth they are envious of the vital and vibrant theatre ecology and community found in Exeter – they feel excluded from the workings of the TRO, although that is beginning to change with the introduction of an new experimental space.

One last thought.

When I was that the Leicester Haymarket in the 1980s it was one of the top 5 theatres in England. We were producing musicals and plays that were transferring directly into the West End, we were working with the bright and the best, I was collaborating with the crime of UK’s directors and major fringe touring companies, yet it wasn’t enough.

My (rare) nights off were spent on busman’s holidays – I would travel to see theatre in Derby, Nottingham, Northampton, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Coventry and more to see shows.

So perhaps the answer is, whatever theatre we do have, we always want more! And better?