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Derbyshire Arts Life

PUBLISHED: 14:35 28 April 2010 | UPDATED: 15:00 20 February 2013

War and Peace

War and Peace

Ashley Franklin reviews the county arts scene.

This Arts Life couldn't have gone to print without mention of Derby Playhouse's plight. However, by the time this appears in print, we could be looking at one of several developments. Such is the uncertainty about the theatre that it could now be forging a future in the hands of a consortium led by former Playhouse chairmen Jonathan Powers and Michael Hall or - worst case scenario - it could be closed again. The more likely outcome, following a creditors' meeting on 21st January, is that the Playhouse administrators will temporarily postpone the consortium bid until it raises the necessary sum of 500,000. Fundraising has been given a vital boost through the appointment of a proven fund-raiser in Belper businessman Robert Astick, so the prospects of the consortium eventually running the Playhouse are strong.

This expected development is remarkable considering that with the Playhouse barely a fortnight into administration, the Arts Council of England announced a severe slash in funding for nearly 200 arts organisations, including ten regional theatres. However, Derby Playhouse wasn't one of those ten: its annual 700,000 grant has been 'ring-fenced' and will be released if the Arts Council decides the theatre is worthy of that investment. Considering the parlous state of the Playhouse at the time, the Arts Council could unarguably have cut its funding completely. The Playhouse has also been receiving an annual Derby City Council grant of 400,000 but the consortium is intent on running the theatre.

I share the widespread bewilderment at the board's decision that the best interests of the theatre were to take it into voluntary liquidation at the time of its most lucrative period of the year (200,000 in advance sales for Treasure Island), although the Playhouse going into administration only days later allowed the theatre to return Treasure Island to the stage so that thousands of ticket-buyers were not disappointed.

As someone who has been close to the Playhouse in the last 15 years, writing features and reviews, it's painful to even contemplate the thought of a city without its professional theatre. Whatever the criticisms, the Playhouse has seen a largely satisfactory and successful five years of artistic achievement under Karen Hebden and Stephen Edwards. At the time of going to print there is an opportunity to pledge support for the Playhouse with the administrators allowing the theatre to both extend the run of Treasure Island to 2nd February and to advertise the spring season, subject to the consortium's business plan being approved. The new season's shows include The Devil's League, local writer Stephen Lowe's fictitious story of a meeting between Brian Clough and Robert Maxwell, a production of Hamlet, and the comedies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and The Accidental Death of an Anarchist.While Derby's professional theatre future wavers, Nottingham Playhouse has emerged from a notable 2007, earning the distinction once bestowed on Derby Playhouse - the UK's Most Welcoming Theatre - and now looking forward to a fascinating spring season opening with a dramatisation of Tolstoy's War and Peace (1st to 17th February). 'Fusing stunning visual imagery with a powerful physical style', this epic drama has an epic length: it's in two parts, requiring you to see it separately or in one day. A dramatisation of the epic Brando movie On The Waterfront (18th April to 3rd May) is to be directed by Steven Berkoff, followed by Stephen Poliakoff's Breaking the Silence (16th to 31st May).In publicising a Darwin Suite night called Derby Live!, the Assembly Rooms brochure informs us that 'the Derby band scene is thriving with local bands receiving national radio play and great reviews in music magazines.' There have been several false dawns on this subject, the last one being at the turn of the millennium when a Derby band CD compilation called Home Cookin' trumpeted Derby as 'a front runner in terms of music'. Not one of the 16 acts achieved significant national recognition. However, around this same time there was some excitement when a 15-year-old from Darley Dale called simply 'Victoria' reportedly signed a five-album deal with London Records. I was reminded of her recently while randomly flicking through my record collection: next to my Suzanne Vega CDs were two Victoria EPs sounding as fresh and vital as they did back in 1999/2000. Considering she hadn't even picked up a guitar until she was given one as a Christmas present, aged 12, the confidence and maturity in Victoria's songs and voice were indicative of a natural, inspired talent. Comparisons were made in the music press to Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morrisette, she was touring with top bands Gomez and The Doves, and a music critic in The Sunday Times said 'she has American success written all over her'. However, following those two EPs, not one album appeared, never mind five. So, whatever happened to Victoria, singer/songwriter from Darley Dale? I had a fruitless internet search: even typing in the specific words 'London Records' and 'Victoria' produced nearly 14,000 entries! My last 'Whatever became of?' appeal about classical guitarist Nicola Hall - produced a result, so here's hoping again ...

Although neither the Derby Assembly Rooms nor Buxton Opera House could ever compete with the much bigger Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, which has a spring season featuring Dionne Warwick, Clannad, Chris Rea, French & Saunders, the Buena Vista Social Club and Liza Minnelli, both Derbyshire venues have worked hard to offer varied and appealing attractions this season. The UK's leading impressionist Jon Culshaw is a noted highlight at both Derby and Buxton (so uncanny are some of his impressions that Ozzy Osborne remarked: 'If I drop dead, I've got a double') and the two venues have likewise booked The Lark Rise Band with Ashley Hutchings, stand-up comics Russell Howard, Dave Spikey and Stewart Lee ('the funniest comedian on the circuit' according to Ricky Gervais) Beauty and The Beast On Ice and illusionist Derren Brown ('clearly the greatest dinner party guest in history... or the scariest man in Britain,' wrote The Guardian). Elevating Buxton's spring season - which includes a remarkable 249 performances - are comics Omid Djalili, Dara O'Briain and Paul Merton with his 'Impro Chums', Ronald Harwood's classic play of the theatre The Dresser, Mozart's operatic treats Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte, rising opera singer Alfie Boe, a return visit for Buxton-born Tim Brooke-Taylor in BBC Radio 4's I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue (the finest, funniest show on radio), classical singer Hayley Westenra and arguably our two leading contemporary folk artists Seth Lakeman and Kate Rusby, with Four Four Time 08 - the Opera House's February Festival of Live Music - being a particular coup with top attractions such as Boy George, Marc Almond, The Stranglers, classical vocal quartet All Angels, Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings and Richard Hawley, 'the Elvis of the North', who is probably the finest singer/songwriter the UK has seen in recent years.

Mention, too, of 'An Evening with Jacqueline Wilson', the former Children's Laureate, brings us to a noted feature of the Derby Assembly Rooms spring season to celebrate 2008 - Year of Reading, Awesome Authors, including presentations by three leading writers: young adult fiction author Bali Rai; another former Children's Laureate, Miss Doubtfire author Anne Fine; and children's author Frank Cottrell Boyce whose adult screenwriting credits include Hilary & Jackie and 24 Hour Party People. As with Buxton Opera House, music at the Assembly Rooms is an especial highlight with old stagers like Joe Brown through to chart popsters The Sugababes. The classical season brings Beethoven's Fifth, Elgar's Cello Concerto and a night of British music from The Hall, and it's encouraging to see the Assembly Rooms promoting local rock bands through their monthly Evolution nights.

Having just exhibited its 25th Derby City Open, Derby Museum & Art Gallery will be showcasing paintings of the 2006 Open winner, Nottingham-based artist Stephen Marriott (2nd February to 16th March). Expect to see 'bold, colourful abstracts evoking a strong sense of place'. Sense of Place is the theme of the latest Derbyshire Community Foundation Vickers Art Award which the winning artist, Natalie Dowse, is working on for her gallery exhibition Skimming the Surface (28th June to 24th August) which will investigate the idea of being 'displaced' drawing on this Portsmouth-based painter's 'journey around Derbyshire'. Arguably the highlight of the Art Gallery's forthcoming season is Economies of Line, which 'broadly explores the application of line within abstract, figurative and landscape art'. What's particularly exciting is that all the work comes from the Arts Council Collection and will include artists such as Derek Jarman, Craigie Aitchison and the great 'op artist' Bridget Riley.

Finally, I'm delighted to announce that East Midlands painter Nick Hedderly not only sold every one of his Derby paintings during his recent Tregoning Gallery exhibition but has also had one bought by the Friends of the Museum for the City of Derby: 'Morning in the City', a vibrant painting of Derby's Market Square highlighting the Guildhall building. Nick informs me that he is continuing with his Derby paintings.

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