Taking it in stages

While opera and Shakespeare may still carry connotations of ‘high culture’, regional theatre venues are bringing audiences face to face with a great diversity of performance. Mick Owen reports from the Buxton Opera House

Buxton Opera House
Buxton Opera House: the full cultural gamut, from Romeo and Juliet to two gentlemen with Corona

When I recently told colleagues that I was due to spend the evening at the Buxton Opera House the response was typically plebeian, with the majority of comments betraying the average Englishman’s belief that a fondness for culture in a man equates either to homosexuality or to extreme uxoriousness. The fact that the insults were flying even before my detractors knew what I was off to see speaks volumes for them – and for the image of any building with ‘opera’ in the title. Since opera is pretentious and over-blown – goes the Philistines’ argument – so a building built to house it must also be; and Buxton Opera House does not disappoint. Built in 1903 by a man called Frank Matcham as a precursor to the London Palladium, it actually does have an over-full complement of cherubs, laurel wreaths and architectural curlicues. And since its renovation in 2001 the theatre has consciously adopted a delightfully genteel and ever-so-slightly brittle mien so that even its staff – mostly sliver-haired volunteers – seem to have been preserved rather than restored to Edwardian vigour.

With Barrie Rutter’s Northern Broadsides offering their Romeo and Juliet, the audience is sparse and the evening speaks of faded glory, of the days when Buxton was a fashionable spa town and the mansions and villas on all sides of the theatre were occupied by monied gentry not flatted or turned over to the ubiquitous B&B. All in all it is a night to justify the most boorish of anti-culture prejudices. But Shakespeare and supper at the Palace Hotel is not the only evening out that Buxton Opera House has to offer and council officers, washed-out lecturers and their ladies not the only clientele. This was my third visit this year and the only time the joint wasn’t jumping.

According to its website, “Buxton Opera House is one of Britain’s leading receiving theatres” and according to the 200,000 copies of its programme that are distributed throughout the region it will receive just about anybody. Next up is Jimmy Tarbuck, who will be followed by a Frank Sinatra look-a-like and then Seth Lakeman. On consecutive nights in June you can catch the Black Dyke (brass) Band, Lloyd Cole (sans the Commotions) and somebody called Alfie Boe, “one of classical music’s favourite tenors of the moment”. Eclectic doesn’t do it justice and some of the unlikely juxtapositions are comical.

Indeed my first trip into bow-and-arrow country this year had been to see The Stranglers with my fifteen-year-old. The sight of two forty-something former punks, now sporting number one haircuts and beer bellies that must have cost a small fortune to acquire, confronting one of the aforementioned ancient usherettes will long live with me. They glowered, she held her ground. Growling, they required her to repeat her admonition; she raised her voice – slightly. They turned their good ears toward her and bent over; she calmly explained the “no glass glasses in the auditorium” rule a third time and they wandered off to find some plastic replacements. No more heroes, anymore. The band were outstanding, the front ranks crowding the apron of the stage did old-people pogoing (lower, slower and far less prolonged than the original) and the new front man complained that they, The Stranglers, were sandwiched between clog dancing and Gilbert and Sullivan on the theatre programme. And he knew Rat Scabies!

But clearly the way to succeed if you run a relatively small, only locally significant theatre with an expenditure budget of almost £1 million is by “presenting around 450 performances each year including dance, comedy, children’s shows, drama, musical concerts, pantomime and opera as well as a lively Fringe Theatre and Community and Education Programme”. And the touring acts are in on the act with Dara O’Briain, whom I caught in April being scurrilous about Southport – where he’d been the night before – and down-right rude about Wakefield, his next destination.  

It may be that Old Man Matcham is spinning in his over-designed mausoleum but I for one will be embracing the new approach and booking to see the Ken Dodd Happiness Show, Strangers on a Train with somebody out of East Enders and, just to see what its really like, I’ll even have ten penneth of Puccini’s La Boheme – which, for my unsophisticated colleagues, is an opera.


Mick Owen is managing editor of The Leisure Review, a qualified sports coach and tutor, and a born-again aesthete.

You can find full details of the Buxton Opera House programme at www.buxtonperahouse.org.uk

The Leisure Review, June 2008



“ the new front man complained that they, The Stranglers, were sandwiched between clog dancing and Gilbert and Sullivan on the theatre programme. And he knew Rat Scabies!”
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