Paul Robinson is a happy man. At a time when many theatres have decided to close until next spring and been forced to make staff redundant, Robinson has managed to reopen his building.
Initially it was just the café, Eat Me, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre (SJT). The McCarthy followed (its smaller space which is also the cinema), and it won’t be long before the main auditorium throws open its doors.
“The McCarthy reopened with a programme of films in August, and our Round will reopen with live theatre in October,” says Robinson. “So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, both in terms of sales and feedback – there’s clearly an appetite out there for people to come back. So far as we can tell, the new restrictions will have very little impact on us other than that we won’t be able to take large group bookings from multiple ‘bubbles’ (other than schools). But the way we’d set up our social distancing in both auditoria didn’t allow for that anyway.”
While ‘just the café’ was the first outlet to welcome back customers, it’s safe to say that the Eat Me Café & Social is considerably more than a simple eatery. Chef Martyn Hyde trained in Thai cooking in Thailand and this experience runs through the menu like a golden thread. Hyde and his partner Stephen Dinardo started Eat Me in Hanover Road in Scarborough and began winning awards almost immediately, but they had to close at the advent of COVID-19. Then, the SJT offered them a home and it looks like it’s going to be a happy marriage with the café already taking multiple reservations (you have to book to get a table). Dinners themed with the current show will be a feature and there’s a small stage in the café with a ‘guess the show’ montage of props to amuse diners. But as soon as the Government allows, it will be home to music and other performances.
Meanwhile, Robinson is optimistic about the new season.
“We’ve got a real mix of shows which we hope will appeal to all ages. They’re mostly live, but some are still digital for those not comfortable about returning to the theatre. The season includes Sunny Side Up, written and directed by John Godber, and performed by John, his wife Jane and their daughter Martha (with second daughter Elizabeth stage managing), and for Christmas, a sparkly new one-woman version of The Snow Queen by our old friend Nick Lane, and starring the fabulous Polly Lister. Online we have an audio version of Alan Ayckbourn’s Haunting Julia, performed by the author – it’s essentially a ghost story on the radio for the festive season.”
Robinson is justifiably proud at having pulled all of this off.
“It’s been an exhausting few months. If I was an air traffic controller, I’d be bringing 20 planes into land in the same place all at once. But we managed to avoid redundancies and [we were able to] furlough everyone.”
Of course, there is an element of risk. In order to comply with COVID-19 restrictions, the capacity in the auditoria has been reduced by more than half to allow one-metre social distancing – and that affects box office takings. But Robinson is confident that they’ll balance the books. And, in any event, “it’s about getting our audience back”.
As for the COVID-19 emergency funding for theatres, he says: “Obviously, it’s crucial. Theatre is one of those sectors that has always walked a fine line financially, and so many great venues are currently struggling or in danger of closing, which would be tragic for the communities they work in.”
Robinson is aware of the important role that SJT plays in the local community and so, during the summer, it ran a series of successful workshops on t’internet. In August, the theatre staged a co-production with its associate company Voxed, the extraordinary Goggledance. A professional dancer came and danced outside someone’s house, filmed it, and, wait for it, the homeowner joined in. The show was supported by McCain foods, which has a certain irony, although, to be fair, dancers famously live on chips and fags.
The SJT is mostly famous for its connection with Ayckbourn who was artistic director from 1972 to 2009 (all of his work was premiered in the building). One of the world’s most prolific playwrights, Ayckbourn has used lockdown to write two new plays, one of which will premiere at the theatre before Christmas.
Robinson took over from Ayckbourn’s successor, Chris Monks, in 2016 after an illustrious nine years at Theatre 503, a ‘fringe’ theatre above The Latchmere pub in Battersea. I use the word ‘fringe’ loosely as during Robinson’s tenure it transferred several shows to the West End and won an Olivier award. His success at reopening the SJT speaks for itself, although he’s mindful that he might “go down in a blaze of glory”. I think not.
Looking ahead, Robinson says that “our hope is to resume normal service as soon as possible, and come back stronger than ever. And the best way to support us? See shows, either online or in the theatre itself – have fun, and spread the word.”
By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor
All photos: ©Tony Bartholomew