Treading The Boards Of History In The 21st Century

Issue 56

Did you know that the Tyne Theatre and Opera House in Newcastle is one of only seven Grade I listed theatres in England?

And did you know that it is owned and run by a trust which pumps every single penny that the theatre makes back into its running and upkeep? Oh, and it’s now enjoying more success in terms of number and frequency of shows and arguably the quality of shows, than this proud theatre has seen over many decades.

A hugely successful pantomime season has just concluded and the 2020 programme is packed full of shows to suit all. Coming up are John Bishop, Viv Reeves and Bob Mortimer, the Russian State Opera presenting Aida, an evening with Status Quo legend Francis Rossi and, if you enjoy some R&B, there’s the Average White Band. Over recent years there have been appearances by many leading personalities such as Sir Roger Moore, Joan Collins and Michael Palin and local stars Alan Shearer, Joe McElderry and Chris Ramsey have taken to the stage.

Driving the Tyne Theatre forward are Jo Johnson, who as director of the company is in charge of the day to day operation and for planning shows for the next twelve months and beyond…..and Mike Wilmot who is the Chairman of the Trust and who looks after the finances and controls the upkeep of the building.

“The theatre opened in 1867 and we are proud of the fact that it is still seen as a hugely valued piece of North East’s culture,” said Mike. “Joseph Cowen founded the theatre and his vision was to provide a “Theatre for Everyone” and we’re proud to be presenting a programme that reflects that. Whether you love drama, dance or drag; ballet, ballroom or bagpipes; Shakespeare, stand-up or sensational stories, music or musicals the Tyne Theatre & Opera House offers it all.

We’re also proud of the fact that, bearing in mind we had a serious fire in 1985, the theatre still retains much of its original architecture. Our backstage area and the wooden machinery below the stage are almost identical to the day when they were installed in Victorian times.”

You can go on a tour of the Tyne Theatre and see everything for yourself. It’s fascinating to see the plethora of levers, pulleys and platforms some of which are still used in stage performances today.

You’ll also see how the Tyne Theatre, in terms of preservation and restoration, is very much a work in progress. 60% of the seats in the stalls and grand circle have been refurbished and funding is assured to complete this refurbishment over the coming months. The ladies toilets have been refurbished and the trust has set aside funding to refurbish the remaining toilets. Crucially however, the Trust have concentrated on retaining the charm and history of the building. Slowly but surely, the Tyne Theatre and Opera House is being restored back to its former glory.

“The Trust now owns the building. In 2015 we decided to run the theatre ourselves following the departure of our lessee. Obviously I’m biased, but it’s the best thing that could have happened to this lovely old building,” said Mike. “It’s also an important source of employment and we are proud that we employ all the theatre staff directly. We have twelve core staff and circa 130 people for staffing events.” Mike has just celebrated his 5th year as a Trustee of the Tyne Theatre Trust and was recently appointed Chairman, but he’s certainly not new to the theatre. His whole family was heavily involved in the theatre and, in the 1980s and 90s, a very young Mike Wilmot could be found helping out. He’s performed in numerous shows and he’s probably done every single job either behind the scenes or front of house. It’s in his blood.

It’s a similar story with Jo Johnson too. She’s been with the Tyne Theatre since 2004 and is one of those people who plainly has the knack of organising things.

“The feedback we get from performers and the general public is wonderful,” added Jo.

“Brian Blessed was here and because he was so passionate about the Theatre, he urged people to donate and we collected a record number of donations. Sarah Millican played eleven nights with us during her last tour and said that she couldn’t wait to return. It’s that sort of place…it gets to you. We have a hugely enthusiastic amateur productions company who regularly put on shows which raise money for the theatre. It really is like one big family who are all working to help preserve this truly valued piece of history.”

In other words, the Tyne Theatre and Opera House is in safe hands. With Mike and Jo leading from the front, the future is decidedly rosy.

Try to support the theatre whenever you can, Shows are excellent and represent good value too. A tour behind the scenes is well worth it and the chance to see what is probably the most complete, working, wooden stage in the country, is something to wonder at.

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