City must persuade people to support the culture it has
FIRST things first. I loved the Hoe Theatre. I spent many happy hours there and one of the best productions I've ever seen locally – Piaf – I went to see twice. We were also there for a panto one year when Plymouth almost ground to a halt because of a light flurry of snow – there were only about 20 people in the audience, most of whom were the group I'd organised to go along. Somewhere I even have the original ceramic letters that spelt out Hoe Theatre. Furthermore I have great respect for Eric Johns and all he does for Devonport, as he well knows.
However I have now been roundly criticised, twice, for things I didn't say. The comments about the Hoe Theatre, which were in my Back in the Day page, were actually made by Harvey Crane, the well-known and well-respected theatre critic who wrote for the Herald for almost 30 years – only a little less than I've been writing for the paper. But even Harvey was quoting other people. Let me repeat the section as it appeared last month in 'This Week When':
"It has been described as a "potting shed"; "the hut on the Hoe" and as a "dump" and this week-end sees the final curtain rung down on what passed for over 22 years as Plymouth's only civic theatre."
"While we may smirk at its lowly status when compared with the great edifice now revealing its stature at the bottom of Royal Parade, the historical fact remains that the Hoe Theatre, for all its shortcomings, represents the first marked change in the cultural thinking of Plymouth's governing body of councilors for over a century."
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"The corporate conscience was finally moved … when a youthful Ivor Thompson, then Deputy Lord Mayor, announced that "We hope to soon have a Hoe pavilion."
So wrote Harvey Crane who also delivered "the epitaph" at the end of "The Last Night" at the Hoe Theatre.
Anyone reading that properly would understand that neither Harvey Crane, nor I, were dismissing the Hoe Theatre. The theatre did indeed represent a marked improvement in Plymouth's cultural offer in 1962 when it opened. An even bigger step forward was taken 20 years later when the Theatre Royal was opened. On that occasion, Mrs Howard, the council did get it right. We now have one of the finest regional theatres in the country, and probably the best to have been built in Britain since the war. Currently undergoing a major redevelopment it is about to step up yet another gear.
The sad reality for the Hoe Theatre was that there was no viable role for it after the Theatre Royal opened. At the time we also had the Palace Theatre putting on some excellent shows, under the management of John Redgrave, there was also the Athenaeum ... and the Barbican Theatre. Today only the latter remains as a fully operational second string to the Theatre Royal and the Drum. In the past two or three weeks I've seen productions at all three venues and although well attended and hugely enjoyable they haven't all been sold out by any means.
If Plymouth wants to be a City of Culture it has, at the very least, to persuade its citizens to support what culture it has and make the most of what is undoubtedly the best offer west of Bristol.