A Basil Fawlty lookalike is lugging a monster suitcase through the stage door and small dancing girls are spilling out of a rehearsal room so packed it’s a wonder any of them can shake a leg. Welcome to Monday afternoon at the Theatre Royal, a place so noisily teeming that chief executive Philip Bernays can’t even reach his office.
These are supposed to be tough times in the arts with money tight for theatres and theatre-goers. In the North East austerity and 100% funding cuts have made headlines. But this venue has been spewing out stories about box office triumphs as if we’re in boom time.
This year’s panto, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, has broken the ticket-shifting record – as have its nine predecessors – and it is being hailed as the fastest-selling in the theatre’s 177-year history.
So crazy is panto fever here that priority booking for next year’s panto, Dick Whittington, actually began November 18 with tickets going on general sale on November 25.
Safely in his office, Philip assures me that traditionally next year’s panto goes on sale the day this year’s opens. “It is earlier than lots of other pantos but it is the fastest selling panto in the country and it’s also the best panto in the country,” he says, sounding like one of his press releases.
Knowing that I’m thinking ‘Well, he would say that’, he adds emphatically: “There’s not even any dispute. My colleague theatre managers around the country absolutely recognise this one is the best.”
And the reason? Simple, apparently. It’s Michael Harrison, the panto-mad Geordie who is managing director of Qdos Entertainment’s panto division.
“Michael is fanatical about panto, Newcastle and the Theatre Royal,” says Philip. “Put those three things together and you have the recipe for success. In fact, half the new season brochure is produced by Michael Harrison one way or another... Barnum, The Bodyguard, Annie.
“He is a very good friend of ours and he runs one of the biggest panto production companies. To have someone of that stature and ability loving your panto so much, well, you do get special treatment. And he’s still a young thing. He’ll be the next Cameron Mackintosh, to be honest. He’s on that trajectory.”
To Michael Harrison Philip attributes the talent-spotting nous that has turned Clive Webb and Danny Adams, a father-and-son team with no TV profile, into North East panto superstars and the envy of other theatres across the land.
“This is the 10th year with Clive and Danny and we’ve booked them until 2021 and have expectations of them going on beyond that.
“We are 8,500 seats (sold) ahead of where we were this time last year so this is still the most popular panto in the country.
“A friend of mine from Milton Keynes came last year with a couple of other friends. He’s an architect and they came to look at a building. Next week 15 of them are coming back to see the panto. These are all adults. There are no children involved at all.
“There are certainly people whose children have grown up and left home and who keep coming.”
Reliant on slapstick, wordplay and endearing daftness, and teamed up with dame Chris Hayward and his crazy costumes, Clive and Danny have been allowed to hone their act over a decade. Therefore a panto founded to a large degree on familiarity and predictability – qualities which might sound like a death knell – has become a reliable Christmas cracker.
So how important to the venue is this panto with its 90-plus performances?
“It’s about one quarter of our audience for the entire year, so 360 out of every thousand people – 90,000-plus – are coming to the panto. So it’s a huge audience development thing, a way of people experiencing the Theatre Royal. And with that number of performances squashed into a comparatively short period of time, we make a fair amount of money out of it.
“But we have to because our pantos are not cheap shows. We put a lot of money into them.”
Philip says the average theatre-goer makes 1.5 annual visits to the theatre. This does not mean, apparently, that everyone sees one show through to the end and then goes to a second but leaves in the interval.
The Theatre Royal, Philip adds, caters for a broad demographic with the panto audience no different from all the rest.
This is all fascinating and uplifting but it can’t entirely mask these troubled times.
The Theatre Royal is also a victim of Newcastle City Council’s widely publicised decision to cut regular arts funding. It used to receive about £650,000 per year but this will become zero on April 15 next year.
Philip says a fourfold strategy has been put in place to sustain the theatre, which is run as an independent charitable trust.
“Number one is that we have introduced booking fees and number two is that we’ve changed our contractual relations with various production companies so we’re getting a little bit more money out of their productions.
“We just said we’re doing it. It wasn’t easy but I was very fair and very clear about why it had to happen.
“Thirdly, we reduced our education and community programme quite significantly and now focus it entirely on what is happening in this building. We have a learning officer, Kim Hoffmann, and produce a good programme but because of the money we have to spend on it, it is all based on what happens here.”
Why have an education programme at all? “Because we think it’s valuable. We believe passionately in the value of culture and in spreading that as widely as we can.”
Philip says the theatre had put in a bid to the new Newcastle Culture Investment Fund, run by the Community Foundation but with city council money, for cash to support the learning programme.
“We were disappointed not to receive any funding but nevertheless will continue with a more modest programme than we would have done otherwise. We are looking at broader fund raising but cultural organisations always are.”
Any idea that there is bad feeling between theatre and council – which actually owns the building but leases it free to the trust – is quashed.
“We absolutely understand what the council are doing and the pressures they are under so we continue to support them and their work. We are not in the business of upsetting the council. We see ourselves in partnership with them.
“There are many ways in which we work together to make sure what we do is as good as possible and as impactful as possible. We value all the support we get from them.”
This leaves the fourth part of the Theatre Royal strategy.
“We have made the programme less risky from a commercial point of view,” says Philip.
“Over the year it is a bit more broadly popular. Where there were shows that we thought ‘This is interesting but probably isn’t going to sell’, now we can’t afford to do that.”
A powerful argument in favour of subsidising the arts is that it allows for an element of experimentation and risk which sometimes bears fruit but sometimes doesn’t.
But Philip points out that the Theatre Royal’s newly announced spring/summer programme contains, along with the overtly populist Shrek: The Musical and The Bodyguard (with X Factor winner Alexandra Burke), the stage adaptation of Holocaust story The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Bill Kenwright’s production of Twelve Angry Men and Kneehigh Theatre Company’s version of Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier.
Philip says: “What we do is we put on work that is broad-based but of quality. That is the key for us - it’s about quality. We don’t put on tat.”
He says that in a sense “everything is converging” in the Theatre Royal’s area of the market.
“The producers are also recognising that need for work of quality and also of broad popular appeal. It is different to the market that Northern Stage is in and that Live Theatre is in, where funding allows for that element of risk and experimentation, and that’s fine.”
Coming soon after the panto is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, a brilliant example of a hugely risky enterprise from the subsidised sector (the National Theatre, no less) which has become an unmissable monster hit in the West End, on Broadway and now on tour. Few would question its quality. Few would begrudge it its place in the Theatre Royal programme. I saw it last week in the West End and marvelled. It brought a lump to my throat.
“In a sense,” says Philip brightly, “because the shows are a bit more popular across the year, audience numbers have gone up. Sales are very high, bookings are looking fab and the staff are very motivated and working very hard. It is going well although we are very well aware that we can never rest on our laurels and have to keep testing ourselves and innovating.”
In the grand circle bar a Basil Fawlty lookalike – part of this week’s Faulty Towers meal-and-a-show attraction – is theatrically losing his rag. Behind the scenes at the famous Grey Street theatre, it’s good to see, there are no obvious tantrums or panic attacks.
Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs is at the Theatre Royal from November 25 to January 18, 2015. Box office: 08448 112121 or www.theatreroyal.co.uk