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Shakespeare North Playhouse unveils opening programme with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Christmas Carol and audiences with Johnny Vegas and Jimmy McGovern among highlights at iconic new venue

Shakespeare North Playhouse

Shakespeare North Playhouse unveils opening programme with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Christmas Carol and audiences with Johnny Vegas and Jimmy McGovern among highlights at iconic new venue

Shakespeare North Playhouse has unveiled its spectacular opening programme, with A Midsummer Night’s DreamA Christmas Carol, Johnny Vegas, and Jimmy McGovern among the season highlights at the iconic new £30m theatre in Prescot, Liverpool.

The stunning new venue, home to the only 17th-century style timber theatre outside London and anticipated to attract 140,000 visitors a year, will open its doors to the public with a joyful weekend of free festivities, from July 15-17.

Kicking off events from 6pm on Friday, July 15, All the Joy That You Can Wish will be a glorious ceremony of ‘local heroes’ including the builders who helped construct the venue, and Prescot Cables FC players, who will gather outside the theatre for a ceremony to celebrate the opening, as well as the heritage and community of Prescot.

Co-created with outdoor performance adventure specialists Slung Low, the ceremony will culminate at the new Prospero Place outside Shakespeare North Playhouse, with the audience invited to join in a theatrical opening ceremony to ‘summon the muses’.

Events continue with a weekend of Open Up performances on July 16 and 17, curated by inspirational Prescot-born playwright, actor and community champion Ashleigh Nugent, acclaimed Artist of the Year in the 2021 Liverpool City Region Culture & Creativity Awards.

A key part of Knowsley’s Borough of Culture celebrations, the opening weekend will see free performances of dance and drama alongside classical music, rap, DJs, crafts and tours from 10am on Saturday and noon on Sunday. There will also be a special ceremony from The Candle Project by Abigail Conway, with participants invited to help make a tapered candle and cast words about their hopes and dreams inside. This will be followed by a burning ceremony and community chorus on Sunday evening revealing remnant messages.

Open Up willbe the first chance for the public to experience tours of the extraordinary new 470-seat Cockpit Theatre. Inspired by Inigo Jones’ historic 1629 Cockpit-In-Court London masterpiece, it is the jewel in the crown of the new Playhouse.

Housed inside a modern new energy efficient building, the venue also offers a fully accessible outdoor performance garden, exhibition gallery, 60-seater studio theatre, learning centre, exhibition and events spaces, and a café and bar with outdoor piazza.

Among the highlights of the opening season will be Shakespeare’s classic comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a co-production with Northern Stage and Not Too Tame, running from September 22 to October 22. It is said that Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream to mark the wedding of Knowsley’s 6th Earl of Derby, William, to Elizabeth de Vere in the presence of Queen Elizabeth I.

Directed by Matthew Dunster, formerly associate director at both the Young Vic and Shakespeare’s Globe, the tale of young love, feuding fairies and mistaken identity gets a dose of realism in this brand-new version.

Co-directed by Warrington-born former rugby super league player turned actor Jimmy Fairhurst, of Shakespeare North Playhouse’s associate company Not Too Tame, it draws out themes of class struggle and teenagers on a raucous night out.

The Playhouse will also host comedy and music from a wide variety of artists, with two local legends, Liverpool screenwriter Jimmy McGovern and St Helens comedian and actor Johnny Vegas booked for the first ticketed events inside the Cockpit Theatre – An Evening With Jimmy McGovern on July 23 and An Evening With Johnny Vegas on July 29.

The Shakespeare North Playhouse is inspired by Prescot’s historic connections to William Shakespeare and a love of storytelling. In addition to providing a world class attraction, its mission is to be a resource for the whole North West, nurturing creativity and talent through an inclusive education programme, as a catalyst for transforming lives. The building will be an accessible space full of joy and creativity, where everyone is welcome. 

The first plays to grace the Cockpit stage, from September 9 – 10, will be those written by three young winners of the As You Write It national playwriting competition, run in conjunction with BBC’s The One Show, as part of the theatre’s mission to nurture new talent.

The all-female trio of winners will appear on tonight’s (March 24) The One Show, with a feature about their plays: All the World’s a Stage by Ruby, aged 15, from Lancashire; Telling Tales by Rosie, aged 11, from Ayrshire, and Nectarine by Ana, 17, from Brighton.

Headline show for the autumn and winter season will be Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, recreated with a distinctly Knowsley feel, offering ‘a slightly bonkers, fast and furious retelling of the original text with some familiar local references and a sprinkling of pantomime fun’.

Written by Nick Lane, associate artist at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, the play is directed by Ellie Hurt, co-founder of Liverpool’s The B Collective and associate director of Hamlet at the National Theatre, and Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World. It runs from November 25 to January 7.

Tickets will go on sale for all Shakespeare North Playhouse shows at the end of April, with ticket prices from £3 to £35 with discounts for families, schools, groups, and other concessions throughout the season.

In support of the Playhouse’s commitment to the local community and access to the arts, a proportion of tickets will be available on a ‘Pay What You Decide’ basis, with some reserved for Knowsley residents. Audiences are advised to check the venue holding website and social media channels for details. A supporters’ scheme will also launch in April, giving people the opportunity to get priority booking, an invitation to an opening welcome event and more.

The theatre aims to work in partnership with every school in Knowsley to offer children and young people inspirational arts and cultural experiences, through opportunities such as hip-hop workshops, drawing sessions, youth theatre activities and comedy projects.

Staff are reaching out to schools and support services, to invite children and young people to join in celebrating this new resource on their doorstep, and share the message that this is their theatre. The team are working closely with organisations supporting D/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people to ensure opportunities are as open and inclusive as possible to all.

Laura Collier, creative director at Shakespeare North Playhouse who programmed the season, said:

“We’re thrilled to announce our opening season, which is very much a statement of intent in terms of our ambition for the venue and our engagement with the local community and audiences in the years ahead.

“We are balancing well-loved texts and new ideas, working with a variety of world class creatives, from innovative theatre makers such as Not Too Tame, Abigail Conway, Ashleigh Nugent and Slung Low, to our internationally renowned local heroes, Jimmy McGovern and Johnny Vegas.

“We want the building to be a beacon for creative excellence, as well as a supportive and nurturing playground for people to explore ideas and develop their own creative voice.” 

Melanie Lewis, chief executive of the Shakespeare North Playhouse, said:

“Our team has curated a wonderfully vibrant and enchanting mix of modern interpretations to bring alive both the venue and the written word, with performances to enthuse audiences of all ages whether they are new to Shakespeare, or seasoned theatregoers.

“Construction of the venue is nearing completion and it is looking absolutely wonderful. The unique architecture of the space provides the perfect environment for contemporary, dynamic theatre-making. We are excited to start sharing transformational experiences with people from across the North West and beyond.

“Everyone is invited to come along and join in the opening celebrations, and dive into a weekend of joyful moments, this place is yours – so please turn up and own it!”

Shakespeare North Playhouse has been built entirely during the pandemic thanks to public funds and donations, including £12.2m from Knowsley Council, £10.5m from the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, £5m from the Treasury via Arts Council England, and £3m from the Government’s Covid-19 Cultural Recovery Fund.

Another £1m+ has come from private and philanthropic donations including the Ken Dodd Charitable Foundation which generously supported the funding of the performance garden, The Garfield Weston Foundation and The Foyle Foundation. A further £8m is being provided by the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority in order to improve the local transport infrastructure.

The opening weekend will also be a chance for people of all ages to learn about the exciting locally-based Imaginarium Theatreand the free Youth Theatre and Young Cultural Leaders sessions which will be running at Shakespeare North Playhouse from September. They also run a Community Theatre Company, who will be performing in the Cockpit Theatre in November.

Highlights for young people will include the Serious Nonsense Festival in partnership with Knowsley Borough of Culture and Writing on the Wall, from August 19-21, and Shakespeare’s Schools Festival, from November 14 to 18.

The venue will also host a programme of regular family and community activities and events during the opening season. This will include: pre-school music, storytelling and spoken word sessions, monthly open mic nights for beginners and experienced performers, craft, heritage, art and writing workshops for families, children and adults.

Details of a volunteer training programme will also be revealed in the coming weeks, giving local people the opportunity to learn new skills and be involved in the life of the venue.

Chair of The Shakespeare North Trust, Max Steinberg CBE, said:

“It is wonderful to see this iconic, national resource come to life. The venue is truly stunning and a testament to the skill and expertise of all involved in making this vision a reality.

“As we emerge from what has been a terribly difficult two years for everyone due to the pandemic, we are enthusiastic to share our passion for Shakespeare and theatre as a way to come together and be a force for positive change.

“Our mission to promote and encourage the study of Shakespeare and arts education has never been more vital and we invite everyone to get involved, so together we can transform lives.”

Honorary Patrons of Shakespeare North Trust are Oscar and BAFTA winning thespian Dame Judi Dench and Glenda Jackson. Special advisers to the Playhouse are Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle, and Bootle-born writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce, who collaborated on the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, partly based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Among other shows to watch out for in the Studio and Performance Garden starting in July are The Liver Bird – an enchanting modern fairy tale imagining the Liver Birds coming to life – and Kitty Queen of the Washhouse, a one-woman friendly ghost story transporting the audience back to 1830s Liverpool, both in the outdoor performance garden, from Knowsley-based Community Interest Company, ArtsGroupie.

Cycling Shakespearean company the HandleBards will arrive on their bikes to perform their take on Twelfth Night in July, and again in September to bring a lockdown inspired comedy twist on Romeo and Juliet.

August will see Derekk Ross bring his lovable AUTOLYCUS! one man show based on a runaway A Winter’s Tale, with trickster lone wolf turned migrant refugee, to Prescot for the first time.

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, from Slapstick Picnic will be a hilarious tea party in the performance garden from the creators of the HandleBards, scheduled for the late August bank holiday weekend.

Also among the modern interpretations of Shakespeare classics set for the season will be Rubbish Romeo and Juliet and the Incomplete Works of Shakespeare from the Rubbish Shakespeare Company, the latter with Wing It Impro & Stories.

Much Ado About Nothing from Unseemly Shakespeare, HER Productions & Girl Gang Manchester, takes the programme into early September.

October will bring Forgotten Voices, a one-woman show from Shareesa Valentine, telling the remarkable real-life story of Eva Moorhead Kadalie, widow of South Africa’s first black national trade union leader, who helped pave the way for Nelson Mandela’s rise.

Half Measures by One Hour Theatre Company explores how threats from plague and war recall scenes from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, set against dramatic episodes located in Liverpool today.

November will see a special Strange Tale performance from the Imaginarium Theatre, exploring Shakespeare’s links to Prescot through a time-travelling adventure that blows apart the myths, the man and the so-called ‘missing years’.

Cllr Graham Morgan, leader of Knowsley Council, said:

“After many years of planning and preparation we are absolutely thrilled that the opening of the Shakespeare North Playhouse is almost upon us. And this couldn’t have come at a better time for Knowsley as this year we celebrate being the Liverpool City Region Borough of Culture. 

“For so many years we talked about our aspiration to bring an arts venue like this to Knowsley and now, those hopes are about to be realised. Even before the first brick was laid on site you could see and feel the positive impact this project was having on Prescot and that impact will only spread much further once the doors open in just a matter of months. 

“I cannot wait for our communities to be able to go and explore this amazing venue and find out about the many ways they can get involved and enjoy this wonderful new asset for the north.”

Steve Rotheram, mayor of the Liverpool City Region, which invested £10.5m into Shakespeare North Playhouse, said:

“This is a really exciting day for our area, as we add yet another world class attraction. The Liverpool City Region is the UK’s cultural capital – home to a thriving arts and creative scene that has been entertaining the masses for decades, and where some of our country’s greatest performers perfected their trade.

“The Shakespeare Playhouse will be the jewel in that crown – a spectacular statement of the enormous cultural contribution that our region has gifted to the world. The theatre promises to be an incredible new asset – not only for Knowsley – but for the entire North West, attracting more jobs, more investment, and offering a brilliant resource for the local communities.

“It is fitting that it should open during Knowsley’s year as Borough of Culture and is a vitally important part of the wider renaissance we’re seeing in Prescot. I’m hopeful it will be a catalyst for even more regeneration.

“I can’t wait to see it filled with people. Whether it is going to be (or not to be) a massive success is not the question. We will ensure that all’s well that ends well!”

Alan Lane of Slung Low, co-creators of the All the Joy You Can Wish opening ceremony, said:

“What Prescot has achieved in the building of this new theatre is extraordinary and we wanted to make sure that moment was properly recognised – it demands a fabulous ceremony, a ceremony that looks to the past of course but also shows the brilliance of Prescot now.

“SNP is an organisation attempting to do that which has not been done before and to work with trail blazers is always exciting.”

St Helens born comedian and actor Johnny Vegas (An Evening With Johnny Vegas – July 29), said:

“On the architectural side it’s absolutely stunning. Being in the round I’ve always loved that type of theatre. It feels accessible and for something that is Shakespearean based that’s the beauty of it.

“It feels intimate. It doesn’t feel like there’s a cheap seat in the house and that’s beautiful. You walk in there and you feel like we’ve taken culture back. Culture, art, creativity, theatre, everything is for all of us and that’s what that space does, it reminds us of that.

“I’m honoured to be one of the first acts in there. It is a major cultural icon coming to a most unexpected place – it’s going to be monumental for us. Let’s make it up north, let’s do it up north, let’s have some faith in us up north. Creatively this can be that beacon for us to start coming together and proving for the rest of the world just what talent we have contained in this bit of the country. We breed talent here so let’s celebrate it.”

Liverpool screenwriter Jimmy McGovern (An Evening With Jimmy McGovern – July 23), said of the venue:

“I found it breath-taking, there’s a cosiness and an intimacy in there and yet it can seat over 400 people at times, and you feel as though you are right on top of all the action, it’s incredible.

“To actually be there and know that this is almost splinter by splinter what it was like in the time of Shakespeare, that adds something special to it.

“All the outlying towns will be helped by this economically, but there’s a cultural kick as well, to have what I think is going to be a world-renowned theatre smack in the middle of the North West. I think that’s a great boon to this area. I’m thrilled by it.”

Playwright and rapper Ashleigh Nugent of RiseUpCIC, who curated the Open Up programme, said:

“Open Up is going to be an amazing opportunity to really be part of this incredible new project. Shakespeare North Playhouse is going to bring a lot of opportunities to the area, great arts and culture, and we are so excited for the local community to get involved.

“With Open Up we wanted to create an experience where the public can engage with the theatre itself, and with their own creativity to explore the space, meet local artists and feel they can get a sense of ownership of the place.

“It will be a chance to be entertained by, but also engage with the culture and creativity that make Merseyside such a creative and diverse place.”

Jimmy Fairhurst, of Shakespeare North Playhouse’s Warrington-based associate company Not Too Tame, said: 

“Shakespeare North Playhouse’s commitment to its community is second to none. The passion and attention to detail from Laura Collier and the team seeps into every decision, every relationship and every beam of oak. Knowsley and the surrounding towns are alive with intrigue, hope and curiosity at what this theatre will deliver.

“I am exceptionally proud that Not Too Tame have been invited to perform the opening Shakespeare production. My family are from the area and as a boy I often spent Saturday afternoon’s choosing cakes from Rays Bakery. To return now, with an ensemble company of working class artists ready to take on Shakespeare’s most well-known comedy is A Midsummer Night’s Dream come true. There is magic afoot in Prescot and it is very, very exciting.”

Keir is the main contractor of the site. The professional team also includes Helm Architecture as lead architect and Austin-Smith: Lord as support architect.