I don’t tend to plug successful local community ventures and thriving venues so much on this blog. But organisations like the Chorley Little Theatre – not far from my doorstep – deserve credit for surviving in these days of austerity measures, not least when we’re losing so many independent concerns and arts funding appears to be drying up.
Besides, this particular Lancashire-based multi-use arts venue ploughs any profits back into the place itself and what goes on there, and it isn’t just a local success story – carving out something of a reputation (at least regionally) on the comedy circuit.
I first visited Chorley Little Theatre in the mid-’90s as a trainee reporter on the newspaper next door, writing stories and features around those involved and – first off, I seem to recall – reviewing an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge. While there were elements of ‘local am-dram’, there were some lovely people involved and a fair few could act and direct. What’s more, the theatre was an important asset to the town and borough, even if it needed a little money and a fresh lick of inspiration here and there.
As it was, that’s exactly what happened over the years that followed, thankfully, and while he probably won’t want singling out, one of the prime drivers behind an upturn in fortunes was a local lad, Ian Robinson, the current Chorley Amateur Dramatic and Operatic Society (CADOS) chairman.
A successful 2015 proved that, and from a whole host of high-calibre comedy bookings (perhaps ‘belly-laugh’ is the collective term) to an extensive programme of theatrical productions and film showings, we seem to have another busy 12 months ahead at this striking Dole Lane venue, with Ian – first involved behind the scenes in 1989, aged 14 – and his team of fellow volunteers clearly raring to go.
It was the players’ side of the operation that ruled the roost when I first popped along, and that remains the case, despite that wider reputation in other fields. The theatre also hosts music events (the next involving rock’n’roll regulars DP and the Spectaculars on February 6th), while Chorley Youth Theatre – run by children aged between 11 and 18, guided by CADOS, and on board since 1985 – is about to stage its first production of 2016. And then there’s the Chorley Empire Community Cinema, presenting ‘the cinema experience’ on a ’21-foot wide screen with eight-speaker Surround Sound’, its roots in the Chorley Film Society (part of the operation since 1990). So how does Ian think things have changed in the quarter-century since he was first involved?
“The plays all tended to be set in living rooms or kitchens back then, usually involving a box set, and I just helped out with lighting and set-painting – basically ‘lights up’ at the beginning of an act, and ‘lights down’ at the end. I knew someone who was already involved, so ended up going down, doing a bit, then after college I came back and got involved with the Film Society then with CADOS, becoming chairman in 2009.”
What does that role involve in what seems to be something of a hands-on community operation?
“Well … I do the marketing and the programming, and sometimes a little producing.”
Chorley Little Theatre was originally opened as Chorley’s first electric cinema in 1910, and since 1960 has been owned and operated by CADOS, which has put on quality productions for more than 75 years and now presents at least six productions per season (between September and July). All these years on, the theatre’s website suggests the venue is ‘run entirely by volunteers’. Does that suggest there’s still a day-job for Ian too?
“Yes, I’m a freelance designer. I did film and media studies at college, but my main course was graphic design and visual communication, and my main work after that was designing toys. I did that for 10 years, but got a little burnt out and now just freelance around my theatre work … keeping very strange hours!”
I’ve seen evidence of that, one night springing to mind that of Johnny Vegas’ visit in November 2013 alongside locally-based fellow comic Steve Royle (with a review here), the St Helens comic signing his autobiography into the early hours in the Empire Bar. At times like that, I guess it’s handy that Ian lives just a 10-minute walk away. But as a Chorley lad, where did he go to see cinema releases before the Little Theatre took on that mantle?
“The Plaza on Bolton Road. I saw loads of films there. That closed down in 1986, but I saw the whole Star Wars trilogy down there, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, ET, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Mary Poppins …”
His hometown lost something important there, didn’t it?
“It did, but it was run down and needed doing up, and unfortunately that year the attendances were at an all–time low. The Film Society started up partly to replicate that, although the remit has always been to bring popular films to the town.”
What would you say was the catalyst for the change that saw the Chorley Little Theatre re-energised and reborn to some extent?
“Part of it was through me as the chairman feeling a bit frustrated at the lack of use of this great facility, thinking we were the only theatre in town so ought to do a bit more to make the town appreciate us. If we were gone, people really would miss us. We saved enough money to work on the roof, but after the work was lined up, they found there were further problems, beyond the allocated budget.
“I felt that not only would we have to put things on to pay for all the work we needed to do, but also we needed to ensure we weren’t in a position where something disastrous happened then people told us, ‘Oh, I really miss the theatre’. We really needed people behind us.”
“Not really. The amount of work we’ve done in the last five or six years has seen us go beyond what we could possibly have planned originally. We’ve re-done dressing rooms, toilets, the auditorium … we’ve been able to do so much, with the income coming from putting all the shows on – every penny going back into the building.”
So what’s the next big project needing a cash injection?
“We could do with a bit of work around the front of the building, the foyer for instance. We uncovered stained glass as part of the work five years ago with the word ‘Empire’ on, for instance. But a lot of stuff we did last year involved updating technology within the building, and we’re pretty much state-of-the-art now. We’ve done a lot, and the bar is twice the size it was six years ago.”
The year 2015 proved to be another great year for you. Can you pick out any specific highlights?
“We had more than 23,000 admissions, the most we’ve ever had, and new audiences are finding us. I’m really proud of the plays we’ve put on too, like Our Day Out, Sherlock Holmes: The Final Problem … well, all of them really. They’ve been such good quality.”
One recent event that led to a few famous post-show photo-calls was Bobby Ball’s The Dressing Room, with Cannon and Ball and Kate Robbins among the cast, and Ted Robbins and Peter Kay out front.
“That was great. Such a great atmosphere. It was hard work but worth it. When comedy heroes and people from your childhood come along and treat you as an equal, that’s really nice – things like Peter Kay popping along and saying hello. We’ve also had Andrew Flintoff here. It’s great to tick a few names off my wish-list, like Sarah Millican. I first asked for her around six years ago – no one ever came back to me then.”
Is it fair to say the venue would have closed if not for a little celebrity help on your doorstep, the likes of good friend of this blog Dave Spikey and so on coming forward to do their bit?
“It is. When we had the problem with the building and got in touch with Dave Spikey and Steve Royle and they came along and did shows, that kind of set us on the path, not least having more comedy. That was a great help.”
You’ve very quickly become a recognised venue on the comedy circuit, not just with the older or current big names like John Bishop, Sarah Millican, Mike Harding, Jo Caulfield, Phil Cool, Justin Moorhouse and Mark Steel but also a number of younger acts on the way up, such as Rob Beckett, Chris Ramsey and recent writewyattuk interviewee Lucy Beaumont.
“We’re really into our comedy. I’ve been to the Edinburgh Fringe for the last 11 years, and as a venue we find it comparatively easy to put on comedy. We don’t have much wing space here, so when we’re making sets for a show we have to do that on the stage, yet a comedian can come on in front of the curtain. It seems to have done well for us.
“It’s fabulous to have big names, but it’s the others coming through too, like Romesh Ranganathan, here in May this year for his fourth visit, while Chris Ramsey has done seven. First time he got 100 people, then you watch him and think, ‘Wow!’ It was the same with Romesh first time we saw him. It’s great that he’s now having such success. He seems to be everywhere at the moment. Rob Beckett was great as well, and Ed Byrne. That was nice to see as well.”
I saw you posting on social media how Rob Beckett shook hands with his entire audience after his recent show.
“Yes, he got off stage and ran around to shake hands and thank everyone for coming as they left the building, which was just amazing. It’s great when people appreciate how lucky they are, and have a good time. We’ll hopefully make them feel at home, and they’ll put on a good show.”
A full house at the venue involves 236 sold-out seats and spaces for three wheelchairs, by the way. And it appears that quite a acts prefer to do more than one night at Dole Lane than play a larger, somewhat less intimate venue.
“Yes, although ideally – long term – we’d like to get a few more seats in and make them comfier. But that would probably mean building a balcony, so is a long way off. At the moment we’re fine and everyone enjoys it as it is, and Chris Ramsey did two gigs here while Jenny Eclair sold out and will be coming back.”
It’s clearly a proper community venture too. With that in mind, I ask Ian how many volunteer helpers and financial backers he has on board, with his response best described as a high-pitched repeat of half of that question.
“’Financial backers?’ Ha! But in terms of volunteers, it changes from show to show, but we probably have around 30 on a weekly basis but up to around 100 for the panto, involved some way or other.”
I spotted a recent social media posting about a couple who left early during the panto because they ‘didn’t expect singing’. I’m guessing Ian’s heard some classic comments over the years.
“There is some weird stuff. We had a bloke who came to see Frozen with his kids, and he sat at the very front for around 20 minutes before the show started and as the screen came down he said, “I wasn’t expecting a film. No one said it was a film!’ He then came to see The Lego Movie the next week, and was similarly surprised. As for the couple who walked out of the panto, I’m not quite sure what they expected. But hopefully they’ll come back and try something else.”
Ian’s significant other, Estelle, is part of the volunteer team too. Was theirs a Chorley Little Theatre romance?
“That was a bit weird! We actually met at a Comedy Sports gig, an improv show in Manchester. A mutual friend introduced us … and that was it.”
They certainly both seem to be part of the furniture now … in a good way.
“Yes, but mentioning partners, I think everyone who volunteers here has a long-suffering partner who either gets dragged in or joins the circle to help out, particularly at panto time. But the long-suffering ones have to put up with a lot of problems.”
You already have a lot planned for 2016. What in particular are you most looking forward to?
“There’s a lot going on, but we’re trying not to have too much, as last year was a bit too busy – really hard work. But we’ll have Jason Manford’s Comedy Club on a regular basis, showcasing comedians who won’t normally sell out on their own. Hopefully that will really take off.”
Will that include Jason himself at some point?
“We were hoping so, but he’s busy on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, so may not be able to pop in. We’ll see. He picks a great line-up anyway – a lot of names that aren’t necessarily on TV but week-in, week-out are very funny. We’re also doing a musical with CADOS, and I’m directing a play in September, so that’ll be fun too. Even the Cannon and Ball play had a director from CADOS, and everything is geared around the plays.
“Now we do the most amazing sets, but still have the same amount of time to turn things around. It is hard work, but we have a great team, working around the clock.”
Chorley Youth Theatre’s next play, The Light Burns Blue, runs on Friday, January 15th and Saturday, January 16th, set in 1917 and inspired by the story of the Cottingley Fairies, when Elsie Wright and her sister claimed to have photographed fairies at the bottom of their garden. For ticket details of all Chorley Little Theatre events call the box office on 01257 264362 and for more information head to http://www.chorleylittletheatre.com/
- This is a revised edition of a feature that first appeared in the Lancashire Evening Post on Thursday, January 7th, 2016.
- STOP PRESS: News comes in that Dave Spikey will be joined by fellow Phoenix Nights stars Janice Connolly, Ted Robbins, Steve Royle and comedian Mike Wilkinson for a night of great stand-up comedy at Chorley Little Theatre in a fund-raiser for victims of the Croston floods on Thursday, February 4th (7.30pm – 10pm). All the money raised goes towards a charity set up in Croston to help residents, shops and businesses affected by the recent floods. There will also be a raffle on the night, with prizes donated by local businesses and tickets £20 (available from 10am on Monday, January 11th). For more details head here.