Jonathan Schofield loves the new theatre in Prescot but worries about getting there on time
Prescot’s Shakespeare North Playhouse, designed by Helm with Austin-Smith:Lord, is a 2022 must visit for the north west. A cracking new addition to the region that is strangely unheralded. That should change, this place is too good. The building is superb and the enthusiasm of staff and volunteers is wonderful to behold.
Shakespeare North Playhouse is very much worth making the effort to visit. It's a labour of love and it shows.
The glory of the building is the main theatre space which sits behind a modern carapace that is voguishly Modernist in its massing and shape. In other words, early 20th century Scandi, a bit Alvar Aalto perhaps, but with fins and equally splendid brickwork. That fine shell hosts a decently scaled and coolly fitted out circulation area including a bar, shop, exhibition area and box office. There is lots of wood here but it all pales in comparison to the use of timber in the auditorium - but we’ll get to that in a minute.
There’s a good public realm outside the building to the south and east, part of which is the "performance garden". The funding of the latter to the tune of £700,000 was provided by comedian Ken Dodd’s widow, Anne. The celebrity involvement is impressive. Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave and Merseysiders Paul McCartney, Kim Cattrall and Cherie Blair have all given the thumbs up. The main funding came from Central Government with £5m in George Osborne’s final budget, but the major funders were Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and donors from various foundations. The overall cost was £38m. The building opened in July 2022.
The project has been a long time coming and crossed the county line. It was back in the 1990s that architect Nick Helm, boffin Richard Wilson (then at Lancaster University) and the director David Thacker dreamt the idea up. Their preferred location was Hoghton Tower, between Preston and Blackburn in Lancashire.
There is a Shakespeare connection of sorts to Hoghton, with a tradition that some of the early plays of Shakespeare were perhaps first performed in Lancashire. One of Bill the Bard’s teachers was John Cottam, a Jesuit-trained tutor from the county. The Cottams were tenants of the de Hoghtons of Hoghton Tower, near Blackburn, and in a contemporary document there is a reference to William Shakeshafte living a Hoghton, a variant of Shakespeare and one used by William Shakespeare’s grandfather. It’s an elusive link but a potent one.
A trust was set up to progress the idea but tempus did its fugiting and the notion appeared moribund. Then an episode in the rich history of Prescot, once famous for clock-making, was pounced upon and suddenly there was an alternative site across the border in Merseyside (although of course until 1974, this was Lancashire too).
Prescot had one of the earliest permanent theatres outside London in the 1590s and early 1600s. More pertinently to the idea of a Shakespeare North Playhouse, the Earls of Derby, the Stanleys, were great patrons of the theatre and Knowsley, one of their estates, borders Prescot. The first son of the Stanleys was known as Lord Strange and Lord Strange’s Men were a troop of performers who are known to have staged Shakespeare’s plays. The real name of Lord Strange in this instance was Ferdinando Stanley, which is beautifully theatrical in its own right.
Back to the completed building.
The restraint displayed in the reception areas is a foil for the Shakespearian surprise of the 470-capacity auditorium that greets theatre-goers. This “wooden O” to quote from the play Henry V is a real joy, intimate yet oddly expansive. If visiting take time to have a good long gawp at the skill with which this delightful Jenga is put together. The galleried and pillared circle of wood is so fresh at present the prevailing scent is of cut timber. That welcome aroma is a palpable presence as you approach down narrow timber clad passages designed to heighten the anticipation of seeing the auditorium.
For people who have visited the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, another theatre in the round, the theatrical experience will be familiar, but here it is more intimate. Watching the first Shakespeare production in the theatre this October, a strangely unseasonal but brilliant A Midsummer Night’s Dream, revealed the exciting potential of the space in terms of the relationship between players and audience.
The name of the auditorium at Shakespeare North Playhouse is the Cockpit Theatre. This derives from the Cockpit-in-Court at the long-gone Palace of Whitehall. The Cockpit-in-Court was used for various entertainments from the 1530s to amuse Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
Later, during the time of James 1 it may have put on Shakespeare's plays. Then in 1629, during the reign of Charles 1, the space was altered to plans drawn up by a pupil of the renowned architect Inigo Jones, one John Webb. These plans survive and provide a model for the Shakespeare North Playhouse, although Helm and Austin-Smith:Lord have had to make educated guesses about various features such as whether there was a gallery or not. A major point of difference with, say, the famous Globe theatre in London was that Webb’s plans had a roof. Phew. Winter is coming on.
If there are any caveats it is with getting to Shakespeare North Playhouse from anywhere outside of Merseyside.
I am sure motorway and major road signs will be installed soon, although why they weren’t in place before the theatre opened is a mystery. The nearest car park is a battleground before shows, with two points of entry and people beeping and jostling for space. The other car parks down High Street are grim.
Rail transport, particularly from Manchester is painful, with one change involved, either at Liverpool Lime Street or at Wigan North Western. To make a 7.30pm show at the time of writing on a Friday evening, there’s a 5.23pm train from Piccadilly, then a change at Lime Street, for arrival at 7.04pm so one hour and 41 minutes. The station is a 15-minute walk from the theatre so you will need to factor that in. For most shows you’d be getting back to Manchester after 11pm. We are talking 23 miles as the crow flies.
From Liverpool Lime Street it’s much more convenient, under twenty minutes. Merseysiders are the lucky ones in terms of visiting the theatre.
Perhaps the issues with getting to the Shakespeare North Playhouse is the reason why it seems so underreported locally and nationally. This is a crying shame, this place is a real achievement and very much worth making the effort to visit. It's taken a while for the vision to become a reality, but it's a labour of love and it shows.
Shakespeare Playhouse North, Prospero Place, Prescot L34 3AB.