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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 October 2005, 07:35 GMT 08:35 UK
Spearheading the regional revival
By Victoria Lindrea
BBC News entertainment reporter

Samuel West
West was Bafta-nominated for his role in the 1992 film Howard's End
As his first season as artistic director opens at Sheffield Theatres, actor Samuel West celebrates the rebirth of British regional theatre.

West, the 39-year-old son of actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales, has starred in films including Howards End, Iris and Persuasion, and the 2003 BBC drama Cambridge Spies.

But he remains best known for his classical roles in the theatre, including an award-winning Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as an acknowledged flair for directing.

Now West steps into the shoes of Michael Grandage, as artistic director of one of Britain's leading regional theatres.

"I believe in The Crucible, we have the most exciting stage in England," says West, who launches the new season playing Benedick in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.

Samuel West (l) and Tom Hollander in Cambridge Spies
West played double agent Anthony Blunt in Cambridge Spies

"Unlike many theatres, there is no proscenium, so the audience and the actors are in the same room - I think that is essential for any truly moving experience."

"There is a very strong sense of civic pride about the theatre," says West of the three-stage theatre complex, which includes The Crucible, the Lyceum and the Studio.

It wasn't always so. When Michael Grandage took over the running of the theatre in 2000, regional theatre was in the doldrums.

But a much-needed cash injection from the Arts Council in 2001 heralded a new era of confidence in regional theatre, spearheaded by bold artistic directors like Grandage and Jude Kelly at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Over the past five years, audience figures have increased 71% for in-house productions, bringing stars of the calibre of Kenneth Branagh and Joseph Fiennes to Sheffield.

Claire Price and Samuel West in Much Ado About Nothing (credit: Catherine Ashmore)

"I think the 12.5m that was found four years ago - that wiped out the crude deficits of many years of under-funding - has allowed theatres to think in longer terms, with slightly larger casts," explains West.

"It has meant that artistic directors like my predecessor have been able to look at the future with some ambition and some scope."

"Let's not pretend that we are swimming in pots of cash," stresses West. "We are looking at an increase of inflation for the next two years."

"Nobody is in it for the money, everybody is in it for the love. But it's a vibrant and exciting time."

West believes both stars and theatre-goers see Sheffield as "a very proper alternative to the mad and fickle, time-consuming and expensive, London theatre".

"I haven't really been in the job long enough yet, but I suspect a sea-change is occurring in terms of how regional theatre is perceived in this country."

"Sheffield is a theatre that tries to offer something for everyone that lives in Sheffield, but it is also a theatre that there are reasons to visit if you are coming from London as well."

We can't be a high street theatre, we can't just be putting on West End revivals
Samuel West

West's opening season includes three new plays, a Christmas revival of the 1968 Burt Bacharach musical Promises, Promises, and Howard Brenton's epic Romans in Britain.

Casting has yet to be finalised on many of the shows later in the season, but West - like his predecessor - will not shy away from celebrity casting.

Samuel West and Timothy West in BBC drama Over Here (1996)
West is keen to bring his father (r) to perform in Sheffield next year

"I have no problem with celebrity at all. When you are looking for big names, it's always a toss up whether you can get them in advance, or whether you are better getting them at the last minute."

"It is essential to fit the actor to the part. I've made no secret of the fact that some of the recent star casting in the West End leaves me mildly depressed."

"But I think the sort of people that will come to Sheffield are the sort of people who want to play these parts - and play them in a theatre where they will get the highest artistic standards applied to the production, and a very attentive and intelligent audience."

Much Ado About Nothing runs until 5 November at the Crucible theatre, Sheffield.


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