The growing success of English theatre over the last few years is under threat from Government cutbacks, a committee of MPs was told in Birmingham yesterday.
The Culture, Media and Sport Committee meeting at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, heard evidence from theatre professionals from the West Midlands, Derby, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds as part of its inquiry into the state of theatre.
Chaired by Sir Gerald Kaufman, the 11-strong committee includes West Midlands MPs Michael Fabricant (Con Lichfield) and Debra Shipley (Lab Stourbridge). Yesterday's session, devoted to regional theatre, was the third in a series of four.
The Arts Council significantly increased funding for theatre three years ago following its theatre review, leading to a sharp increase in audiences. But the announcement of a three-year freeze in December has led to fears that the renaissance will be stopped in its tracks.
Hamish Glen, artistic director of the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, accused the Treasury of penny-pinching, and said there was a danger theatres would become locked into the management of decline.
A deputation from the Royal Shakespeare Company, including honorary associate artist Dame Judi Dench, was closely questioned by the committee on its plans for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which have now moved away from the total demolition which the committee supported three years ago.
Artistic director Michael Boyd said a mixture of persistence and ingenuity had led to a solution which fitted a new auditorium between the preserved foyer and fly tower of the existing building - a concept which had originally been thought impossible.
"It has enabled us to come up with a thrilling vision of a very intimate theatre in which we have reduced the distance from the stage to the furthest seat from 27 metres to between 14 and 16 metres. That's a massive improvement."
Dame Judi Dench said: "I went to see Beauty and the Beast in the main house, where I used to work in the 1970s, and it seemed to be like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. The wonderful thing about the Swan Theatre is that it's so adaptable - I can't imagine it not working for anything."
Michael Fabricant questioned whether large established theatres take up so much of the available funding that it is difficult for new companies to establish a foothold.
Not surprisingly, representatives of large building-based companies felt the cake should be enlarged rather than that they should be expected to give up their share. There was also some unease about the campaign by commercial West End theatres for £125 million of public money to bring their buildings up to 21st Century standards.
Ian Brown, artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, told the committee there had been a rebirth of theatre. "It seems to me there's been a shift in young peoples' attitude to theatre - it's suddenly become a bit cool again," he said.
But Karen Hebded, chief executive of Derby Playhouse, warned: "The standstill funding that's been put on the table is a scary place for those of us who work in the sector. Because of the theatre review everyone had a little bit of breathing space to think about how to take things forward. That work has just started and and now there's a danger we may go backwards."