The iconic new £30 million Shakespeare North Playhouse in Prescot, Liverpool, has presented its spectacular opening season, with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Christmas Carol, Johnny Vegas, and Jimmy McGovern among the season highlights.
The spectacular new venue, which will have the only 17th-century style timber theatre outside of London and is expected to attract 140,000 people each year, will open its doors to the public on July 15-17 with a weekend of free festivities.
The weekend festivities will start 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’.
The events will 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 www.shakespearenorthplayhouse.co.uk 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, 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.”
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.
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.
Liverpool screenwriter, Jimmy McGovern, said:
“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.”