Express & Star

Shakespeare show to remain at Stafford theatre for 2024 after moving from castle due to financial challenges

Stafford’s annual Shakespeare show will stay in the town centre for another year after moving from the castle due to financial challenges.

Last updated
Stafford Gatehouse Theatre

Borough council cabinet members have agreed to the staging of Twelfth Night at the Gatehouse Theatre in 2024 – but one has called for Freedom Leisure, which operates leisure services on behalf of the authority, to consider holding other events at Stafford Castle in the summer.

Stafford Festival Shakespeare has been staged in the grounds of the castle for more than 30 years. But last year Stafford Borough Council agreed to move the show to the Gatehouse for one year to cut costs.

Councillor Gillian Pardesi, cabinet member for leisure, said on Thursday: “The decision to move the last annual Shakespeare production from Stafford Castle to the Gatehouse was made by our previous administration based on the financial challenges faced by Freedom Leisure. Unfortunately the financial pressures for Freedom Leisure remain and it is being recommended that the 2024 production again be held at the Gatehouse.”

Councillor Tony Pearce, cabinet member for climate change, said: “It’s a fact that any performance of Shakespeare at the Gatehouse is not the same as attending one at the castle because of the atmosphere up there. I think it’s a shame it can’t happen there but I accept the economics of it, that it has to happen the way it is.

“I think we ought to be asking Freedom Leisure to perhaps contact external outdoor event organisers to look at whether there are events that could be organised there, particularly during the summer months. I think there is a great scope for it, it’s something that people would enjoy and I ask that that be investigated.”

Freedom Leisure, a not for profit trust, has faced financial pressures including soaring energy costs in the past two years. In December 2022 Stafford Borough Council agreed to provide financial support for 2022/23 and 2023/24.

A report to Thursday’s cabinet meeting said: “Cabinet agreed (in 2022) that officers should work with Freedom Leisure to minimise the level of financial support required from the council and improve the sustainability of the contract. This work has taken place over the past year and will continue to take place as the council works with Freedom Leisure to explore efficient energy options, as well as striving to improve the service offer to enhance the customer experience.

“The move of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the Gatehouse (in 2023) ensured the production could go ahead. Financial pressures continue.

“The costs to build all the infrastructure to create an outdoor theatre at the castle site are significant and post-Covid even more so with increases to raw materials and contractor costs. For the production to be held at the castle, funding is required to build the set and stage, seating and ballast, for plant hire, sanitation and waste, on site security and for lighting and sound hire.

“There are several expenditure lines that are essential regardless of the location including scenery and sets, technical staff and actors however these are more controllable within a theatre environment and there is less risk, uncertainty and need for contingency when compared to working in an outdoor location. It should also be noted that costs in a number of areas have also increased, in particular in relation to actor fees.”

More than 90% of the 447 theatregoers who took part in a survey following this year’s staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream rated the overall quality of the production excellent or good, the report added. And town centre hotels, bars and restaurants saw an increase in bookings and customers during the show’s run.

But occupancy levels were lower for A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Gatehouse in 2023, at 46% compared to the 71% seen at the 2022 production at the Castle, and 55% in 2019. The report said: ” It should also be noted that it is likely that the 2022 production saw higher occupancy because of the cancellation of performances during the pandemic and tickets transferring to the 2022 production – this allowed a significant time window for tickets to have been purchased.

“As the Gatehouse Theatre team were not required to be on site at the castle for the 2023 production, the theatre was able to stage 15 extra events with over 2,000 attendees. School tours were also able to continue at the castle.”