Beyond the Golden Mile

31st May 1996 at 01:00
Blackpool: beyond the Merrie England Cabaret Bar, the end of the pier trumpets Danny La Rue; Harry Ramsden's fish'n' chip shop gleams from the arcade and the tide yawns over "miles of golden sand". Above it all, the ferocious Blackpool Tower dwarfs the biggest ferris wheel in Europe.

Behind this neon-flashing facade, the Grand Theatre is reinventing itself as a hotbed of avant-garde activity while returning to the Victorian splendour of its heyday. Saved from a life-sentence as a bingo hall, it's undergone a massive restoration programme regilding filigree cherubs, renovating ceiling murals of Handel and Offenbach and reviving a roof corroded with salt air.

Alongside the sell-out summer variety show, adventurous programming includes visits from Cheek by Jowl, Theatre de Complicite, the Royal National Theatre and Abbey Theatre, Dublin. An imaginative contemporary dance programme linked to visiting companies has been boosted by a Pounds 30,000 Arts Council education grant. A recent Richard Alston Dance Company residency brought together pupils from mainstream and special schools.

HND performing arts students from Blackpool and Fylde College created a dance piece with the Siobhan Davies Dance Company, in town to premiere Trespass. Starting from scratch, they worked with dancer Gill Clarke on "physical signatures" before collaborating with music students.

"It's been a new experience to work on a project out of college with live music," enthused students. "We're about to tour our piece to college students, talking about how we developed it, doing a warm up, passing on the skills we've learnt, then getting them to work on their own performance piece continuing the format."

Davies's award-winning The Art of Touch amplified the note of serious play. Dancers dressed in PVC and long tutus became at times a line of twisters, at others a muscular frieze of fish bones or anguished inmates of a Lorca tragedy. "Trying to get beyond the expected so the unusual is allowed to happen" as Davies put it afterwards.

Aside from documenting dance education projects, education officer Celine Wyatt has set up a youth theatre team premiering a newly-commissioned David Holman play next March. She has also introduced a National Theatre-style platform programme, with INSET and drama teachers' forum, primary school theatre mornings, work shadowing and theatre workshops, viewing the Grand as a community resource, not a hit-and-run venue.

Despite little public subsidy (offset by enthusiastic, civic support) the theatre's financial position is healthy. The sophisticated inhabitants of Manchester and Merseyside are gradually being wooed to the capital of sequin shops, amateur musicals and cabaret innuendo. Frank Matcham, whose influence on the town twinkles from the magnificent Tower Ballroom and Circus, should be smiling.

Blackpool Grand Theatre education department can be contacted on tel: 01253 29979

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