Robert Gore-Langton

Why Merseyside is the natural home for a Shakespearean theatre

Prescot was the site of the first free-standing, purpose-built indoor playhouse outside London – and now it's home to the game-changing Shakespeare North

You enter an octagonal cocoon, modelled on a 1630 playhouse, built of slowly splitting green oak.

Prescot is a neglected little town in Merseyside noted for having Britain’s second narrowest street and for its Brazilian waxing salon. It’s now also home to Shakespeare North, a game-changing new theatre. This handsome, modern brick building overlooking a Jacobean church has a light, airy, unfussy interior – a stairway to heaven. You leave the modern world and enter an octagonal cocoon, modelled on a 1630 playhouse, built of slowly splitting green oak, the limbs all pegged together, not a nail in sight. The seats (two tiers) accommodate between 320 and 470 people, depending on the configuration of the stage. Its acoustic is spot-on and it feels cosy but not claustrophobic. The sound and lighting technology is modern but it can be candlelit if need be.

Shakespeare North joins the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London as the latest reproduction theatre. It’s Lancashire’s bid to be a proud new home for the Bard. It smells like new shoes and its raw-wood bays create an outdoor-but-indoor ambience that’s perfect for the bosky frolics of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a new production of which opens here next month. One odd detail: the theatre incorporates bits of the set from the film Shakespeare in Love. Judi Dench acquired what was left and donated it to Shakespeare North. Salvaged timbers have been scarfed into its wooden structure, built by the master carpenter Peter McCurdy, whose company was also responsible for the timberwork for the Globe on Bankside.

Prescot’s was never going to be an outdoor theatre like the Globe. It’s too cold up north. But it might prove more refreshingly straightforward and unpretentious in its programming. Johnny Vegas, doyen of the fast disappearing breed of fat-bastard northern comics, has just played at the new theatre. Shakespeare’s plays won’t be put on exclusively and often they’ll be local in feel.

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