It’s been a tough time for theatres. Many are still feeling the aftershocks of the Covid lockdown when the curtains fell on March 16 2020. Some theatres subsequently went into administration and closed and The Stage newspaper has calculated that 35,000 jobs were lost in the creative arts in a year. Things were tough when, in January 2022, James Mackenzie-Blackman took over the reins from Adrian Vinken, who had served as CEO at Theatre Royal Plymouth for 30 years.

James - who grew up in the city and performed with the theatre’s Young Company - arrived in the theatre’s 40th year, determined to celebrate the milestone. Today, after just two years in post, he is steering the theatre to dizzying heights. Yes all the top companies are still performing at the Theatre Royal – Welsh National Opera, Birmingham Royal Ballet, international dance companies plus tours of some of the most popular West End shows – but James has real ambition to put TRP on an international stage with some big co-productions, including the UK premiere of The Devil Wears Prada, with music by Sir Elton John.

Great British Life: Coming soon - The Devil Wears Prada. Photo: TRPComing soon - The Devil Wears Prada. Photo: TRP

James says there was a lot of competition with other theatres and companies and he found himself at the home of Elton and his husband, David Furnish who is one the co-producers.

‘I walked into a big room full of men, some of whom had baseball caps – top theatre industry people,’ he explains. ‘They asked me to say a bit about our venue and then a voice from the corner of the room asked why make it in Plymouth? I said, with a straight face, because Plymouth is the fashion capital of Europe,’ he laughs. Half of the room laughed with him, half missed the irony. But the pitch worked and the show plays in Plymouth for six weeks (from July 6) then goes straight into the West End in October.

It could be regarding as wildly ambitious, given the current climate in the creative industry, but James has a positivity that is catching. ‘Our job is to ensure that we maintain audience growth when the availability of productions is still very muted. We are continuing to say to our trustees that we can’t balance the books this year. It’s unlikely to be next year or the year after. It’s really hard. We’re hit by the cost of living crisis which impacts on how people spend their money. It’s the rising cost of filling a supermarket trolley. Theatre is a treat and a luxury for many people. We are very proud to be a real living wage employer, but that means the wage bill is going up by 12 per cent which adds hundreds of thousands of pounds to the budget.’

By becoming co-producers in shows, the hope is (apart from creating amazing theatrical experiences) that the theatre sees a return on the investment.

Great British Life: The Theatre Royal were co-producers for musical Madagascar. Photo: Front Page PhotographyThe Theatre Royal were co-producers for musical Madagascar. Photo: Front Page Photography

‘In October we opened Madagascar here, acting as co-producers with a commercial theatre partner,’ says James. ‘Now it’s off on a 52-week tour which includes Milan, Singapore and Hong Kong. We will see our money back and some. We are really thinking about our city and our region. This is a low-income area. We have the big Disney titles – like Aladdin this month – and that will cost a family of four about £300. It really matters to me that we have other offerings – like Madagascar – which won’t break the bank.’

The Theatre Royal is also co-producing The Artist, based on the hugely successful black and white French movie which won several Oscars including Best Film. Robbie Fairchild and Briana Craig play an egomaniacal silent movie star and a young dancer and Gary Wilmot is a studio boss. The director and choreographer is Drew McOnie, the new artistic director at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.

Since James took over there have been a number of creative appointments. At his interview he drew a picture of a future without an artistic director in post. ‘How could one person have relationships with all the other artists? Instead we now have exceptional people who are all incredibly different. Which means you are programming everything from six weeks of Hamilton to two naked dancers rolling around the stage in mud.’

Great British Life: James Mackenzie-Blackman with Dame Darcey Bussell who was persuaded by James to join the theatre's board as chair. Photo: SGHaywood Photography / TRPJames Mackenzie-Blackman with Dame Darcey Bussell who was persuaded by James to join the theatre's board as chair. Photo: SGHaywood Photography / TRP

There’s also a new chair of the board – Dame Darcey Bussell. ‘There was a rumour that she had bought a flat in Plymouth. I found an old email address I had for her and got into touch. We needed a new chair and we have found someone who has an exceptional understanding of the industry. It took four or five months to persuade her to do it. She’s perfect – the most famous ballet dancer of her generation and the general public know her through Strictly.

‘People love the Theatre Royal Plymouth and they care about our success. I really hope that they are immensely proud of it. I want them to see shows that are home-grown – made in Plymouth then exported around the country and around the world.’