Are theatre audiences too old? Veteran actor Timothy West thinks not


Veteran actor Timothy West has said he gets "cross" when people complain that theatre does not pull in a younger crowd.

Timothy, 81, is about to star as King Lear at the Bristol Old Vic, and is also celebrating the theatre's 250th birthday this weekend at a special gala performance.

Timothy West as King Lear
Timothy West as King Lear (Paul Blakemore)

He told the Press Association: "I get cross when people say: 'Oh, look at the audience, there's nobody there under the age of 55´. But we've been saying that always. The people who are coming now are the people who weren't coming then.

"It is nothing to do with financial ability, it's, I think, that when you get a little bit older, you have a little bit more time to explore things that are not immediate around you. And the theatre is always giving you an opportunity to rethink and to think about new things, to have new things revealed to you."

He will star alongside Open All Hours and Coronation Street actress Stephanie Cole in the production of King Lear next month.

Stephanie Cole rehearsing for King Lear at the Bristol Old Vic
Stephanie Cole rehearsing for King Lear at the Bristol Old Vic (Paul Blakemore)

Stephanie, 74, said the theatre world had been doing an increasingly good job in connecting with new audiences - a change she had spotted since she first began her acting career aged 17 at the Bristol Old Vic.

She said: "Now over the last 30 or more years, there has been tremendous outreach from all theatres to young people in schools and so on and so forth.

"We're constantly reaching out in every possible way, either going into schools or getting schools coming here.

Timothy West in The Master Builder at Bristol Old Vic
Timothy West in The Master Builder at Bristol Old Vic (University of Bristol Theatre Collection)

"I came to see a play here the other day, I looked around the audience and there was every possible age, every possible race colour and creed, and every possible age and it was a joy to look around a packed auditorium with every possible part of society represented."

On whether the theatre world was doing all it could to reach out, she said: "I think that it is doing a jolly good job. I mean the problem is of course that these things cost money, whether you like it or whether you don't."

Both called for more funding of the arts - particularly for regional theatres.

Rehearsals for King Lear with Timothy West and Stephanie Cole
Rehearsals for King Lear with Timothy West and Stephanie Cole (Paul Blakemore)

Stephanie said: "People think when they hear the theatre's been given a bit more money, they think, 'What on earth do they need that for?'

"Well, we do need it, because it carries our ideas, and it carries our thoughts, and we need as a nation - all human beings need - to be able to explore those things."

The Bristol Old Vic is celebrating its quarter-millennium milestone with a long weekend of events - including a gala show on Sunday with performances by actors including Timothy, Stephanie, Toby Jones, Caroline Quentin, Sir Tony Robinson, Dame Sian Phillips, Greta Scacchi, Samantha Bond, Tim Pigott-Smith, Pippa Haywood and Michael Morpurgo.

The Bristol Old Vic auditorium
The Bristol Old Vic auditorium (Philip Vile)

Timothy led the theatre company in the 80s and 90s after starring in many productions.

The actor said: "It is unique. It's unique in this country, there are only two other theatres in Europe of the same age, and they are both very different. It's an institution.

"Even in the last century, it's always been a place where actors love to come and work, because they know they're going to get a lovely audience, they're going to get very good design, very good direction, and nice clothes to wear, nice wigs to wear. You'll be seen to your best advantage."