Opinion: Theatre isn’t just a worthy cause for life’s dreamers

Simon Aylin, currently starring as Buttons in the Key Theatre panto Cinderella, and a former member of the Key Youth Theatre, shares his views on the proposed closure of the venue.

By Brad Barnes
Saturday, 18th December 2021, 4:45 pm
Simon Aylin who fell in love with theatre at the Key
Simon Aylin who fell in love with theatre at the Key

On Thursday the cast and crew of the Key Pantomime performed for schools groups, community action groups, and families. As with each performance over the two weeks since we opened, there was joy in that auditorium. Patrons and performers had what has been painfully rare since March 2020; we had a shared live experience. After nearly two years of restrictions, lockdowns and isolation, we were able to all delight in the fact that Cinderella got to go out. And it was - again - SO MUCH FUN.

It was fun back in 1993 too, when I first performed on that stage in a musical adaptation of a Midsummer Nights Dream. I was 17 then - and it was life changing. I thought, “I’ll just spend as much time as possible here doing this, thank you very much”. And I did. I worked there, and played there, and grow up there. I found friends there, and mentors, and a purpose. For ten years I performed there, and worked front of house, and helped back stage, and eventually wrote and directed plays there. And every single job I’ve done since has been possible because of what I learned on that stage - looking out at a Peterborough audience.

This year - after twenty years - I got to go back and be a part of the Key Pantomime again. I’ve spent much of that twenty years writing, directing, and performing in Panto, in venues big and small, but believe me - there is no better auditorium to perform a Pantomime to. Big enough to make you the good kind of nervous, but intimate enough to feel when the audience is going with you, to know where the laughs are coming from, and to experience that most precious of things: an audience getting hocked on a story. I just love it. I just love that theatre.

Recently my son joined the same youth theatre that got me started 30 years ago. He’s a showoff just like me, but cautious too, and without encouragement would happily spend all his free time behind a screen. I always knew the best way to get him more involved in the real world was to get him involved in the Key Youth Theatre. As I was leaving the theatre after the performance yesterday I was having a conversation on the phone with my wife about rearranging our weeks off in the summer so that our son could have his first experience of being in the Key Youth Theatre’s summer musical. As anyone who’s ever been involved in it will tell you, the Key summer musical is a special thing. Always was. And to me the idea of watching him take part is special too. I love being involved with the theatre again - as a performer and as a supporter. It’s been the good kind of ‘new normal’.

But then as I put the phone down I saw something was up. The front rehearsal space at the theatre was full of theatre staff with concerned faces. My first thought was that Covid had found new ways to extract the fun out of life this Christmas, and that we’d be closing Cinderella early. It wasn’t until I got home and checked online that I saw something worse was in the pipeline. Peterborough City Council had announced that one month today the Key Theatre will be closed.

I perform at the theatre, I’m the parent of a child who performs at the theatre, I have friends that work at the theatre, and this Easter I was even due to bring a show to the theatre as a producer. It will not surprise you to hear that I want desperately for the theatre to stay open. But here’s why everyone else should want that too.

The Arts are like vitamins. We know they’re good for us - but it’s not until we don’t get enough of them that we find out just how important they are. I get what a nightmare working in local government must be at the moment. I understand how councillors will look at the gravely serious business of providing essential services like social care, and conclude that supporting local theatre is not a priority in hard times. But it’s short sighted. And I’m not just talking about the immeasurable emotional benefits that theatre can bring. This isn’t just a worthy cause for life’s dreamers. This is about the practical work of making a city successful.