How the Beacon in Greenock took centre stage

Both as a performance venue and as a rehearsal space, the Beacon Arts Centre in Greenock is playing an increasingly pivotal role in Scottish theatre, writes Joyce McMillan

Erin Armstrong stars in Lena PIC: Murdo Macleod
Erin Armstrong stars in Lena PIC: Murdo Macleod

It’s the setting that first takes the breath away, for new visitors to the Beacon Arts Centre in Greenock. First opened in 2013, it sits on the waterside at Custom House Quay, facing northward to stunning views of the Firth of Clyde, and the Highlands beyond.

Nor is the view merely shortbread-tin pretty; for if the building looks towards the hills, it’s also surrounded by the physical traces of the heavy industry that once made Greenock, and this spectacular stretch of the Clyde, the ship-building capital of the world, as well as a massive trading port. And just a headland away, on the other side of the firth, is the UK’s controversial nuclear submarine base at Faslane – a fact few people in the area are likely to forget, in the current state of heightened international tension.

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It’s a dramatic setting, in other words, full of beauty and tension; and it has undoubtedly played a role in establishing the Beacon as an ever more important presence on the Scottish theatre scene – not only as an important venue for small and medium-sized touring productions, but increasingly as a co-producer of theatre projects, a rehearsal and meeting space, and a venue for “teching” and previewing major productions, before they set off on tour.

“It’s a great theatre with a wonderful team, who really do everything they can to support you,” says Matthew Lenton of Glasgow’s internationally-acclaimed Vanishing Point company, which has built up a long-term relationship with the Beacon, and rehearsed there earlier this year before taking their production Interiors to the LIFT Festival in London. “The facilities are great, and more than that, it’s just a very beautiful, conducive space for creative work. To rehearse in a room with that view, or to come out of the theatre and be able to see that light and breathe that air, makes a huge difference to the experience.”

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The practical reasons for the Beacon’s success are as important as the aesthetic ones, of course. With a 500-seat three-tier main theatre, a spacious 120 seat studio, a large ground floor cafe-bar, and a range of first floor river-facing rooms that can accommodate rehearsals, conferences, and even social events including weddings, the building is exceptionally well equipped both to earn its own income through ticket sales and rentals – which make up about 70 per cent of its turnover – and also to contribute to Scotland’s theatre scene; and it’s also just half an hour from Glasgow by train. In early April, the National Theatre of Scotland’s new musical Orphans will preview there, before its official opening night at the SEC in Glasgow; and later in the year, the Beacon will host rehearsals for Alan Cumming’s Edinburgh International Festival show Burn, about the life of Robert Burns.

At the moment, though, all eyes at the Beacon are focussed on the company’s forthcoming co-production of Lena, a new play with music about the life of the Greenock-born and Rothesay-raised singer Lena Zavaroni, who shot to fame on talent show Opportunity Knocks at the age of only 10, in 1973, but died in 1999 after an increasingly desperate 20-year struggle with anorexia and depression.

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“We’ve been talking to Feather Productions about this show since 2017,” says The Beacon’s director Pauline Kane, “and right from the start it seemed like a perfect fit for us. It’s a local story that also has much wider resonances; and it’s a real thrill to stage the world premiere of a show that we hope will tour much more widely in future. We are gradually becoming more involved in co-productions; and that’s all about steadily building up relationships with artists over the years, which we’ve been able to do even during the pandemic.

“There has always been a great community arts scene in Greenock, of course, and an outstanding amateur drama tradition. The Beacon is the direct successor to the great Greenock Arts Guild, founded back in 1946, and we have the mosaic name plaque from the old Arts Guild theatre in our foyer. But now we’re also extending our reach to parts of the community that might traditionally have been less engaged with local arts, and we’re delighted to have a new team working on that.”

And for Tim Withnall and Anna Murphy, the writing and producing team behind Feather Productions, the chance to open their show at the Beacon is something like a dream come true. “It’s a story I’ve always wanted to tell,” says Tim Withnall, who was a Scotsman Fringe First winner in 2009 with his play Morecambe, about the life of Eric Morecambe. “I had some experience as a successful child performer myself, and found it very weird and unsettling; and I think it’s important to tell Lena’s story in a way that’s both hard-hitting and uplifting – not a musical, but a play in which music plays an important part.

“None of the issues that affected Lena after she became a celebrity have gone away; in fact many of them have become more intense, with the coming of social media. And to be telling the story here, in the town where Lena was born, with an amazing company of actors who are so hard-working and thoughtful and democratic, and at this beautiful venue – well, it’s wonderful. When we did the photo-call at the Beacon, who were actually upstaged by dolphins, leaping out of the river behind us; and for me, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

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Lena is at the Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, from 16-19 March. Vanishing Point’s The Metamorphosis is on tour from 16 March; the National Theatre of Scotland’s Orphans is at The Beacon 1-2 April, and on tour until 30 April.

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