When the news of Tip Top’s Productions departure from the Forum Studio Theatre was announced back in late November it was another blow to the city decimated by Covid. Although the news was to be expected due to the long delayed Northgate development finally happening, the loss of a city centre cultural venue was mourned. The group took over the basement of the much missed Gateway theatre in 2007 and kept the flame burning during the “cultural desert” phase of the 2010s, and continued their work delivering high quality “amateur” productions in the shadow of the equally loved but higher profile Storyhouse.
The last show I saw in the Forum was the Christmas 2019 panto, Snow White. The pantos had become a Chester tradition offering good value entertainment suitable for the whole family, and the mix of innuendo, fun performances, songs and audience participation were a highlight of a pre pandemic Chester Christmas. Of course at the time , no one could have predicted the events of 2020 and its impact on the arts, as well as its impact on the city’s already fragile retail scene, and the previously flourishing hospitality sector.
My own interest in Tip Top began in the winter of 2013, when in an attempt to steer @shitchester into a more positive direction, I began attending events and seeking out cultural opportunities which had previously been unknown to me. I went to buy my ticket for John Godber’s “Bouncers” . always a big hit for Tip Top whenever they performed it ( a further production was staged in 2017) . I remember the show to this day and the talented cast of 4 playing 20 roles between them. Later on, as I built a link with the group, and befriended some of the actors, I continued to attend shows and began writing reviews to help boost Tip Top’s profile. Around this time it was still common for Cestrians to comment that we “didn’t have a theatre”, a popular misconception spread by the doom mongers. I enjoyed the TV sitcom adaptions, the touring shows, the big musicals at Theatre Clwyd and the original works. There was one nameless show which I left at half time, because the story baffled me ( not the performances) , and handily losing my pen down the side of the seating meant I was excused a review. In the confines of the intimate studio space , staffed entirely by volunteers, Tip Top delivered. I will miss reading the programmes, noting what I’ve seen cast members in before. I will miss hurrying upstairs at the interval to get a phone signal, and then sneaking some photos at the end of the night to tweet.
I enjoyed being part of that community , and will continue to do so in the future’s “exciting new chapter”. Hopefully local venues can be involved, and I’d question what dialogue has taken place with the council owned Storyhouse, literally over the road. Perhaps the second phase of the Northgate (still a blank space) might include a performance space to showcase local talent. We can hope.
In other fields, Chester saw over 35 businesses close last year. We know there are likely to be more as lockdown continues to impact retail and hospitality. In 2020 we lost: the VR centre, the Cathedral’s Falconry centre, Old Hall gym, bug chains like Pizza Hut, GAME, Office, Frankie and Benny’s, much loved independents including Sofa Workshop, Coffee Mill, Mad Hatters, Violet Palm. I have the full list as I was making a grim record from lockdown 1 onwards. All these places will hold memories for people in some way, not least for the staff. The closure of Browns this week brings an end to 200 years of history in the city and residents have keenly shared their memories. Memories are one thing we love in Chester, in a city so tied to its heritage, whether that was the last Tip Top show you saw, or the last time you ate in your favourite cafe… Some of the “last times” we won’t even know about yet.
Imagine if you could take a TARDIS ride and revisit some of these old haunts. Breakfast at the BHS cafe, a shopping trip to Owen Owen or a browse of the old market hall, a show at the Royalty theatre. Nostalgia is massive in Chester, and our past is essential to attracting visitors, businesses and investors to the city. Its even more important in these dark uncertain times when we pine for the most basic social interactions. New memories and new places will emerge, Chester is by no means unique in its damaged high street, but you never know when the last time has gone, until its gone.