THERE IS little doubt that Greenock had been crying out for the Beacon Arts Centre – now celebrating its 10th anniversary – in the way a struggling performer craves a spotlight.

In the past 200 years, the west coast town’s capacity for regeneration has been almost as abounding as Dr Who, from ailing fishing village to major colonial trade port – before transforming into a world-renowned shipbuilding centre.

More recently, Greenock even managed to become home to a northern English school, thanks to the fantastical imagination of the creators of Waterloo Road.

The Herald: Waterloo RoadWaterloo Road (Image: BBC)

Yet, the town has long suffered from higher-than-average unemployment and a lack of major industry.

What the area needed was a beacon of hope. And part of that emerged a decade ago when the Beacon Arts Centre opened.

While Greenock once processed sugar for the world, it could now trade in laughter and enjoyment. Thanks to massive local fundraising initiatives and core funding from Creative Scotland and Inverclyde Council, a theatre/dance/performance space was built that promised to offer – at the very least – symbolic optimism for the future.

But has it worked out the way Inverclyde locals and community groups had hoped?

“The Beacon is the only arts centre in the area that offers what we can,” says acting joint director Lesley Davidson proudly. “We have a studio theatre, a main theatre [a 500-seat hall with a stage rivalling the size of Glasgow’s King’s Theatre] and a creative engagement team.

“We offer an early learning facility, and we also pride ourselves on the range of shows we offer.”

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She adds, with a pleased smile: “We can have everything here from Eddi Reader [left], to tribute acts to touring theatre. And we have a range of very different groups of people coming to see shows.

“For example, June is our Dance month when we stage our dance shows. You can hardly move for feathers and glitter. And we make money from dance too.”

Inverclyde was once served culturally by the Greenock Arts Guild. “There was a huge amount of love in the area for the Arts Guild,” says creative engagement officer Kevin Jannetts of the amateur production teams.

“And it’s clear the scale of the Beacon has taken arts offering to a whole new level. Plus, we can have the Arts Guild stage productions with great collaborations.”

The Beacon offers a home to the wider amateur community. It accentuates and hothouses the local talent by offering stage facilities and technical training.

This all sits happily alongside professional stage productions by the likes of the National Theatre of Scotland.

“Two weeks after staging an NTS production we can be offering up a musical by the Greenock Players,” says Lesley Davidson.

“And we offer up lots of one-nighters featuring comedians such as Chris Forbes and Raymond Mearns.”

Yet, it isn’t all plain sailing on the site of the former Custom House Quay. Greenock isn’t, for the most part, on the calendar for touring theatre companies who would book a week in the likes of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen or Inverness.

And the Beacon doesn’t produce its own work, apart from the panto.

“We are however able to support external productions,” says Davidson. “For example, at the moment we are in association with Vanishing Point and Al Seed Productions who are producing The Plinth. We can offer great rehearsal space and technical support.”

The Beacon has also been able to stage the premiere of Lena, the Lena Zavaroni story.

The Herald: The cast of Lena at the Beacon Arts CentreThe cast of Lena at the Beacon Arts Centre (Image: free)

And while it has backed touring shows by the likes of Vanishing Point, this doesn’t bring in money for the theatre. Although Battery Park, Andy McGregor’s theatre play with music is a fantastic story of a local band who almost made the big time, it is not produced by the Beacon.

As yet, the Beacon doesn’t attract the audiences that can support major investment in the likes of McGregor’s play.

Yes, the Beacon puts bums on seats for comedy one-nighters, a Tina Turner or Frankie Valli tribute act or appearances by Eddi Reader.

And it can do well in audience terms when major stars, such as Alan Cumming, roll up in an NTS-backed production. But it isn’t able to draw upon a regular, faithful audience coming to see plays.

“We would love to be producing our own work,” adds Davidson. “But it’s all about money.”

The Beacon, which cost £13m to build, can’t afford the gamble; to plough money into writing, pay for rehearsal time, wages for the running time of a show – and hope that it not only sells out the Beacon but can go on to tour and reap dividends.

“Costs are going up, yet our audiences are going up,” says Davidson. “It’s about listening to what people want.

“We have to engage the next generation of theatre-goers and our wrap-around activity, in co-producing or association or offering workshops with directors of actors is really important.

“But yes, we have to balance that up by putting on shows that can bring in money.”

What’s clear is that the Beacon offers a huge range of community groups and youth companies, a real chance to become involved in the world of theatre, to develop ideas, to ignite young imaginations.

And the Beacon offers the perfect setting. It’s hard not to stare out across the Firth of Clyde to the hills of Argyll and not be impacted by the natural beauty of the area and its sense of romantic history.

Performers, writers and producers certainly love to be around the Beacon.

However, Greenock, with less than 50,000 of a population, can’t generate Glasgow-level box office, as is evident when an excellent city centre sell-out show such as Moorcroft hasn’t yet inflamed Inverclyde passions. Even Battery Park, named after a Greenock area, just a few days before opening, hadn’t sold out.

Lesley Davidson is open about the challenge of bringing in audiences to see theatre plays. “When we did Kidnapped [the NTS production] here, it did well, but not so much over five nights.

“Over three nights it was more comfortable.”

Those who put their collective hands in pockets should perhaps factor in that the Beacon isn’t simply a lovely theatre space set in a very lovely area. It’s almost a symbol of defiance, a statement building declaring that the west coast of Scotland that the heartbeat of Greenock remains strong.

You don’t see sugar-laden steamships sailing up the Firth of Clyde these days but in the Custom House Quay area, the sweet smell of success emanates from appreciating that the Beacon is making lots of groups of people happy.