HE has turned his back on the West End for Wearside, but new Empire general manager Ben Phillips could not be happier about his decision.
Despite being general manager at the famous Apollo Victoria theatre in London, current home to smash musical Wicked, Ben never forget about the High Street West venue where he honed his skills.
And when former Empire manager Andrew Rawlinson announced he was leaving for the Liverpool Empire, Ben jumped at the chance to apply for the position.
Though the glamour, box office records and big bucks of London’s booming theatre district may seem a world away from Sunderland, Ben says the city’s historic theatre has plenty to boast about.
“I was at the Apollo Victoria for three years. It was very different from here.
“We were sold out every day, it was a very prestigious venue with one of the top shows in the country.
“People ask why I have left the West End, but I am chuffed to be here, I really am.
“I’m looking forward to the variation of shows, which I didn’t have in London.
“Also, the people here are so friendly. When you go to shops, people actually talk to you and smile, they never do that in London.”
A fortnight into his role, Ben is settling in to Sunderland life. He’s moved into a flat in Ashbrooke and is relishing being at the helm of the Empire.
It’s a return to an old stomping ground for Ben, who worked there from 2001 to 2005 as an administrator and then box office manager, before climbing the career ladder to become deputy manager.
“I didn’t want to leave the Empire,” he said. “But to further my career I needed to get experience elsewhere.
“I always kept my eye on the Empire though, following it on Facebook and reading about it on the Echo website.
“I think Andrew has done a really good job and I want to continue that.
“Here there’s a really good mix of West End shows, local productions and one night shows.
“It’s rightly the number one theatre in the North East.
“You only have to look at the Autumn programme to see that. We have Sister Act in the region for the first time and Legally Blonde at Christmas.
“It’s not that we are lucky to have them, we deserve to have shows of that calibre coming here.
“I’m really looking forward to Legally Blonde and to seeing how they do it. I saw it in London and it’s very faithful to the film.
“Sheridan Smith was in the lead role when I saw it and she was very funny. It’s a show which you come out of feeling elated.”
Legally Blonde proved something of a talking point with theatre-goers when it was announced that it would be this year’s Christmas show instead of the traditional panto - as Ben soon found out.
“Everywhere I go people ask me about it, the bank, taxi drivers, my next door neighbour.
“I believe it is the right decision not to have a panto this year.
“There is plenty of choice elsewhere in Sunderland and in Newcastle, and it doesn’t mean to say we won’t stage a panto again.
“I think panto can sometimes be a lazy choice though, and it’s right to take that risk.”
As well as Legally Blonde, the new season brochure has plenty more to shout about with top notch productions including Calendar Girls, We Will Rock You, Grease, Sister Act and more and comedy turns from Ken Dodd, Jimmy Carr, Ed Byrne and Sarah Millican.
Next year, the theatre will stage hit musical Dirty Dancing on its first UK tour.
“Dirty Dancing’s selling really well,” said Ben.
“People here are naturally jolly, they are used to partying, so a musical here will always do well.
“I’d love to see Wicked stage here and I don’t think that’s beyond our grasp.
“I think when it tours we are big enough and have a good enough reputation to attract shows of that standard.”
Empire’s autumn season highlights
• Calendar Girls (September 12 to 17). The show, starring Lynda Bellingham, revisits the venue after its record-breaking week earlier this year.
• We Will Rock You (September 27 to October 8) also returns following a sell-out run in 2009.
• Birmingham Royal Ballet stage comedy La Fille Mal Gardee (October 12 to 5).
• Grease (October 24 to November 5) with X Factor’s Rhydian Roberts as Teen Angel.
• Sister Act (November 15 to 26). The first national tour of the hit West End and Broadway musical stars Coronation Street’s Denise Black as Mother Superior, and Brookside and The Royal favourite Michael Starke as Monsignor O’Hara.
• Legally Blonde (December 6 to 31).
• South Shields comedian Sarah Millican (February 22 to 23).