‘A force for good’ – York producer’s plan to bring theatre to disadvantaged children

Macbeth at Shakespeare's Rose Theatre. Photograph: Charlotte Graham
28 Dec 2018 @ 10.30 pm
| News

The man behind Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre plans to set up a charity to bring shows to disadvantaged children after he received an MBE in the New Year Honours 2019.

James Cundall, the chief executive of Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, said the honour was “an incredible privilege and incredibly humbling”.

Five weeks after being notified, he still found it hard to believe.

“In all honesty you think they have got it wrong, they will forget about it. Perhaps I was imagining it.

“It’s a surreal experience to get it. Never in a hundred years did I think I’d get something like this.”

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Born slippy… Yorkshire’s Winter Wonderland at York Designer Outlet
Lunchbox is based in Welburn near York. Most of its work is producing shows outside the UK – staging Mama Mia, Cats and similar blockbusters in places like Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia.

James Cundall
But James’s roots are very important to him. “York is my home town,” he says. “Yorkshire’s my county.

“We’re steeped in the area for many generations.

“My father and grandfather used to sell at the old York market.”

After attending a prep school in Scarborough and Uppingham School, he went to the Royal Agricultural College.

Then he returned to his family firm, Wells Cundall surveyors, who had an office on Low Petergate.

His career took him overseas before he came back home and founded Lunchbox. And he was keen to do more in his home town – the company runs Yorkshire’s Winter Wonderland at York Designer Outlet, and Thor’s Tipi in the city Christmas market.

Proud of the Rose

But 2018 was the year when Lunchbox really did come home. James hatched an ambitious plan to build a pop-up theatre next to Clifford’s Tower in Castle Car Park.

Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre was a big success. Nearly 80,000 people attend four different plays and an additional 20,000 went to the food village outside.

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Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre set to return to York for the next two years

“I was proud,” James says. “It was good for the county and good for our city.

“People came and enjoyed it. That’s what it’s about. It’s another good thing the city has created, alongside things like the Mediale, the Fringe and Bloom.”

Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre has been booked to come back for the next two summers – as well as going to Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, which James sees as “exporting a Yorkshire success story”.

New charity for children

James Cundall (centre) with chef Brian Turner and director Damian Cruden at the opening of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre. Photograph: Anthony Robling
James describes his MBE as “a force for good”, adding:

  • I do think it’s incumbent on someone like myself who’s lucky enough to get an honour to use it and do something.

    We have plans for something we can do that will become a charity to benefit children and live entertainment.

This summer more than 3,000 schoolchildren watched a production at Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre for free at a series of special schools’ performances, courtesy of the Rose Bursary Scheme.

He plans to launch a charity to do more of this work. It would see disadvantaged children from Yorkshire receive free admission to live shows – from theatre to music to ballet.

James hopes to be able to outline more of his plans for the charity in 2019.