Michael Hasted brings you News, Views and Interviews from the Everyman Theatre crack
I always think there is a growing link between the theatre and rock music. A lot of actors I know would have fancied themselves as rock stars. Many of them would gladly swap their Hamlet tights for heavy metal spandex. There are those who even get to act out those fantasies. Bill Nighy, for example, was totally convincing in both Love, Actually and Still Crazy. And Jimmy Nail, in the latter, showed himself to be an excellent singer and even had a number one hit single nearly 20 years ago.
Willy Russell seems to be a playwright particularly attracted to rock ‘n’ roll. One of his early plays John, Paul, George, Ringo & Bert displayed a strong affinity with his subject. I think it was no coincidence that the group of which Russell was a part (Alan Bleasdale, Bill Nighy and Julie Walters were others) came together in Liverpool at the Everyman Theatre (no relation) when that city was still considered to be at the centre of popular music.
Blood Brothers, which was here at the beginning of July, while not by any means a “rock opera”, certainly had Liverpool at its heart. It is the story of twin boys, separated at birth but growing up together only as the blood brothers of the title, without knowing they were true brothers. Along with other Russell plays there were strong socialist themes at work here – one boy growing up in poverty, the other in the leafy suburbs – exploring the difference between nature and nurture.
While there are no outstanding songs in the show, overall the piece is totally fab and something I wish I’d seen years ago (it was premiered in 1983 and has been running in the West End ever since).
The lead is essentially the mother, Mrs. Johnstone, and over the years the show has been a vehicle for many of the great female voices of our generation. The part was written for Barbara Dickson but has been played by, among others, Petula Clark, Stephanie Lawrence, Clodagh Rodgers and Kiki Dee while Carole King has played it on Broadway.
The touring version that came here starred Lyn Paul, formally of the chart topping New Seekers, who has a great voice and was certainly a good enough actress to carry the emotionally charged moments of the show. The staging was simple and straightforward without the overkill imposed on so many musical shows these days. The cast was excellent and the show’s climax was breathtaking (almost literally). It is difficult to find a negative thing to say about it so next time it comes to Cheltenham, be sure to see it.
Fringe and studio spaces play an integral and important role in the theatre of this country. They are the small, intimate places where new work can be tried and tested, where the commercial restraints that often control main houses are not so prevalent and where, as often as not, the actors will brush past your knees as they perform.
While often not in the spotlight and often hidden away and hard to find, these spaces provide a workshop and platform for some of the most original and innovative shows that the theatre has to offer.
The Studio Theatre at the Everyman is a case in point. Tucked away in the top, far right hand corner of the building it is a small but versatile space that provides scope and opportunities for shows that far exceed its physical limitations.
It is essentially a black box, a blank canvas. It can be made into whatever it needs to be. Although fully equipped with lights and sound and all the other technical gear, the opportunities for scenery are limited so the audience’s imagination and open mindedness are important components in a show’s success.
The Everyman Studio is the domain of Paul Milton, Director of Reachout. We sat in the darkened theatre as preparations were being made for the new play and I asked him what was the policy, the mission statement, for the venue? “It’s about creating a core audience that is after an alternative theatre experience.
“I’d love to get a bit of weight in there.” says Paul. “At the moment we’re told everybody wants light-hearted theatre. I can understand there’s a recession and people want cheering up but you have to be careful or you end up with just lightweight stuff and nothing else. What I’m trying to do in the Studio is to mix intimate, light-weight revue type theatre with some new writing and ideas.
“It can be a bit of a slog sometimes. People aren’t always very keen on new writing. They look at it and think ‘I may not like it’ and don’t want to take the risk. What sells best in here is the Edith Piafs, the Shirley Valentines, the burlesque and so on because people know what they’re going to get.” Paul was warming to his theme. “What we are trying to do is offer people a viable alternative to what happens in the main house. So, for someone who wants to experiment a bit, £7.50’s not a lot of money and hopefully they’ll be prepared to take a bit of a chance.”
I suggested it might be difficult to persuade an audience that has come to see Calendar Girls, for example, to buy tickets for something experimental in a small room upstairs. “You’re right,” said Paul. “But for an audience that comes to see Chess or Spend Spend Spend in the autumn, which are musicals done in a very different way, it’s not such a big jump to come and see Flash Garden, a new musical we’re doing here in September with just three actors and a piano.”
About half the shows that Paul puts on in the Studio are home grown. “One of my real aims is to start something in the Studio here and move it out and take it to other theatres so that audiences outside Gloucestershire get to see that the Everyman is not just a receiving house. We have a pool of actors that we tend to use, many of them local and that almost has the feel of a mini rep company. The old rep system that I grew up in has all but gone, but that’s what I’d like to create in the Studio; to have three or four actors doing a series of shows spread over a few weeks.”
I worked in rep myself when I was younger and, like Paul, regret its passing. Among other things, it inspired a great loyalty in the audience. They came to see most of the plays, keen to see what their favourite actor was doing that week. It was almost like supporting a football team. “I agree,” said Paul, “that’s exactly what I’m after in this theatre. A loyal audience that will come and see really good work and then be prepared to take a risk on a play that they don’t know. It’s got to be about risk. The actors take risks, the director takes risks and we want to encourage the audience to take risks. It’ll cost them £7.50, what have they got to lose?
“Of course the space we have here is limiting both physically and financially. Fifty seats is not quite enough; it is very restricting. Nevertheless what you often get in here is a really nice, cosy feel to the place and Corin Hayes, the Studio production manager, does brilliant stuff in here; lighting the space and painting it and doing simple sets which often look quite glamorous. He does a phenomenal job, I can’t praise him enough. We have flexible seating now so every time you come in, it’s a different space, a different experience. That manages to keep things fresh and alive.”
I asked Paul what were his plans for the future, how did he see things going. “I want to try and mix sophisticated, intimate cabaret, which includes burlesque and revue along with small scale musicals. That’s a real passion of mine - musicals that are of worth. The show I mentioned before, Flash Garden, is a very ambitious project for September and at Christmas we will be doing an alternative to pantomime. If you’re a middle aged couple with grown-up kids and you don’t fancy the panto in the main house, what do you do in December? We are doing a great American romantic comedy called Same Time Next Year and during the daytime we are doing a show called The Elves and the Shoemaker for very small kids who sometimes find the panto a bit daunting. So, over Christmas in this theatre we are running three different shows.”
Paul’s job entails a lot more than just running the Studio. The list of things in his job description is impressive. “I oversee a department that is responsible for community work; that is taking workshops and projects out to the community, I oversee the education department, I oversee the writers’ group which now has a membership of twenty and has a waiting list. That’s going very well and we’re planning to premiere a play from the group in October. I also oversee the training of local based actors, professional actors, Equity members, that’s on Monday nights. I run a young performers lab for youngsters who may want to go to drama school and want to acquire some skills. We’re starting a young writers’ lab in September. We train freelance practitioners who work in the community. There’s a huge amount that we do that people aren’t aware of.”
I thought perhaps Paul might be keen to get off and do some of those things so I wound up our chat by asking what the best and worse bits of his job were. He grimaced. “The worst bit is doing risk assessments and health and safety forms for every project, every performance, every workshop that we do. In October we’re doing a burlesque that has a performer called Red Sarah. She apparently sets fire to various parts of her body. Well you can imagine the issues that gives rise to,” he laughed.
And what about the best bit? “The best bit of this job, I’m so fortunate, is just creating work in an industry where less and less of that is happening. To be able to write a play, then direct it and be responsible for the programme and everything else; it’s just phenomenal. I love it.”
What You've Seen And What You've Missed
Deliciously hilarious and critically acclaimed, Peter Hall’s production of one of Alan Ayckbourn’s best loved and funniest plays, Bedroom Farce, came to Cheltenham in the middle of July.
Emmy award-winning actress Juliet Mills starred alongside Bruce Montague, best known for his portrayal of Leonard in Carla Lane’s classic hit comedy Butterflies, which was filmed in Cheltenham in the late 70s and early 80s. This was his first appearance in Cheltenham for almost 30 years.
Written in 1975, Ayckbourn’s ingenious comedy has lost none of its sparkle as it shines a brilliant spotlight onto the trials and tribulations of suburban marriage.
The Everyman will, as usual, be closed for August. It reopens with a bang on 6th September with Dereamboats & Petticoats, celebrating the music of the 60s.