Table Talk lives up to its name with regular interviews with Theatreland figures – at lunch, dinner, or afternoon tea.

Latest interview:

Michael Oakley, Director

Michael Oakley is the award-winning [JMK Award for young directors] director of a recent revival of Tennessee Williams’s play A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur. First performed in the 1970s but set in the 1930s, it is an example of how the playwright, despite his advancing years (he was born in 1911) and a chaotic lifestyle blurred by prescription pills and alcohol, was still capable of creating highly watchable work for the stage.

The London production, which runs until 7th October, is at the Print Room at the Coronet - a restored Notting Hill theatre which, after decades as a popular cinema, has been restored to its original use as a theatre. The show has received three awards nominations: Best Set Design (Fotini Dimou), Best Lighting Design (David Plater) and Best Sound Design (Max Pappenheim).

As we order our sparkling water (soon supplemented by glasses of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris), we have starters of stuffed pepper and chicken liver paté. We discuss the production, starting with the set, representing the apartment shared by two of the four-person (all female) cast, Bodey and Dorothea (aka Dotty). Michael explains why the decor of the apartment on stage is easier on the eye than the one the playwright imagined:

‘The set isn’t exactly as Tennessee would have wanted it, because to make the flat as garish as his stage directions suggest would put the audience off. It’s important that you don’t antagonise an audience as soon as the curtain comes up - and seeing a flat as ghastly as Tennessee wrote it would create an immediate barrier between the playgoers and the characters on stage, instead of drawing them into the character’s world.

‘An example of this was in another production I directed - of Terence Rattigan’s Variation on a Theme, where a young dancer has a fake Russian accent, which the woman he is trying to seduce tells him to drop - and to speak like the Englishman he really is. The actor could in reality do a very good Russian accent but for the purpose of the play has to do a bad one - which immediately suggests to the audience that they’re watching an actor who’s hopeless at accents. Which means they take against him and it’s not until later in the play that they realise he’s meant to sound like that. Which means an uphill struggle to reset their opinion.’

Having established his happiness with what designer Fotini Dimou has produced, Oakley then turns to the overall feel of the play. ‘The style of Creve Coeur is the hardest thing to get right. The chaos in the flat comes out of a feeling of nervousness and desperation. Though Helena [a friend of Dotty’s, who wants her to rent an apartment with her in a much smarter part of town] may be obviously out to use Dotty, it’s true that Bodey [who seems nicer, more motherly] is using Dotty for her own reasons, as well.’

Bodey is waging a seemingly unsuccessful campaign to interest the relatively young and attractive Dotty in Bodey’s early middle-aged twin brother - a dependable but plump and dull man who strikes no spark of interest in Dotty. She is in love with the young principal of the school where she teaches and, as the play opens, is expecting a call from him. She confesses to a shocked Bodey that she has had sex with her lover, Ralph, in his car. Given the play is set in the 1930s, this admission is deeply shocking - though Dotty sees it as proof of the love she and Ralph feel for each other and, given the social conventions of the time, a sure sign [she believes] that he plans to marry her.

Creve Coeur has Williams’s classic mix of comedy and pathos. Oakley explains how the cast tried a read-through treating the play as essentially comic. He also wondered about staging it without an interval. Public performances have reassured him that keeping the interval after all was the right decision: ‘I’m glad we have it in.’ The play also works far better, he notes, when not played as an over-the top comedy. There’s still plenty of humour in it, but it doesn’t overwhelm the production.

This approach allows us to see the serious side of the characters - the loneliness and fear of the future that links these very different - and increasingly combative - personalities. Given Tennessee’s insistence on the centrality of sexual desire, the inevitable question arises: in a four-woman play, is there a Lesbian undercurrent? ‘That’s certainly something audiences will wonder about. We chose to insinuate it rather that directly answer the question.’

As the main courses arrive (sea bass for me) I say how impressed I was by all the actresses, and we get on to the importance of matching performer and part. ’80 per cent of good directing is casting. And that’s 100 percent true! Casting means looking for the main quality you want in a character’, says Oakley. ‘Which can be a case of deciding what the principal characteristic of the part is, and keeping that focus when casting. For example, if you need someone to play an evil aristocrat, the ability to project malice over-rides an ability to suggest membership of the upper classes. It’s no good hiring an actor who is effortlessly aristocratic but radiates an inherent niceness… I enjoy working with casting directors, but on Creve Coeur I didn’t have one - it seemed a greater priority, in this case, to have a good dialect coach [Judith McSpadden].’

What happens when someone gives a very strong audition but doesn’t live up to it in rehearsals? ‘It occasionally happens that you realise someone isn’t quite right but you’re the one who cast them so it’s your duty to work with them to get them as near as possible to where you want them to be in the role.’

We talk about Tennessee Williams more generally, including my recently published biography of him: ‘I saw your book in the bookshop at the National Theatre and wondered if you’d mention Creve Coeur. When I saw that you devoted several pages to it I was thrilled! It’s such a rarely-done play but Mel Kenyon, who presented it to me, has great judgement. It was nice to have it reinforced by you spending some pages on it in the book!’

What’s his favourite Tennessee Williams play?’ I’d love to direct A Streetcar Named Desire. And with an actress aged 31 or so - the age she’s supposed to be. Most actresses who play the role are well into middle age, which is fine, but I’d like to show the character as she was written. The point is that in the 1940s, when the play first appeared, for a woman to be 30 and unmarried was to be firmly on the shelf. It makes her desperation at being considered old - which is why she doesn’t like to be seen in daylight by Mitch, her suitor - all the more poignant.’

Warming to his theme, he continues: ‘Something else that needs to be got across about the period the play is set in is the fundamental difference between now and then, in that in those days romance was a big thing. Especially in the culture Blanche was brought up in. We live in a  cynical age. There’s no romance. Blanche belongs very much to her time - to me, it doesn’t make sense when the play is modernised. For example, her dressing up to go out with Mitch seems rather grotesque - a bit of a drag act. But for her it was a serious thing.

‘Something else that needs to be brought to a production is the evoking of a feeling, based on the writing, on his stage directions, but not presenting it too literally. He describes Blanche as a moth. Obviously, she’s not literally a moth! You have to get across that sense of vulnerability, of someone at risk from the flame. Similarly in Creve Coeur, I wanted to suggest character rather than hammer it home. It would be easy to have Helena just a wise-cracking sarcastic power-suited woman, but what we get across, I hope, is the fear that lies beneath this facade. She shudders at Miss Gluck [Bodey and Dotty’s lonely, rather grotesque neighbour] because for her, though she’d never admit it, Gluck is the mirror image of Helena. It’s what she fears she might become, in old age.’

As the coffee and tea (and Michael’s chocolate fondant pudding, with vanilla ice cream) arrive, he talks about other playwrights he admires, including April De Angelis, and in particular about Terence Rattigan and William Shakespeare.

‘I’ve mentioned Rattigan’s Variation on a Theme, which we put on at the Finborough. That was a very enjoyable experience. Especially working with actresses of the calibre of Rachael Stirling and Susan Tracy - it doesn’t get much better than that.’

Did Rachael Stirling’s mother, Dame Diana Rigg, come to see the play? ‘She did. And, in a lovely gesture, she paid for the masses of roses we had on set, throughout the run!’

Like Creve Coeur, Variation on a Theme was a late play, by a writer past his prime: ‘In Rattigan’s case it was a disaster. John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger had blown apart the old West End theatre - which Rattigan personified. It was all kitchen sinks and angry young men after that. There’s a line in Variation on a Theme  about angry young men - Rattigan’s sardonic allusion to the new style of theatre that he was struggling against. One of the things about that production I really liked was the research - going to the British library, looking at original manuscripts, at papers Rattigan would have held, at production photos he would have looked at.’

You enjoy that process? ‘Yes. I read English at university - like all directors! - but I’m a historian at heart. Not everyone would agree, but for me reading around a subject, the research side of the preparation behind every production, is one of the best bits of the job. I was assistant director to Trevor Nunn on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was set in the Raj - when the British ruled India. I learned a huge amount about that society, that period of history.’

And Shakespeare? ‘He wrote my favourite play of all time. The Winter’s Tale.’

His favourite? Really? ‘Yes! I’ve always admired it and have also directed it. The first half of that play has perfect drama, characterisation, structure… It’s a wonderful study of humanity, of jealousy … It’s Shakespeare at his most mature. He gets so much emotion into just three little words - at the end, when Leontes realises the statue of his wife, Hermione, is in fact her. That’s she’s alive. ‘Oh! She’s warm!’ Some productions like to suggest it isn’t a happy-ever-after ending but for me that’s the whole point of the play. It’s meaningless, as a drama, unless there’s a real reconciliation at the end.’

Accompanied by coffee, we round off the lunch on the subject of cinema screenings of theatre performances. Oakley is in favour of these, but with an important proviso: ‘The screenings are a good way of bringing major theatre performances to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to see them, and the National has a great deal of expertise on how to present them. What worries me is that it might put some people off going to the theatre - why go to the trouble when they can see it at the local cinema? The best of both worlds would be to show them only at the end of a run, when the viewers would have no other opportunity to see the play. Because what I want to see is people sitting in real theatres, being part of the atmosphere of the evening, helping creat its dynamic, watching live actors in the same room as them.’

And, finally, back to Creve Coeur and its mix of comedy and (borderline) tragedy. Oakley has the last word, about the point of theatre - any theatre. ‘Whether it’s a comedy or a drama, its essential function is to entertain. And it has to hold up a mirror to the society it is part of. Otherwise there’s no point!’


Paul Ibell


For more information about A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur click here




Robert Hastie, Director, at Dean Street Townhouse



Photo by Johan Persson
Rob Hastie is the director of My Night With Reg, Kevin Elyot’s 1994 comedy that, after a sell-out run last year at the Donmar, has transferred to the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue.

Rob was already a rising name in the West End when, last year, My Night With Reg showed him  able to pull off that rare theatrical coup - making the revival of a much-loved play just as fresh and funny as the original production.

We met in Dean Street Townhouse, Soho, not far from the Apollo, to sample the pre-theatre menu. We ordered two glasses of Merlot (Terres d’Azur, Languedoc, France) a parsley root, celeriac and apple soup and a chicken, bacon and avocado salad, then got down to talking about the play, whose press night was on 23rd January.

My Night With Reg is a six-character play (all of them gay men), set in the flat of the one of them, Guy, who is perennially single. Reg never appears, but it turns out in the course of the evening that they all know him and, except for Guy, have had sex with him too. It is made a black comedy by the off-stage presence of death, in the form of a disease that is never named, but is clearly AIDS. The play is set in the 1980s when the disease scythed through the gay community. The writer, Kevin Elyot, died last year, not long before the play’s run at the Donmar.

Rob Hastie’s own connection goes back to the original production. ‘I saw the play in London when I was a teenager and it had a huge impact on me. It was a major hit at the time, under director Roger Michell, and had a wonderful cast. It was something I always wanted to direct myself and was amazed that, over the next twenty years, no other London production was authorised by Kevin. When I  was asked to chose a play to direct at the Donmar there was no competition. It had to be My Night With Reg!’

Sensing his talent as well as his enthusiasm, Kevin Elyot agreed to the Donmar production. ‘He did more than just agree to it - he was very closely involved in every aspect of it, including design and casting.’

Was that difficult? The relationship between a director - whose job is to give their own interpretation of a play - and the author, who created it and will have very strong ideas as to how it should be cast, presented and played, can be a tricky one. ‘In this case there was no problem. Kevin was never slow to make his opinion known, and could do so quite forcefully, but he was a huge pleasure to work with.’

That pleasure comes across very strongly, along with Hastie’s sadness at the writer’s untimely death. ‘Kevin was a brilliant man of the theatre. He had started out as an actor before turning to writing, and I started as an actor before realising that the role of director was, for me, the best job in the rehearsal room. So we had that in common. But more importantly he had such an innate knowledge of what worked on stage… My Night With Reg is a wonderfully crafted piece, it’s fascinating to see the architecture of the play in action. Every line counts. Some of the gags [the play is full of witty one-liners] seem great in themselves, but it’s only later that you realise they served two or more purposes - not just getting a laugh there and then but developing the plot, or a character. Having a relevance later in the play.’

The way the audience react is something else the director finds fascinating. ’In this play you often get an initial laugh, which can be from the gays, who may get a reference before the rest of the audience. When the rest get it too there’s a second wave of laughter and then a third which is people enjoying and joining in the pleasure of the other theatregoers.’

When this production opened, the Donmar’s small size created an intimacy between audience and actors. People in the front rows (in seats sponsored by Barclays, who also sponsor very front row seats at the Apollo) were a couple of feet from the cast. Does he think something will be lost in the transfer to Shaftesbury Avenue? ‘No! On the contrary, although the play was originally staged at the Royal Court’s upstairs studio space, it transferred very well to the Criterion. Kevin was a writer of boulevard comedies that suit older playhouses, that work well with a proscenium arch setting. If anything, though the production was a success at the Donmar, we had to make compromises there due to its size and configuration, so I’m delighted to be at the Apollo.’

This might be what you’d expect someone to say, but he goes on to explain why he feels the Apollo works so well. ‘I mentioned the architecture of Kevin’s play. Well, it’s perfectly supported by the physical architecture of the playhouse we’re now in. Those Shaftesbury Avenue theatres were cleverly designed. At the Apollo, everything in the auditorium focusses the audience, and their laughter, on the stage.’

By now we were on our main course, both having the fish and chips, washed down with a modest glass each of Sauvignon Blanc (Lanark Lane, Marlborough, from New Zealand). The soup having been complimented, Rob then praised the main course. ‘I come from Scarborough, so I know something about fish and chips. This is wonderful!’

Conversation then turned to the darker subject of the play: AIDS. ‘Although AIDS is obviously there, it was very astute of him not to name it. This means it symbolises death in general as well as referring to a particular illness that ripped apart the generation that Kevin grew up in and put on stage in this play. It’s obviously about six gay men, but it has a more general theme, that anyone can identify with, which is friendship. Its about the sense of community that a group of people can get support and company from, but it also looks at the darker side of that: along with the shared jokes and memories there are betrayals and loss. This is a play that was first seen in the ‘90s, is set in the ‘80s and is about men who became friends in the ‘70s.’

One of the ‘70s touches Kevin Elyot brought to the play was David Bowie’s Starman, which we hear a record of in the play, with a couple of the characters joining in - one of them being John, played by Julian Ovenden, who has starred in musicals and cabarets as well as in straight (not quite the right word here) dramas. Re Starman, Rob has a confession to make: ‘It was only when watching the play in the 90s that I first really listened to David Bowie! I went out and bought an album and then I saw what the fuss was about…’

The current production has exactly the same cast as at the Donmar, which, Rob notes with approval, is what happened when the original production transferred to the West End from the Royal Court. When speaking about the actors, he shows the same pride and enthusiasm as when talking about his friendship - ‘it became a friendship’ - with  Kevin Elyot. He says that Elyot was a man who enjoyed his many friends but always compartmentalised them. In a touching speech at his funeral, Lindsay Duncan thanked Kevin for allowing them all finally to meet. In an equally moving gesture, the wake after the funeral was held at the Donmar’s rehearsal room, where the cast had worked to make this revival the hit it has become.

My Night With Reg appeals to theatregoers of every sex - and has some strikingly watchable male nudity. Sunday evenings watching Downton Abbey will never be quite the same after seeing Julian Ovenden striding about the stage in the buff, while Lewis Reeves has a body that Renaissance sculptors would fight over.

Telling the simple truth, but with a distinct twinkle in his eye, Rob Hastie says ‘It’s noticeable that a line that always got a laugh in rehearsals, when the guys kept their clothes on, never gets one in performance, because at that point the audience are looking at the actors’ bodies rather than listening to their voices!’ However, Rob is quick to point out that the nudity was put in by the author. ‘They’re nude because that’s what the script says…’ That may be so, but it can’t harm the box office. Whose phones and computer wires are zinging already, so if you want to catch the play in its 12 week run, early booking is strongly advised. If the audience are as keen on it at the Apollo as they were at the Donmar, Ovenden and Reeves might well find themselves covering strategic parts of their anatomy with well-placed Olivier Awards.


Paul Ibell


For more information about My Night With Reg click here
For information about the Dean Street Townhouse click here



Peter Wilkins, Honorary Member, Society of London Theatre at Holborn Dining Room



Holborn Dining Room
With this year’s Olivier Awards not far away – they take place on Sunday 13 April, at the Royal Opera House – and given my own background as Awards Manager for them from 2010-2012, it seemed appropriate to have an Olivier-themed Table Talk.
Where better for this than the five star Rosewood hotel, official hotel partner to the Oliviers and where the nominations for this year’s awards were announced earlier this month? And who better than Peter Wilkins, the past Chairman of the awards’ Theatre Panel - and one of a handful of theatre professionals who have been awarded honorary membership of the Society of London Theatre in recognition of their contribution to promoting London’s greatest art form?

The Rosewood’s Holborn Dining Room, a large, airy space which manages to combine elegance and liveliness, met with Peter Wilkins’ approval – as did the hotel’s location. ‘The old Holborn Empire was right next door! It was badly damaged during the War and pulled down some years after but the old stage door entrance somehow survived for years. I had a look on the way in, but it seems to have gone now. So I’m not surprised the hotel has established links with London theatre.’

His look around the building was partly inspired by nostalgia: ‘For several years I lived in a flat in Eagle Street, about a minute’s walk away. I could see the hotel roof from my bedroom window!’

Sat at a corner table with a good view of the restaurant, we started with a gin and tonic and a sherry (Lustau Emilin Moscatel), accompanied by the restaurant’s bread and butter. Its name, Ancient Loaf, didn’t sound entirely encouraging but we were intrigued.  Far from tasting old, or being a mere filler, it was delicious – a starter in its own right.

Speaking of beginnings, I asked Peter whether he remembered the origins of the Olivier Awards.
‘They began in 1976, in quite a low-key way. The most prestigious London theatre awards at that time were the Evening Standard’s. They were important in themselves and looking back, they had a great track record for spotting promising newcomers, from Ian McKellen as an actor to Peter Shaffer as a playwright. This was fine but we, ie theatre producers and owners, wanted our own, so we could recognise achievements within the industry. It started as an evening ceremony at the Café Royal. Now, of course, over the years it has become a much bigger event.’

That is something of an understatement. The Oliviers are now the ‘gold standard’ of theatre awards, with an international profile. They moved back into the theatre in 2010, when they were staged at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Since then they have been at the Royal Opera House. Peter Wilkins approves the move but doesn’t agree with those who saw the years of hosting the awards in hotels as being somehow second-rate: ‘We had the Oliviers in a number of different theatres over the years, and that was fine, but the events at the Hilton and Grosvenor House were very enjoyable in themselves. There was a good atmosphere and the shows were very well-produced.’

His own producing career began on stage, where, after studying at RADA, he worked as an actor for many years before moving into management and production, eventually becoming, after a career that included several years working in South Africa,  Executive Producer for Duncan C. Weldon at Triumph between 1983 and 2004. This work led to his involvement with the Society of London Theatre whose then President, Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen, asked him, in 2002, to chair the Theatre Panel.

‘There was a committee of SOLT members, who were interested in being involved with staging the Oliviers and I was asked to take over the chairmanship, which, of course,  I was pleased to do. And this led naturally to my chairing the Theatre panel, which meant appointing the members of the main judging panel, for Theatre – as well as the smaller Affiliate panel.’

These were two of the four panels – Theatre, Affiliate, Opera and Ballet – that made up the judging panels for the Olivier Awards. The panels were a mixture of members of the public and SOLT-appointed professionals. This meant that Peter Wilkins had to interview and appoint the members of the public who applied, annually, to join the panels.

‘This was my favourite part of the job. We had a very wide range of applicants, whom we whittled down to two dozen or so, who were called for interview. What we were looking for were people who loved theatre, had plenty of experience of going to shows and were clearly prepared to commit to seeing over a hundred plays and musicals in the course of the year, but above all had strong opinions.’

They were looking not just for experience of theatre but for independence of mind. ‘In those days – the system changed last year – it was the panel who ultimately decided the winners. SOLT members voted for the nominations, but it was only the panel – and that was the whole point of having them, after all – who could choose who won in each category. They were the only people who had seen every one of the eligible shows in London that year, so it made sense. It was important, when it came to the voting meeting, where every panellist had a chance to have their say about who should win, and why, that they should be the sort of people who would be able to voice their opinions and not be brow-beaten by others.’

The way of voting and choosing the winners has now changed but whatever the mechanics of voting, the fact remains that the Oliviers have had a greater profile in recent years, helped by the re-introduction of television coverage. There is nothing new under the sun, however, as Wilkins recalls: ‘We had the BBC in before, when we were in theatres like the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the Dominion & the Victoria Palace. But at the turn of the century the BBC lost interest in broadcasting the Awards, so that when we were at the Hilton there was no coverage of the event – though plenty of cameras outside as the stars arrived!’

By this stage in the afternoon we had eaten our first courses:  Argyle smoked salmon and smoked mackerel and duck’s egg. Both were good, while the tangy quality of the lettuce on which the mackerel and duck’s egg was served proved the chef’s attention to detail. Rather like the bread, it was, surprisingly, an attraction in itself.

We then moved on to Corned Beef Hash with duck’s egg, plus cabbage and a Steak and Stilton pie (with a perfect pastry) with mixed vegetables. The latter included peas, which is always a plus point for me with a restaurant. The starters were accompanied by Chateau Des Antonins Bordeaux Blanc Sauvignon Blanc and the main course by Monte de Fra Bardolino, a very rich red from the Veneto.

All in all, (to use one of Hamlet’s phrases), the Holborn Dining Room works very well as a lunch venue, an ideal place to reminisce about past show, prepare for a matinee or head to after a show.

Moving back from the restaurant to the theatre, I asked Peter, given his long association with the Oliviers, whether he had seen Laurence Olivier on stage. ‘Yes, several times, including in John Osborne’s play The Entertainer. One of his most iconic roles.’

Was he a natural person to name the awards after? ‘He was. It personalised the awards in a very effective way, and gave them added glamour. The only thing that surprised me is that they didn’t become known as ‘the Larrys’. In life, he was known to everyone in the theatre world as Larry. The Ivor Novello Awards are referred to as the Ivors and the Americans have the Antoinette Perry Awards, which everyone calls ‘the Tonys’…’

The Americans make a huge deal over the Tonys – the characters on stage in Mel Brooks’ musical The Producers go into rhapsodies at the very ideal of winning one. What about the Oliviers? ‘They’re an important recognition of success by people’s peers in the theatre and the evening itself is glamorous and great fun, but people don’t seem to give them as much weight as they do, in the States, with the Tonys, although that is changing.  Americans are great award givers whereas here in the UK we give New Year Honours!  I think the general public are as interested in who has received a knighthood, damehood or CBE as it is in awards. But having said that there are devoted fans who are fanatical about who is going to win an Olivier.  You have only to follow Twitter after the nominees are announced to appreciate that. What matters, though, is that the winners are immensely proud to have been honoured and that they are a mark of your fellow-performers’ appreciation of your talent. And that applies as much to the nominees as to as the winners.’

He has of course seen a huge number of talented actors and actresses in his time. What makes for a great performance, rather than just a really good one? ‘It’s when the actor somehow fuses with his role. When their personality combines with, and inhabits, the role created by the writer, it creates a stage magic that takes the whole audience with it. The atmosphere in a theatre when that happens is extraordinary. Olivier certainly had this, but so have many others –  the late Peter O’Toole, for example.

‘He had been at RADA some years before me, but people still spoke of him fondly when I was there. It’s fashionable to talk of his early talent and how that was dissipated through his life style, but one of the most memorable moments of my theatregoing life was when he gave a three-page speech, as King Magnus, in Shaw’s The Applecart, at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in the mid- 1980s – twenty or so years after he first became a star. It was truly wonderful. Christopher Plummer is another. He’s known now for films, like The Sound of Music, and much of his later career has been on the other side of the Atlantic, but in the ‘60’s he was the leading actor with the RSC and he had, and still does have, an electric quality on stage.’

The memories and anecdotes continued over a Bakewell tart with raspberry ripple ice cream (as delicious as it sounds and probably as fattening) and an appropriately-named Boozy sherry trifle (ditto), with coffee.

Although he is a repository of entertaining theatre stories, what comes across most from talking to Peter Wilkins is his passion for theatre, which means where it is now and where it’s heading, more than where it has been. ‘You always have to look forward in theatre. As an art form it is always changing and it’s easy for people to get out of touch, so you have to make way for new blood, in acting, directing or other aspects of the work. But it is also an area where experience counts – which is just as well because when you’ve got theatre in your system, you don’t want to let it go!’

What is also evident is that, despite the responsibilities of his management and producing work over the years and the inevitable ups and downs of working in any industry, he still, as he has since RADA, gets a buzz from theatre. Which, combined with his past association with the Oliviers, is why fitting to finish with an anecdote about one of the Olivier Awards evenings he attended. Not least because it also shows the Anglo-American theatre connection that continues to link Broadway and the West End. ‘People get very worried about whether or not the Oliviers are televised and in what manner, but I will never forget the time when were in a hotel rather than a theatre and weren’t being broadcast live. Kevin Spacey was there to present an award to Judi Dench and, rather than just appearing on the platform, he weaved his way towards it through the tables, singing ‘You Must Have been a Beautiful Baby.’  He said later he only agreed to do it because it wasn’t being broadcast. Which is why I’m sort of relaxed about the Awards not being televised. They’re not about television. They’re about theatre. And they’re fun.’


Paul Ibell


For information about the Olivier Awards click here
For information about the Holborn Dining Room click here



Neil Constable, Chief Executive, at Shakespeare’s Globe



Swan Restaurant and Bar
Shakespeare’s Globe is a recreation of an open-air Elizabethan playhouse, created thanks to the vision and persistence of Sam Wanamaker, the American actor and director who lived to see work begin on the site but died before the fruit of his years of research and lobbying took the finished form that has become such an important part of London’s riverscape.

I went to the Globe to meet Neil Constable, the theatre’s Chief Executive. Before lunch at the Swan restaurant, with its river views, he showed me round the new indoor playhouse – a building that was part of Wanamaker’s original plans for the site and which has been named after him. It is going to stage plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, among other activities.

Constable, a tall and elegant figure, takes evident pride in the building, his delight in the craftsmanship of the team who built it very clear as he points out the beautiful painted ceiling, the rows of wooden seats modelled on a period design for another indoor theatre and the candlelight that (assisted by more modern lighting, discretely hidden) will illuminate the action on stage.

Was there a problem with getting permission for real candles in a wooden building? ‘Not really’ he replies, ‘As the authorities had previously agreed to us having a wooden theatre with a thatched roof [the open-air Globe]. They knew we were going to make very sure that our new theatre avoided catching fire – as happened to the original Globe in 1613!’

The Playhouse replicates the special seats that the gentry would have paid large sums for, situated in the wings of the stage area. ‘We charge more for these than the rest of the auditorium, as you would expect,’ says Neil, ‘though the price differential isn’t as great as it would have been in the early seventeenth century. Another difference is we won’t have the custom where the aristocracy actually sat on stools on stage, so they could really feel – and look – part of the action!’

Action seems the watchword as the Playhouse stage fills with actors rehearsing The Knight of the Burning Pestle, the play that will follow the current, sold-out production of The Duchess of Malfi. While they do so, workmen make all sorts of adjustments and improvements around the auditorium.

We move on from the indoor theatre to the main, open-air auditorium of the Globe, walking onto the stage from a rear entrance, to see a hundred or so students being given a tour and talk. ‘I thought you’d like to see what the building looks like from the stage’, Neil explains, ‘As the theatre looks very different from the actors’ viewpoint.’

He’s right. I’ve been to many productions here and enjoyed the sense of community the space generates, along with its understated sense of majesty. Yet, seen from the stage, the theatre seems radically smaller, the seats surprisingly closer than I ever imagined. The groundlings would presumably be an even more intense part of the action for the actors than they are for the seated audience.

We took our own seats, a few minutes later, in the Swan, the Globe’s restaurant – having walked there via the refurbished theatre foyer and entrance, which has been wonderfully opened up, lightened and improved by recent changes that make arriving there a much more theatrical experience than in the past.

The restaurant itself is long, clean-lined and with a fabulous view of the Thames. Unsurprisingly, we were given a very good table, with a riverside view of St Paul’s. ‘Actually, I’m very lucky’ said Neil, ‘As my office also has a view across the river of the Cathedral.’

The view and the proximity of the Globe to the City account for the booming business at lunchtime, with a clientele made up of City slickers, media types, tourists and theatre-lovers.

Having ordered our starters - soft poached salmon, sour cream chives frisee and soda bread, and a Ham hock, quails egg and pickled vegetable salad, along with sparkling water and Sauvignon Blanc ‘Single Estate’ Ara 2012 – I comment on the number and range of people dining there. This observation turned out to be just the cue Neil Constable needed to make a point he seems very passionate about:

‘We get a lot of City business here as we’re so close, plus the Swan is an ideal place to entertain clients, especially from abroad. They get us, they get the river and they get St Paul’s! Another reason the restaurant and the bars do well is that there’s always something happening here.

‘People think we’re just a summer destination. The indoor playhouse will change that, I’m sure, but what should be remembered is we’re a year-round resource, with a massive education programme, frequent tours, talks, events and a research facility with university accreditation. We have our ‘Read Not Dead’ readings of plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, which help set his own work in context, we run three M.A courses and have a post-doctoral research programme.’

Does world-class mean world links? ‘It does. We have links with theatres across the world. We are recognised abroad not just as a great place to see Shakespeare performed, but as a leading authority on Shakespearean practice. And on theatre practice in general, for that matter.’

We both have the same main course. Not ideal for a restaurant review, but by this stage I’m following his lead, so we both order the confit duck leg, mashed potato, braised gem hearts and peas. Not least because I like peas and it’s a welcome change to find a restaurant outside old-fashioned ones in St James’s that actually serve them. The duck, which is perfectly cooked, is accompanied by an excellent Merlot – Pierre Henri, Pays d’Oc 2012.

Constable’s own background includes many years spent working at the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company]. ‘I started as a stage manager, then got into company management and from there it seemed a natural progression into administration.’ Clearly possessing a talent for it, he enjoyed his RSC years before moving to the Almeida in Islington, which he ran with Michael Attenborough, son of movie star and film director (and original member of the cast of record-breaking stage play The Mousetrap) Lord Attenborough.

He speaks warmly of Attenborough – ‘I suppose you could call him a mentor’ – and seems well-informed of his post-Almeida career. Constable’s time at the Almeida saw the refurbishment of the building and the placing of Almeida productions in other venues – both experiences that have served him well at Shakespeare’s Globe. He is justifiably proud, for example, of the Broadway success of the Globe’s productions of Richard III and Twelfth Night (starring Mark Rylance) which were a hit on Shaftesbury Avenue before crossing the Atlantic and taking New York by storm: ‘After Betrayal [another British play] we were the best-selling show on Broadway last year!’

Unlike Attenborough at the Almeida and Dominic Dromgoole at Shakespeare’s Globe, Neil Constable is not Artistic Director, choosing and casting and sometimes directing plays. So what does his role of Chief Executive entail?

‘The nearest I have to a mantra about the role is that I am here to enable, to serve and to support the work of this theatre and my colleagues who work in it. My ambition is for us to be the go-to place for Shakespeare. I also have to make sure we have the finances to enable all this to happen.’

This last part is one of the most crucial and the theatre has been a model of how to run a vibrant company and building without any public subsidy. ‘You’d think the government would use us for entertaining visitors from abroad all the time - as an example not just of artistic ability but of financial independence. The irony is, because we haven’t had a subsidy, we haven’t really been on their radar! Fortunately things are changing now…’

Speaking of change we move on to coffee. However, on a previous occasion I sampled two of the Swan’s desserts so can recommend the Poached pear, spiced pain d’epice and milk ice cream and also the cheese board, of a selection of British cheeses.

Clearly committed to his work – he’s a Trustee of Shakespeare’s Globe as well as its Chief Executive - Neil has an intensity of purpose that shines across the lunch table, but a lightness of touch and sense of humour that combine to make you feel he’s letting you into a great adventure, rather than lecturing at you. Given this youthful but informed enthusiasm, I’m not surprised to learn that he has been appointed a Governor of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where he did a stage management course some 30 years ago.

The connection between past and present that his role at Guildhall expresses is a metaphor for the mix that makes Shakespeare’s Globe such a success. As Neil says, the theatre stages new plays and also has an increasing reputation for music: guitarist John Williams is performing in concert there and one of the theatre’s great successes has been Samuel Adamson’s Gabriel, which celebrated the music of late seventeenth-century composer Henry Purcell, played by musicians led by Alison Balsom.

Music is of course the food of love, according to Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, but food can have you humming with contentment and after lunch at the Swan you will be in mellow mood for a matinee, for returning across the Millenium bridge to your desk in the City or for simply strolling along the riverside downriver to the Tower or upriver to another great South Bank powerhouse – the National Theatre. That building has a monopoly on the name but Shakespeare’s Globe, though not our national theatre, can certainly claim, thanks to Constable and his many colleagues, to be a national treasure.

Paul Ibell


For more information on Shakespeare’s Globe click here
For more information about the Swan restaurant at Shakespeare’s Globe click here



Edward Kemp, director, at RADA Foyer Bar



RADA bar
Where better to meet Edward Kemp, Director of London’s best-known drama school, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, than at its in-house restaurant, the RADA Foyer Bar?

Reached via an entrance on Malet Street, the Foyer Bar is light, lively, and has pictures of well-known past students on the wall, along with photos of recent productions. This, along with the clientele, gives a suitably theatrical air to what is otherwise a very modern room.

But then modernity and drama go together, as Edward Kemp was keen to emphasise. A director and playwright who works in ballet and opera as well, he stresses the need to keep abreast of the latest ideas in theatre:

‘The way we look at theatre, at performance and the sort of environments in which it takes place, is constantly evolving. A way of teaching that might have been cutting-edge and highly relevant ten or fifteen years ago can have become outdated over that period of time. Which means students are getting what would have been brilliant in 2000 but isn’t quite addressing the way things work now. So any drama school needs to keep its work fresh if it is to deliver the best start for its students.’

The number applying for a course at RADA each year remains vastly higher than the places available. ‘We have some 3000 applications a year’, says Kemp. ‘The process of whittling that down is a challenging one. I always sit in on the second-stage interviews, to see for myself who’s applying. We don’t have a particular ‘type’ here but the process does, of itself, provide a wide range of people who make it in.’

The drama school has produced generations of stars, of whom Ben Whishaw and Tom Hiddleston are two relatively recent examples. Earlier graduates include Kenneth Branagh and Alan Rickman, both of whom, despite careers as film stars, remain firmly rooted in theatre. Are the stars of the future evident the moment they arrive?

‘You’ll occasionally get someone who stands out, but quite often it’s just that we spot something interesting, a potential, and part of our job is to bring that out, to help the student develop. When this happens it’s as satisfying for us as for the student who finds his or her way and goes on to a high-profile career. Very occasionally someone’s career will take off straight away, but it’s much more often a case of a slow burn, of getting several years’ experience, building up a body of work and getting known.’

While we were talking we had a tomato, vegetable and pearl barley soup and a pork pie with piccalilli and mixed salad. Edward Kemp stuck to water – ‘I need to keep a clear head for a meeting with second-year students!’ – while I had a glass of Valcheta Malbec from Argentina.

Returning to the theme of a changing world, Kemp argued that there is a need to prepare actors for a range of performance skills, but that a grounding in the classics is still a bedrock of training for a life on stage.

‘We involve our students in circus skills, for example, via Circus Space which, like RADA, is part of the Conservatoire for Dance and Drama. This gives them a basic training in aspects of physical theatre that they wouldn’t otherwise have. As well as being interesting in itself, it means that if a director wants to bring physical theatre into a production – having characters on a trapeze or whatever – RADA graduates can at least say they’ve tried something like it and are happy to give it a go! In an age of puppets on stage – like War Horse at the National and now in the West End – this is a useful addition to their training.’

What sort of classical theatre did he think helped? ‘Restoration Comedy is a style that’s well-worth putting students through. It’s such a distinctive period, yet having performed it is a great help when dealing with other, better-known and more frequently-performed comedy styles. One of our responsibilities is to pass on the theatre heritage we all have, as well as providing the most contemporary and up-to-date techniques.’

At this point I spotted a white wine on the Foyer Bar’s short but well-selected wine list. A South African white, ‘The War Horse’ had an irresistible name and lived up to its strap line of ‘great floral brightness’. Brightness of a different sort – the shiny green of screens that modern film actors act against, with computer-generated monsters, machines and landscapes added later – was an example Edward used to make his point about the blend of old and new in acting.

‘One of the oldest techniques in telling a story on stage – whether the theatre or ballet – is mime. Yet, as Tom Hiddleston has said, when he’s in a film, with all the latest state-of-the-art technology, what he often finds himself doing is standing in front of a green screen acting against something that isn’t physically there! So he uses the oldest technique, mime, to produce the necessary effect in the latest way of telling stories…’

We (well, I) moved onto cake (Victoria sponge) and (both of us) coffee. It was a relatively simple, brief meal but the ingredients were fresh and the food served its purpose – wholesome, tasty, speedy and unpretentious. If only more theatres provided this sort of food on-site, before a performance.

I then asked Edward Kemp about his work in ballet – an unusual direction for a playwright.

‘I’ve worked with Cathy Marston, who trained as a dancer and worked with ROH2, which is the more experimental side of the Royal Ballet. We staged a ballet version of Ibsen’s Ghosts. When you adapt something for a different medium it’s important to use the new medium imaginatively – there’s no point in simply replicating stage lines in steps.’

The form this took was in bringing on to the stage characters or scenes that are only alluded to in Ibsen’s play. The father, Captain Alving, whose behaviour is responsible for the disaster that destroys his son’s life, is shown on a split stage, where the past and the present can both be seen by the audience – a physical representation of the way the past shapes the present.

A similar technique was used a couple of years ago in Scottish Ballet’s superb dance version of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, where Blanche’s dead husband, rather than being a haunting part of her past, is an important character whose story is shown in action rather than discussed as a memory.

Kemp’s enthusiasm for this aspect of his work is as evident as his pleasure with words – whether writing them or helping a cast bring them to life on stage. He had an impressive career before running RADA, is directing work outside the drama school’s walls (an opera, How The Whale Became, opens at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio in December) and will no doubt direct again full-time at some point, but for now his real love is very evidently for RADA and all that it achieves, both for the students talented enough to get in and for those lucky enough to be involved in RADA’s many outreach projects: groups as varied as schoolchildren and the over 55s.

Kemp praises the work done by RADA’s staff and by the school’s chairman, theatre owner Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen, whose business contacts and acumen have been reflected in RADA’s increased connections with the business world. ‘We’re very good at teaching businessmen presentation skills – how to hold an audience’ says Kemp. But his last words re RADA are about his pleasure in seeing the students develop and grow during their 3 years there. And not just the actors – he is proud that there are as many people studying technical aspects of theatre, like lighting and costume, as there are performers.

‘Though my life is in the arts’, says Kemp ‘I feel I’m really a frustrated scientist. Or alchemist. Because the best part of this job is putting in the raw materials – the students – and seeing how, depending on their own skills and what we can offer them, they turn out. It’s like a three-year experiment in finding, supporting and launching the next generation of people who will go on to shape the future of British theatre.’

Paul Ibell


For more information on RADA click here
For more information of RADA Foyer Bar click here


Dance critic Donald Hutera, at Seven Park Place



Seven Park Place by William Drabble, Michelin Star, St James Hotel and Club
I met American-born dance critic Donald Hutera at Seven Park Place. Located at the St James hotel and club, the space (named after its address) is a Michelin-starred restaurant run by Executive Chef William Drabble, whose interests, listed on Seven Park Place’s webpage, include theatre.

Donald Hutera, who reviews for the Times, among other publications, was in the last few days as curator of his three-week GOlive dance festival for the Giant Olive theatre, a company that produces dance as well as theatre, in a modestly-sized but versatile space above the Lion and Unicorn pub in Kentish Town.

Seven Park Place, like the hotel in which it is situated, is a successful mixture of a very modern sensibility and style with an old-world (specifically Deco) feel, which is particularly reflected in the art work – the St James Hotel and Club is noted for its paintings.

St James’s, as an area, lost its main theatre (unsurprisingly called the St James’s) back in the late 1950s, despite a vociferous campaign led by Vivien Leigh who, along with her husband Sir Laurence Olivier, had performed on its stage. Nowadays the theatre world is represented in this part of London by the Jermyn Street Theatre, less than ten minutes’ walk from the restaurant.

The meal started with a smoked haddock risotto with peas and chives and a fillet of red mullet with garlic purée, red wine reduction, croustade of goats cheese, confit tomato and basil - with a glass each of a very refreshing Clarendelle, Domaine Clarence Dillon, Château Haut-Brion, Bordeaux, 2011.

Donald made an exception to his usual rule: ‘I never drink white wine. Natalia Makarova [the legendary Russian ballerina who appeared in the West End and on Broadway in On Your Toes] told me ‘Beware white wine! It stiffens muscles!’’

An internationally recognised dance critic who has lectured across the globe and been a judge for the Theatrical Management Association’s Dance Panel, Donald Hutera has the neat, trim body of a natural dancer. Was that how his career as a reviewer started?

‘No! Although I have danced – and once shared a stage with the young Matthew Bourne – I wasn’t classically trained, nor did I see it as a career. My first passion was film, but I did go on a dance course and, as an occasional extra on stage, I jumped at the chance when a friend told me he was casting extras for a French production of Petrushka, visiting Edinburgh and starring Rudolph Nureyev.’

He expected an extraordinary experience, and wasn’t disappointed. ‘He had this incredible charisma. He kept himself rather aloof from the rest of the cast and we weren’t supposed to watch him from the wings, but of course I did. What struck me was the pressure he was under. This was 1987 or ‘88, when he was long past his prime, but determined to keep dancing. He had everyone’s eyes on him – out front in the auditorium and the rest of the cast trying to see him from the wings.’

Petrushka was one of the many new ballets presented by Serge Diaghilev, the genius (an over-used term but in this case fully justified) producer whose Ballets Russes transformed ballet as an art form from its debut in 1909 to Diaghilev’s death, in his beloved Venice, in 1929. Hutera has, this September, had his own Diaghilev moment, curating the dance festival in Kentish Town.

The experience was a radical challenge, but one at which he jumped. ‘I was phoned by George Sallis, Artistic Director of Giant Olive, on 29 May this year. The exact centenary of the premiere of The Rite of Spring. [The ground breaking Ballets Russes production composer by Igor Stravinsky and choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky]. This seemed a pretty good omen, though I hoped the audience reaction to whatever I presented would be less hostile than the riot that broke out in Paris when Rite was first seen!’

As we talked our main courses arrived: Griddled fillet of sea bass with braised Jerusalem artichokes, cabbage purée and red wine jus for Donald and one of William Drabble’s signature dishes, Assiette of Lune Valley lamb with broad beans and basil for me. This time Donald followed Miss Makarova’s advice and had a French red – a glass of Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes-De-Nuits « Le Prieuré », Aurélien Verdet, Burgundy, France, 2007, while I went for a Chilean one - Cabernet Sauvignon, Kyole Estate, Colchagua Valley, Chile, 2009.

Suitably fortified, he described his philosophy in curating the GOlive dance festival.

‘I wanted as much variety as possible and was happy to invite people whose work I hadn’t seen, but had heard of and wanted to see and to share with the audience. Putting all this together in just over three months was a lot of work, but I loved it. And I’ve enjoyed speaking to the audience before the performance, making a direct connection with them, then watching their reaction to what’s on stage.’

The dancers come from a huge range of artistic backgrounds, some being more movement, in the sense of Performance Art, than conventional dance, but to him that was part of the point.

‘If you have three weeks then you want to show a wide variety of work. Having said that, one thing I definitely didn’t want to do was to tick a lot of boxes, to engineer some sort of deliberate diversity, but I’m happy to say that the end result was actually a very diverse mix. It’s all a question of trust. George, as Artistic Director, and the paying public, as customers, have trusted me, trusted my judgement. Likewise, I have trusted the dancers, and that trust has been absolutely vindicated by what they’ve achieved in the course of this festival. As a result, I hope this may prove to be the first of many.’

Hutera has never been afraid to criticise established dancers and choreographers in his reviews, as he feels the role of the critic is to share an enthusiasm for dance and to encourage the creation of new work, but not to hold back if something doesn’t come off.

‘Everyone fails from time to time. What’s important is that they try and that if it doesn’t work then they learn and move on.’

The dance world being every bit as sensitive to criticism as the theatre one, I asked, given he knows so many dancers and choreographers personally, whether he was tempted to follow Alan Bennett’s advice to stick to ‘Marvellous, marvellous, marvellous!’ when speaking to a performer or playwright after a show.

‘My technique, when I haven’t liked something but have to speak to the piece’s creator, is to get in first, before they can ask my opinion, and say ‘[insert name as required], what did you learn from creating that?’ It’s a legitimate question, it allows them to explain what they were trying to do while allowing them room to acknowledge that, like anything, it may have been less than perfect!’

Hutera’s real passion, which the GOlive festival helped him put into effect, is to encourage the younger, less established performers and creative talents – ‘the people who don’t have a support structure in place, haven’t got a resident company and funding, but who are making new work despite the challenges. This has its pleasures but can also mean sitting through work that might be best left in the rehearsal studio: If I can’t understand or get into something then I try to see it as a piece that the performers understand better than I do but who value it more than I would!’

One of Hutera’s engaging qualities is that though he is serious about being supportive and not hurting people’s feelings – sometimes not easy when reviewing dance honestly – he has an elfin twinkle in his eye. Though serious about the art form he has a sense of humour about it, too, while his enthusiasm means his speech comes out rapidly: there’s a machine-gun speed to his words, though they hit their target with the accuracy of a slower-moving, single-shot sniper.

This combination of enthusiasm and informed knowledge means he is in demand, internationally, as a speaker and is heading off to one of his favourite destinations, South Korea (‘I like the food there almost as much as the dance’), where he is a regular on the panel of the Seoul International Dance Festival.

Though he has lived in England for decades, he was born in Minnesota, in the United States and retains an American accent. He keeps a foot on both sides of the Atlantic when it comes to his dance influences and favourites.

Having enjoyed our puddings - Peach with lemon verbena, white chocolate and yoghurt cream, roasted hazelnuts and lemon sorbet and Pears poached in red wine with white chocolate, yoghurt and cinnamon cream – whose calories are probably best left uncounted, I asked him to name his favourite choreographers. His answer reflected his American and European interests.

‘Of the current crop I’m a big fan of William Forsythe and Christopher Wheeldon. I like the way that Balanchine’s achievements, finding new ways of using bodies, have been built on and expanded. But in terms of classic, all-time figures, I’d have to say [American] Merce Cunningham and [German] Pina Bausch.

‘The best time of my life in a theatre was seeing Cunningham dance and as for Pina Bausch, it doesn’t get better than her at her best. She was also such a lovely person. I was sitting next to her once and she turned to me and said: ‘I don’t like critics. Oh, I don’t mean you of course!’

It’s reassuring to know that actor and director Sir John Gielgud, who famously put his foot in it with people, wasn’t the only person to drop bricks. He once phoned writer and theatre critic Sheridan Morley and said he didn’t know what the world was coming to – in a town in America they were actually putting up a statue to a theatre critic. Then, suddenly remembering Morley’s profession, he shouted ‘Oh my God! You’re a critic!’ and slammed the phone down.

The job of a critic is, arguably, to let the reader know not just what they thought of the performance, but what the audience did: what it was like, then, to be present in that theatre on that evening. Has Hutera ever gained a sense, through dancing himself, what it must be like for the performer, rather than the paying public?

‘Yes!’ he said, his startlingly blue eyes lighting up. ‘I was at a show and we were all invited to get up and dance ourselves. A sort of immersive, communal experience. It was wonderful. Completely liberating. I didn’t care who was looking at me, or what I looked like! It was what dance should be. Transformative. Like becoming another body altogether.’

And did he think anyone, in the early 21st century, was enabling this transformation to happen to and for others, as dancers or spectators, in the way that Diaghilev did in the early 20th? ‘The nearest person to that in this country is Alistair Spalding and what he has achieved at Sadler’s Wells. His programming, the range and quality of dance he has brought together, is an amazing achievement.’

At this point, having enjoyed several marshmallows rolled in coconut, Mr Hutera decided he had better head off to Kentish Town to prepare for that evening’s show: his own Diaghilev moment, as festival curator. To both our astonishment the lunch, full of off-the-record gossip as well as his printable comments, has lasted several hours. A tribute to the range of his knowledge, his ability as a raconteur - and the seductive charm of the décor, superb cuisine and excellent wine cellar of William Drabble’s Seven Park Place.

Paul Ibell


Click here for more infomation about Seven Park Place


Ann Henning Jocelyn, playwright, at Dean Street Townhouse

Theatreland Talks’ Paul Ibell met playwright Ann Henning Jocelyn, Countess of Roden, at the Dean Street Townhouse in Soho, to talk about her latest plays, one of which, Doonreagan, opens at Jermyn Street Theatre on 3 September.

Born in Sweden, she studied drama in London, acted, directed and wrote plays over here, then moved to Ireland with her husband, the Earl of Roden. It is their house in Connemara on the West coast of Ireland that inspired her play Doonreagan – named after their home, where poet Ted Hughes and his then girlfriend, Assia Wevill, for whom he left his wife, the poetess Sylvia Plath, spent time together.

The Dean Street Townhouse is the epitome of urban living – lively, full of attractive twenty and thirty-somethings and with the theatre and film world buzz you would expect in Soho. A world away from country walks and the ozone of the Atlantic ocean, it was nevertheless a good place to meet Ann Henning Jocelyn, who is as much at home in Stockholm or London (and indeed New York, where she is a regular visitor) as she is in Ireland.

Ordering from the pre-theatre menu, we chose Candy beetroot & mint soup and Oxford Blue and pear salad for starters, with a glass of Rose Pinot Grigio, Ponte Pietra, Veneto and a dry gin martini. Suitably fortified, we began…

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Had you always been aware of the Ted Hughes connection with your home?

No! Actually, it’s something I only found out about relatively recently. He kept his stay here a secret - it’s not mentioned in many of the books about him.

So he thought of it as somewhere special?

He did. But then the whole area is. Which is why I wanted to write about it. I and my family have been very happy there, but happiness doesn’t make for interesting drama, so finding the Ted Hughes connection finally gave me the subject I was looking for.

You’ve written several plays…

Yes, but over a very long period of time! You have to let plays find themselves, as it were, to build up a momentum until they reach the point when you simply have to write them, to get them out of your head. As it happens I now have two that are being performed in London – Doonreagan at Jermyn Street this month, then Only Our Own at the Arts early next year.

You have translated a lot of plays in the course of your career. Do you have a favourite style of writing?

I like chamber theatre – small scale plays where we learn about relationships. Theatre should tell us something about ourselves and how we live our lives. It’s much more effective to tell a story about a small number of people – a family or a relationship – than try to put across something on an epic scale: though epic plays have their place, of course. What matters to me is that theatre tells us about human nature. That’s why I find Ancient Greek plays so fascinating: they tell us as much about our humanity now as they did when they were written.

The relationship between Hughes and Wevill was pretty tortured. [She was to kill herself, six years after Hughes’ wife, the poetess Sylvia Plath. She died the same way, by gassing herself, but also killed her four year old daughter by Hughes at the same time.]

It was, and I examine this in the play, but what I am also interested in is the power of place: how a house or an area can have such a strong influence on us. Had the two of them been able to stay on at Doonreagan I believe things would have ended differently.

Speaking of place, does it remind you of the Swedish coast at all?

Actually, it’s a great contrast to Sweden, even though we have a lot of coastline there. Sweden has been a prosperous country for centuries. Everything there is neat, organised, parcelled-out and managed. People’s control of the environment is very evident. Connemara is the opposite – wild, rugged and with the landscape unchanged by human farming. It looks the same as it would have done 2000 years ago.

Given Hughes loved to write about nature, especially birds of prey, the area must have suited him?

Yes!

Our main course now arrived: goats cheese tart (a starter taken as a main course) and what seemed a suitably country dish – mince and potatoes. Plus mineral water and an excellent house red wine – Grenache Merlot, Les Vignes de l’Eglise, Languedoc.

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Only Our Own is also set in Ireland. Could you tell us something about it?

It’s about a family who are forced out of their family home in 1921 – burned out. This happened to a lot of families – well, landed ones ¬– including those of several friends of mine, but it wasn’t something they ever talked about. The play follows three generations of the family and looks at how they adapt to living in a very different Ireland. It examines how the old system, where they were on top, made everyone victims – first those who were oppressed in those days and then the individuals who were born into the ruling class through no fault of their own, who were then oppressed in their turn when everything changed.

The trouble is that when a system is wrong people don’t blame the system. It’s easier and more immediate to attack, often literally, other people. Rather than take out their frustrations on the system they take it out on individuals or families.

So there’s a sense of secrecy about the past here, too? Why would families keep such an experience hidden?

Whatever your political view, the Troubles of the early 20s were a terrible thing, on a human level. And across the world, in whatever the situation, whatever the historical period, both perpetrators and victims of atrocities have a vested interested in keeping quiet about them. The perpetrators for obvious reasons, the victims out of shame at having been powerless to resist.

Have you ever had class or religious difficulties, living in Ireland?

No, but the Protestant/Catholic divide was very strong. I’m Protestant – brought up as a Lutheran in Sweden – and I was advised not to make friends with Catholics. I ignored this and I found that, like most man-made taboos, when you break them, when you walk through the barriers, they simply collapse. They only exist because we let them. We shouldn’t let them. Of course, being Swedish meant I was seen as the strange foreigner, so perhaps I was allowed a little more leeway!

The Roden title goes back a long way?

Yes, the Earldom goes back to the 18th century but the Jocelyn baronetcy dates from the reign of Charles II, who created it.

Charles II was a great supporter of theatre himself…

He was, but the family has its own theatrical connection, quite apart from him – and in fact pre-dating him. One of my husband’s ancestors was Henry Carey, the son of Henry VIII and Mary Boleyn, Anne Boleyn’s sister. He was created the first Lord Hunsdon and was the Lord Chamberlain, in Elizabeth I’s time, the man whose company Shakespeare worked for! As a result, the family inherited a First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, with handwritten director’s notes in the margins…

So you can sit reading this on a winter night as the wind comes in over the Atlantic?

That would be lovely! Unfortunately it was sold, to pay death duties, some hundred years ago, so instead of having it at home, it’s now in one of the two world-class collections of Folios, in Washington in the United States.

You visit the States regularly?

Yes, but usually to New York. I also keep in touch with Charles Marowitz, the director, who I worked for in London in the early 1970s. He ran the Open Space theatre, with Thelma Holt. Charles acts as my script editor, or play doctor, so I’m very lucky.

You enjoyed London?

I did – and still do. I feel at home in Connemara, Stockholm and London. As my work is concentrated most in England at the moment, this is where my main interest lies just now.

We don’t seem to get much modern Swedish playwriting staged in London. Or modern European playwriting, at all.

Sweden used to be rather off the map for the English, who only seemed to want dead Swedish playwrights. In effect, Strindberg. Books and TV series like Wallander have brought Swedish culture more to people’s attention in recent years. And there have always been a lot of connections between the Irish and English stage.

Pudding was chocolate truffles and an arctic roll (appropriately enough, given the Scandinavian connection) with superb raspberries. By now the restaurant and adjacent bar were packed, with a mixture of the pre-theatre crowd and those simply out for a Soho evening. There is also a terrace outside, along the Dean Street frontage…

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Rounding off Sweden, you worked with actress Ingrid Bergman on her autobiography?

Yes. It was a wonderful experience. She was a bit sharp with me when I auditioned for the job, as I hadn’t spelt Rossellini correctly, but she liked the rest of my work, so we spent some nine months together, working on the book.

Did she have that film star glow in real life?

She did, and one felt very favoured being able to work so closely with her.

You’ve done a lot of translating, as we touched on earlier. When working on other people’s plays, did you find it helped your own writing?

I did. To translate a play successfully you need not only the language skills but dramatic skills, too. It was very rewarding, especially with Jon Fosse’s [a Norwegian playwright] work. Many jobs one has to take to earn a living, while writing plays, can be very draining. I always found translating the opposite, so I was lucky.

Given the variety of your writing work [which includes a best-selling series of children’s books about Connemara ponies and Keylines, a collection of Thoughts For The Day, originally broadcast on Irish radio station RTE], how would you describe yourself?

As a playwright. Theatre has always meant so much to me. Which is why I’m excited to have two plays coming into London.

Though they both convey your love and knowledge of Ireland, they are after all, by a Swedish-born playwright. So you’ve overcome the difficulty of getting modern Swedish writing onto the London stage…

Yes. As I said earlier and in a different context, barriers are meant to be broken!

For information about Doonreagan click here
For information about Only Our Own click here
For information about the Dean Street Townhouse click here


Joan Shepard, actress, at  J Sheekey


TheatrelandTalks’ Paul Ibell met Joan Shepard at J Sheekey’s fish and seafood restaurant in St Martin’s Court – the opposite side of the Court to the previous Table Talk, featuring music director Nigel Lilley. As its name suggests, Sheekey’s specialises in seafood and is a favourite haunt for the theatre community.

Miss Shepard, who is married to an American actor and has lived in New York for many years, is an actress whose career began aged 7 and has continued through the subsequent 73 years on stage. She has appeared in a Disney film – College Road Trip – where her character was listed as ‘Old Lady #2’, which she has used as the title of the one-woman show she is taking to Edinburgh for a second season, this time at the Fingers Piano Bar.

Prior to Edinburgh, Miss Shepard has given her show at the St James Theatre’s Studio and also appeared at RADA, where she studied in the early 1950s. Lunch began with a selection of Oysters and a Crab Bisque, accompanied by a glass of Chateau de Fonscombe  Rosé and Touraine Sauvignon Blanc.

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You said you were keen to come to J Sheekey’s. Is it because you’re a great fish eater?

I am, and I love oysters, which is why a seafood restaurant appeals, but actually the reason goes a long way back – over 60 years!

What’s the story behind that?
(It should be mentioned at this point that Miss Shepard has an endearing habit or replying to questions with the phrase: ‘I have a story about that!’)

JS When I was at RADA, in 1951 and 1952, Britain was undergoing severe austerity while my own circumstances were very hard. I had hardly any money and I was sometimes hungry. My favourite story about this is when I was invited to a friend’s house for a little party. They didn’t have much either, so for food they provided platefuls of Bovril sandwiches! I decided that I had better stop wolfing them down when I realised I’d eaten ten! Anyway, I remember walking past this wonderful glass-fronted restaurant – Sheekey’s – and thinking that one day I’d eat there. And that’s today!

The restaurant has plenty of pictures of past stars on its walls and caters to a pre and post-theatre crowd. It is long and slim, with rooms opening off the central aisle, which gives the sense of lunching on a luxury train.

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You must have been unusual, as a RADA student, in that you’d already had a successful professional career  before you began training there?

Yes. I started acting as a child, but in the States, not England.

How did that happen?

I was evacuated, like a number of children, to the United States, to get away from the Blitz. Unlike the rest of the young passengers, though, I wasn’t leaving my parents behind – I was going to join them. My father, a very prescient man, had gone to America to get work before war broke out.

That must have put you in much better position than the other children?

It did, but I didn’t want to seem smug about it and, like all children, I wanted to fit in, so when the others cried, I pretended to as well. So you could say I was acting all my way to America!

When you got there, I gather Laurence Olivier, of all people, gave you a lucky break?

Yes, he cast me as a child in his and Vivien Leigh’s production of Romeo and Juliet, on Broadway.

What were they like?

Olivier was terrific. Handsome, assured – and generous. He asked me, re salary, ‘Will ten dollars do?’ Ten dollars then was a working wage, so to a small child it was a fortune. Vivien Leigh was a heroine of mine, for playing Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. I was so excited to be acting in a play with such a huge star. She was very beautiful but you could tell there was something unsettled about her [she suffered from mental health problems, as well as physical ones, for much of her adult life]. I saw her on stage, of course, but offstage she kept herself very much hidden away in her dressing room.

It must have been an extraordinary experience for a child to act with stage royalty like Olivier and Leigh?

It was. And one of things I most liked was that the set revolved, and I could sit on part of it, soaking up the atmosphere, before the revolve turned for the next scene. So I was onstage, in a sense, even when I wasn’t in front of the audience. On one occasion a very handsome man, dressed in a splendid Renaissance costume, came up to me, offered his hand (inside a gauntlet) and shook hands with me. He was Jack Merivale, who Vivien Leigh lived with in the last years of her life.

Our main courses arrived. Miss Shepard had Crab Bisque as a main dish, while I had the Fried Fillet of Haddock, with chips and mushy peas. Plus a further glass of Sauvignon and Rosé.

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Why, having already established yourself in the States, did you come back to London?

Because, much as I liked America, I always felt that London was home. I’d lived here before being evacuated and I wanted to study here as I made the transition to adult actor.

What was it like, this year, returning to RADA after such a long time?

It was possibly the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done. The reception from the students was wonderful and I enjoyed seeing the changes that have been made to the building. One change I enjoyed making was marching upstairs. I should explain. As you go into the building from Gower Street, there is a double staircase, which in my day students were forbidden from using. Now I’m 80, I decided I finally could!

You’ve been in such a huge range of plays, from classics to modern. Do you have a favourite playwright? Specifically, a modern one?

You’ll think I’m being facetious, but my favourite modern playwright is – Shakespeare! Despite the language he uses, the plays themselves are all so modern. Not just timeless, but modern. I’ve acted in 9 of his plays, in a total of 16 parts. Including several male roles, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

You have had something of a reputation for playing male roles, I believe?

Yes. Probably the best-known being playing Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island on stage from 1972 to 1987. I was always small and used to have a petite build. I was allowed to be no more than 8 stone when playing the role – not just because I needed to look slim, playing a boy, but because otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible to run up and down the rigging. As it was, I naturally had plenty of falls during the run of the play, which eventually brought on arthritis. There are not many actresses who can trace their arthritis back to playing boys in Treasure Island!

You’ve met many fascinating characters in your career, but could you say a few words about one of the most extraordinary – Quentin Crisp?

Quentin was a neighbour and friend of mine, once he moved to New York, and in fact as well as a friend I was one of his heirs. He was such a lovely man, a good writer and a good actor. I was in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest with him. I was Miss Prism and he was Lady Bracknell! Backstage, I acted as his dresser and one day I was helping with a hatpin when I pushed it in slightly too far. Quentin took the pin from me and said he’d do it himself ‘As I have a better idea than you of where millinery ends and meningitis begins!’

He was famous for being available if anyone phoned, provided they took him out for a meal...

He was. The understanding was that he paid for nothing. Supposedly because he had no money, as well as force of habit. But he did earn, and sometimes he would phone me up and say ‘I’m going to take you to lunch today, because I’m loaded!’ He loved the sound of the word!

Our final courses were Gooseberry Pie (for her) and Apricot Tart with almond ice cream.

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They’re delicious!

Yes. Food in England in the 1930s was revolting, but it has changed out of all recognition. And these days it’s certainly better than in America.

And audiences?

Not better, but different. It’s specially noticeable, when you’re doing a one-person show, that British and American audiences laugh in different places. Much as I love America, I feel they ‘get’ me more over here.

And actors? Any advice after such a long career on stage?

Theatre’s such a volatile thing that exceptions are the rule, so there’s no point having a set formula for how to get on in it. In my experience, you can whittle the do’s and don’ts down to two don’ts.

And they are?

Never be late! Don’t quit!

You’re obviously still keeping both those rules. So we might see you back in London again?

I certainly hope so!

Click here for more information about Joan Shepard at Edinburgh
Click here for more information about J Sheekey


Nigel Lilley, music director, at Café Koha



TheatrelandTalks’ Paul Ibell met Nigel Lilley, a music director (MD), currently working on the new musical of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, at Café Koha, a popular wine bar and restaurant, suitably located, in St Martin’s Court, between two stage doors: those of Wyndham’s and the Noël Coward.

Lunch was on a blistering hot day in mid July. Sheltering from the sun outside, we started with seared scallops (with petite Thai salad) and ricotta and spinach quiche. To drink, water (for Nigel, who was conducting a matinee and needed a clear head) and for the interviewer, Cotes de Provence Rosé, Domaine de la Vielle Tour. A good start!

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Could you tell me something about your training in music direction?

I was the first graduate of the Music Direction course at the Royal Academy of Music. It was a very valuable experience. Since I graduated the scheme has been expanded and similar courses can now be found in a variety of colleges. I have worked with several people who have also been through the RAM course, and it means we share a sort of common language.

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Musical direction seems to be a very varied job. Could you describe some of what you do? For example, conducting the orchestra is an important part of your work?

It is. There are two basic types of Musical Direction. The first is where you play the piano and give a lead to your fellow musicians. This tends to be with smaller-scale bands. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory we have a 16 piece orchestra so we need a stick MD. This is the more traditional image of a conductor, where you stand in front of the musicians and conduct with a baton.

And dress up?

Yes. I wear a dinner jacket – which I like! The orchestra will wear ‘blacks’ – ie black clothes.

Does it get hot?

The last time I was at Drury Lane, with My Fair Lady, the orchestra pit was sweltering. A lot of improvements have been made, so it’s a pleasanter experience, especially in the current heatwave.

But back to the role of the MD…

As well as conducting, the role (which I take over in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in November) involves taking part in auditions, teaching and coaching, talking to the actors and liaising with the numerous other departments engaged in a production. We can also be involved in arranging and orchestration, which is an important part of the job and again involves liaising with different groups of people – i.e. dancers and choreographers.

Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is very much a family show. Does this give it a very different atmosphere to other productions you’ve worked on?

It does! On a matinee, when you have over 2000 people in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, many if not most of them children, there’s an incredible buzz – a real sense of excitement.

It’s such an important theatre. Do you feel a sense of history?

Very much so. When I arrive for work I see all the old posters of the shows that have been here before. Shows like South Pacific. There’s a real sense of the presence of all the past productions and performers.

Speaking of which, have you seen any of the many theatre ghosts that haunt the Theatre Royal?

Not yet!

By now we had moved on to our main courses, of Fish and Chips (buttered plaice with green beans), and free-range chicken breast with mashed potato and green beans. Nigel resolutely stuck to water as more Rosé was ordered… At this point a well-known West End producer walked in for lunch and greeted Nigel warmly. Koha tends, by its location and its reputation, to draw a theatre crowd.

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Do you see much of the producers when you work on a show?

It depends on where the producers are based. If they’re English, then we tend to see quite a lot of them, but if they’re American then they’re not around much, especially once the show has opened.

I get the impression you like American musicals?

I do! Especially Rodgers and Hammerstein.

You prefer the older shows?

I admire classics. They’re classic for a good reason.

Music is obviously very important to you, but do you see non-musical productions, too?
       
When I can. This tends to be if friends are in them. There’s so much good work out there, it’s hard to keep up with everything that’s happening.
          
Do you get much time to do this?
        
Not a lot, when I’m working, because I do eight shows a week. It tends to be in holidays.
         
You presumably have people to cover you?

Yes, we have deps and cover conductors, so we can luckily get a bit of time off.

And even straight plays tend to have some music in them?
 
They do. And at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre they have a good policy of using live music rather than recorded. It makes all the difference to a performance, whether it’s theatre or, as sometimes happens with visiting companies, ballet. But you can’t blame plays that use recorded music – it’s partly a question of money and things are very tough out there for theatre.

Does the financial climate have a knock-on effect on musicals?

It does, in that in economically difficult times people like to see musicals, especially light, cheerful ones. On the other hand, they like to see shows they know. Nostalgia is always big business in a recession. So the opportunity for young composers and new musicals tends to suffer.

How do new composers get noticed?
      
Demos are crucial. And although an MD will be able to read a score and hear the music,a demo is a good shorthand way of getting the music across.

Time slipping by, I had an apple tart with vanilla ice cream, while Nigel had a double macchiato.

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Are you dieting?
(This seemed un-necessary, as he’s slim and was in cycle gear)

No!

I can understand the not drinking, though there used to be something of a West End tradition of taking ‘refreshment’ in intervals…

That may have been true years ago but it isn’t now! Lots of musicians I know spend the time between matinees and evening shows at the gym. And the Matilda orchestra go running in the park!

We now came to one of the reasons TheatrelandTalks wanted to have lunch with Nigel – the recent
news about a new category of Olivier Award.

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What’s your reaction to the announcement, by the Society of London Theatre, that there’ll be an Olivier Award for music in 2014?

I think it’s brilliant news! It’s a recognition of the role that music plays in theatre. I understand why some people wonder about how such a wide-ranging aspect of performance can be whittled down to one award but by the same token, given the importance of music, it’s great that there is at least one category which recognises, in the form of a special achievement, what music brings to the stage.

Looking at the importance of musicals, in particular, to the theatre industry, some shows last many years. Decades, even. Do MDs stay with a show a long time or do people tend to move on?

It varies. Some people stay with shows for years and if the show speaks to them and they are completely fulfilled working on it, then that’s a sensible decision. Others prefer to work for a year or eighteen months, then move on to new challenges.

Finally, of all your past shows, is there one that’s stood out for you?

I’d have to say La Cage Aux Folles. It was such a fun show to work on and Douglas Hodge’s performance was extraordinary. It also helped that it was launched at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which is such an exciting space. You’re so close to the audience and there’s a real energy in that.

Click here for more information about the musical of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Click here for more information about Café Koha