We have many times on these pages lamented the demise of rep theatres in the provinces. The old rep companies were part of the community and they were, like a local football team, something with which to identify, something to support and encourage through good times and bad. But, more importantly, they fostered loyalty; audiences would turn up to see most productions and support their local actors, all of whom they knew well. With touring venues, although the shows may be bigger and often better than rep could achieve, the loyalty and commitment to local theatres has largely gone.
However, all is not lost. In the past couple of years a growing number of provincial theatres, many of them former reps, have started producing shows again. Some of them fairly modest affairs but recently, with the creation of alliances and consortia, they have become more ambitious and embarked on national tours.
The Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham was, until the mid-1990s, one of the country’s leading reps but along with most similar venues at that time threw in the towel and decided to rely entirely on touring shows to make up their programmes. In the last five or six years the Everyman, under its Artistic Director Paul Milton, has produced a number of main-house plays which now undertake short tours after opening in Cheltenham. This year’s production is Kay Mellor’s A Passionate Woman starring Liza Goddard.
In spite of Paul’s commitment and success in reviving home-grown productions at the Everyman the project has been a fairly long and drawn out process. I asked Paul what was his policy as regard to in-house productions. ‘We aim to produce and tour works that we consider to have artistic and literary merit. Previously we have produced and toured Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie and George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession. Both of these have been “period pieces”, set at the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth. This time we wanted to be a little more up-to-date. A Passionate Woman is set in the present day (having said that, there are flashbacks and references to the late 1960s). In terms of literary merit, Kay Mellor is certainly one of our most important contemporary female writers, especially for TV (Band Of Gold, Coronation Street, In The Club etc) – so I reckon she’s entitled to be up there with Laurie Lee and Bernard Shaw.’
A Passionate Woman is a good choice of play and provides an excellent showcase for an actress of a certain age. The play was first performed in 1993 with Anne Reid in the leading role of Betty. It transferred to the West End the following year with Stephanie Cole and there was a television version in 2010 with both Sue Johnston and Billie Piper playing Betty. The play has been updated since then to include more topical references. I asked Paul how he went about casting Betty. ‘Because she constantly refers back to the 1960s/1970s as she re-lives her affair with Craze, I was keen to find an actress who is associated with that period – I’m thrilled to have Liza Goddard with us who was, of course, famous for Skippy the Bush Kangaroo and Take Three Girls, both in the sixties.’
A Passionate Woman is story of middle-aged Betty whose memories of a passionate affair are re-kindled on the day of her son’s marriage. ‘She retreats to the loft and starts to play records on her old record-player, which conjure up the ghost of her ex-lover Craze (a Polish charmer).’ Paul explained. ‘ Her son Mark, meanwhile, is frantically trying to get her out of the loft and off to the church; and her husband Donald questions what has gone wrong with his and Betty’s marriage. There’s a sense of urgency to the play (i.e. we need to get Betty to the church!) as well as some poignant and sensitive moments. I’m calling it a “romantic comedy”. It’s a sort of Shirley Valentine tale (a woman in search of romance, having spent years in a stale marriage). Anyone who loves Northern humour will (hopefully) love this play.’
I was interested to know from Paul how he intended directing the play, was there going to be a definable style? ‘The acting style for A Passionate Woman will be naturalistic with comic undertones – sort of Alan Ayckbournesque (think Absent Friends or Relatively Speaking). To accommodate this, we are employing actors with a firm history of appearing in plays by Alan Ayckbourn. Russell Dixon will play the husband Donald – he works constantly for Ayckbourn himself at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough and on tour (I saw him recently playing the comic social worker in Ayckbourn’s Henceforward). Antony Eden will be playing Mark – he’s recently finished touring in Relatively Speaking with Liza Goddard! Completing the cast will be Hasan Dixon, who played Tom in the Everyman’s production of The Glass Menagerie a couple of years ago.’
Deciding on which play to produce is a tricky business especially if you only get one chance a year to get it right. There are very many considerations to take on board. I wondered what had attracted Paul to this play. ‘What really drew me to A Passionate Woman was the fact that half of it is set in Betty’s loft. I’m intrigued by the notion of the loft/attic in literature; “the woman in the loft” in Jane Eyre, for instance. There’s also Flowers in the Attic, The Picture of Dorian Gray etc. What’s the significance of a loft? It’s a place we can escape to (as in Betty’s case), we can shut ourselves away there, we can hide. Lofts are often filled with souvenirs from the past – old records, photograph albums, old clothes etc.; so they are places full of nostalgia. We can look back to the past. They can be a cocoon. Betty’s loft is all of these things – and some of the rehearsal period will be about her relationship with this environment.’
I suggested there must have been challenges creating a small confined space on stage without it getting lost. ‘Our designer Michael Holt (who also works with Alan Ayckbourn a great deal) is finding a way of constructing a small, confined, dimly-lit space onto some rather large theatre stages, as the production will play on many different size stages during its tour.’
After its opening in Cheltenham A Passionate Woman tours to the Exeter Northcott Theatre, Malvern Theatre, Northampton Theatre Royal, West Yorkshire Playhouse, the Guildford Yvonne Arnaud and the Sheffield Lyceum.
Paul Milton was talking to Michael Hasted
© Text and pictures Paul Milton/StageTalk Magazine 2017.