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Pitlochry Festival Theatre 60th Anniversary Season

Change is in the air in Pitlochry this year. Not at first glance, it
has to be said, as to the naked eye the town this time of year remains
the most tasteful tourist trap for miles, salmon ladder and all. Look
beyond the politesse of afternoon teas and ice-cream in the sun,
however, and you'll see the most impeccably turned out theatre in the
country warming up for its sixtieth anniversary season of six plays
with some very familiar themes on show. As what has effectively been
the stylistic equivalent of a west end producing theatre set against a
picture postcard backdrop of rolling Perthshire hills, Pitlochry
Festival Theatre understands tradition more than most, but as artistic
director John Durnin explains, this year's selection of classic works
have been very carefully chosen.

“It was quite a challenge to think about how we put the 2011 programme
together,” he says on a rare break from the rehearsal room, where three
productions are already on the go, with schedules juggled aplenty.
“There were lots of ideas going around about the theatre's sixtieth,
like we talked of maybe having each show represent a particular year.
But in the end, we decided that it would make more sense of what we
wanted to do by trying to represent some if the eras of when the
Festival Theatre was being constructed in the 1940s and 1950s, as well
as representing the current style of repertoire, which now includes a
musical. On top of that, we wanted to revisit some of the playwrights
who've proved to be the most popular here, so that became about Alan
Ayckbourn and Arthur Wing Pinero. We also wanted to do something by
James Bridie, whose plays have really dropped out of view, but who was
instrumental, not just in the history of Pitlochry Festival Theatre,
but in Scottish theatre in a much broader context. With all of that on
board, all the plays we chose ended up being about change and the
passing of time in some way.”

The result of all this brain-storming is a season that opens with My
Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's musical version of
George Bernard Shaw's play, Pygmalion. This is followed quickly by
Henceforward, a dark science-fiction comedy by Alan Ayckbourn that has
been little seen since its 1987 premiere. Next up is See How They Run!,
Philip King's World War Two-set farce involving off-duty soldiers
dressing up as vicars, and which first played at PFT way back in 1965.
Trelawny of The 'Wells' is a PFT rarity, in that up to now it has been
the only major Pinero play never to be produced at the theatre. This is
rectified this summer, however, as the Victorian yarn of an actress
trying to fit in with the establishment while her old profession moves
from melodrama to realism reflects its own author's love affair with
the theatre of his youth in the 1860s.

There's more stage-bound fun to be had in Privates on Parade, Peter
Nichols' nostalgic look back at the sort of post World war Two army
concert party he was a member of with the likes of Kenneth Williams and
Stanley Baxter at a time when cross-dressing was de rigeur, fuelling
British light entertainment for years afterwards. In something of as
coup, the PFT production will be the Scottish premiere of Nichols' 2001
revised version. Finally, on what is also the sixtieth anniversary of
James Bridie's death, PFT's final production will be Dr Angelus, a tale
of medical quackery and mystery that originally featured Alastair Sim
in the title role, and which was one of Bridie's last great works.

“On one level,” Durnin admits, “the programme isn’t entirely
unrecognisable to how its always been. But the key to the longevity of
Pitlochry Festival Theatre is found in its elements of continuity. So
to put six shows on in the way you do, the rep has to function in a
certain way, and you mess with that at your peril. I think what I hoped
we'd develop as we went along with the programme was to introduce more
contemporary voices and experiences into the mix, and I think to some
extent we've achieved that. But you absolutely can't throw the baby out
with the bath-water.”

Sure enough, while the 2011 PFT season might not look as obviously
adventurous as previous years, it nevertheless retains a sense of
occasion regarding the anniversary that both compliments and respects
the theatre's audience. Besides which, since taking up his post in
2003, Durnin has undoubtedly pushed the envelope in terms of the sort
of contemporary work he talks about. One of the key features of
Durnin's tenure has been to put on second productions of plays by
living Scottish writers. David Greig's Outlying Islands, Good Things by
Liz Lochhead and, perhaps most eyebrow-raising of all, the drugs and
gangsters scenario of Simon Donald's 1994 play, The Life of Stuff, have
all been seen on the Pitlochry stage.

For the future, like any other arts organisation squaring up to
impending cuts in funding, Pitlochry Festival Theatre remains pragmatic
as well as artistically ambitious.

“We need to maintain the standards of what we do to attract audiences,”
Durnin asserts, “but we absolutely have to do that without diminishing
the programme. In the long term, we're not just working towards another
sixty years, but we're thinking about what the theatre's role could be
and how it can evolve. We're already having conversations with Creative
Scotland about what contribution we can make economically as much as
artistically, and eventually Pitlochry festival Theatre might come to
look like one of the big North American theatre festivals.”

Durnin retains the same quietly evangelical fervour about the
possibilities for Pitlochry as when he first arrived. If anything, his
experience over the last eight years has made that drive even stronger.

“This is an organisation unlike any other,” Durnin says, “and it does
take a long time to understand it and adapt. You almost have to learn a
brand new methodology before you can learn the creative possibilities
that exist here. When I first came here, right from the word go I
wanted to introduce a musical theatre strand into the programme.
Remarkably that had never been explored here, and it took a long time
to work out how we would do it. Now actors who play musical instruments
is an important component of our ensemble, and our production of Whisky
Galore is the single biggest selling show at Pitlochry ever, with Kiss
Me Kate the third best selling show ever. We've capitalised on that by
doing My Fair Lady, and in the rest of the programme as well, I think
all the plays are very much in the spirit of what Pitlochry was, is and
can be about. Pitlochry doesn't really do kitchen-sink. It tells big
stories that put an entire society onstage. That's when you see the
theatre at it's best.”

Pitlochry Festival Theatre's 60th Anniversary Season opens on May 13th
with My Fair Lady.
www.pitlochry.org.uk

ends

Pitlochry Festival Theatre's 60th Anniversary Season opens on May 13th
and runs until October 15th. The season will run in repertoire as each
play opens, with all evening performances at 8pm, and matinees on
Thursdays and Saturdays at 2pm.

My Fair Lady – opens May 13th, 8pm
John Durnin directs an ensemble of eighteen actor-musicians in Lerner
and Loewe's adaptation of Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion in which
Professor of phonetics Henry Higgins attempts to teach cockney flower
girl Eliza Doolittle to talk proper and introduce her to society to win
a bet. Featuring show-stopping numbers I Could've Danced All Night, Get
Me To the Church On time and stalker's anthem On The Street Where You
Live, Durnin's production continues PFT's policy of introducing
musicals into the programme following hits with Whisky Galore and Kiss
Me Kate

Henceforward... - opens May 19th, 2pm
Ken Alexander directs the first Alan Ayckbourn play to grace the PFT
repertoire for four years. This dark oddity dates from 1987, and was
Ayckbourn's thirty-fourth full-length work, and the first to lean
towards science-fiction, as it leaps into a future where an avant-garde
composer best known for a TV commercial jingle attempts to sort out his
domestic strife and gain custody of his daughter with the aid of an out
of work actress and a female robot.

See How They Run! - opens May26th, 2pm
Richard Baron directs Philip King's World War Two-set farce, which was
first seen at PFT in 1956. Set in the idyllic village of
Merton-cum-Middlewick in 1942, King's merry dance of a plot involves a
new vicar, his actress wife and a host of imposters in dog-collars en
route to watch a Noel Coward play in a very English romp that is
tailor-made summertime fare.

Trelawny of The 'Wells' – opens June 2nd, 2pm
John Durnin directs the only major Pinero play to have yet been seen on
the PFT stage, and it's yet another consciously theatrical
dressing-up-box of a play, as the rising star of Sadler's Wells
attempts to fit in with more conventional Victorian society while her
world is turned upside down even further as onstage melodrama gives way
to voguish realism.

Privates on Parade – opens July 14th, 2pm
Richard Baron directs Peter Nichols' post World War Two costume party
romp in a version updated by Nichols in 2001 from his 1977 original.
Based on Nichols' own experience in service with the likes of Stanley
Baxter and set among the doyens of The Song And Dance Unit South East
Asia, expect Marlene Dietrich impersonators, Fred and Ginger routines
in the last days of the British empire.

Dr Angelus – opens August 17th, 8pm
To commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of playwright James Bridie's
death that coincides with PFT's own anniversary, Ken Alexander directs
Bridie's little-performed 1947 black comedy. Set in Glasgow in 1920
among the very peculiar practice of the title character, a new quack in
town becomes increasingly bewildered by his new attachment in a work
made famous by Alastair Sim's bravura turn.

The Herald, April 26th 2011

ends

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