Aberdeen Arts Centre can’t get rid of Derek Anderson. This should become clear when the curtain goes up on his production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s musical, Company, next month. Featuring an array of West End musical theatre veterans rarely sighted this far north, Anderson’s third show at Aberdeen Arts Centre following productions of Cabaret and The Pillowman marks a prodigal’s return that puts both the director and the venue itself squarely in the spotlight.
“After doing the first two shows, what the Board at Aberdeen Arts Centre liked about Company is that, like the others, audiences will maybe feel challenged by the work in ways that don’t happen so much these days. Company totally fits in with their remit in that way.”
Company first appeared on Broadway in 1970 after Sondheim was approached by actor Anthony Perkins, who asked him to read a set of eleven short plays by Furth. Sondheim in turn passed them on to producer Harold Prince, who first mooted the idea of using the plays as the basis for a musical. The result was a compendium of vignettes that focused on the life and loves of Bobby, a swinging bachelor on the cusp of middle-age and unable to commit to a steady relationship, but who has three girlfriends while the five couples who are his best friends get on with their assorted marriages. The show’s candid depiction of some of its era’s grown-up concerns broke the mould of musical theatre, and went on to win five Tony awards.
“It’s quite fluid,” says Anderson. “It jumps around in terms of where we are in the story, and isn’t what you’d normally get in musical theatre. There are no happy ever afters, so it ends without any real kind of resolution. It doesn’t hold back in challenging the audience, which makes it quite thrilling to be working on something so open to interpretation, but quite scary as well.”
Company is Anderson’s second go at doing a piece by Sondheim, following the director’s professional debut with a production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. That was in 2014, with the awards it picked up vindicating Anderson’s lifelong love affair with musical theatre. It was affair which began at Hazlehead Academy, the Aberdeen school renowned for a drama department that also gifted current Call the Midwife star Laura Main to the world.
Aged fourteen, Anderson started doing work experience at Aberdeen Arts Centre. He later graduated to working front of house, then behind the bar. While still only in his late teens, he was already putting on shows of his own before moving to London to study drama at Mountview. He worked backstage on various shows until he convinced producer David Adkin to let him try his luck directing Sweeney Todd in what he calls “a baptism of fire.”
When those in charge of Aberdeen Arts Centre got wind that a local boy was behind the show, their plans to develop the 350-seat venue as a producing house seemed a perfect match.
“I thought they were joking,” says Anderson, “but I bit their hand off. Part of their thinking behind it is the fact that Dundee, Pitlochry and Perth all have these vibrant producing houses outside the central belt, and wondering why Aberdeen doesn’t have that.”
This isn’t the first time such an initiative has been attempted in the city. A decade ago, His Majesty’s Theatre, then under the tenure of Duncan Hendry, produced a trilogy of stage adaptations of classic Scottish novels, all directed by the late Kenny Ireland. Productions of Alastair Cording’s version of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, and adaptations of Neil M Gunn’s The Silver Darlings and Robin Jenkins’ The Cone Gatherers, both adapted by Peter Arnott, followed in successive years. While Hendry moved on to run Edinburgh’s King’s and Festival Theatres, Anderson worked on all three Aberdeen shows.
“I got a small job working backstage,” he says, “but not everyone’s that lucky. Growing up in Aberdeen, if you’re desperately wanting to pursue a theatre carer like I did, there’s not enough work goes on in Aberdeen at the moment to be able to develop or sustain any kind of career here, and it’s frustrating that you have to move away.”
Company may go some way to change all that. Working in tandem with Adkin once more, Anderson’s production of Company features a roll-call of West End musical talent. This is led by Oliver Savile, who plays Bobby. Savile’s credits include turns in Wicked, The Phantom of the Opera, Cats and Les Miserables. Also on board is Midlothian born Ashleigh Gray, who, as well as extensive London credits, appeared in the UK tour of Susan Boyle musical, I Dreamed a Dream, and toured with Boyle herself in the singer’s Scottish concert tour. The last time Gray performed in Aberdeen was when she played Elphaba in the UK tour of Wicked.
Company’s large cast also includes Arun Blair-Mangat, a veteran of Hairspray on tour and Kinky Boots in the West End. Blair-Mangat has also played the male title role in a tour of Romeo and Juliet, and appeared in Titus Andronicus at Shakespeare’s Globe. Last year he could be seen in Marianne Elliot’s epic revival of Tony Kushner’s two-part play, Angels in America. Completing Company’s frontline is Anita Louise Combe, who has previously toured the UK and Europe in Cats and appeared in Chicago on the West End.
“I’m so lucky to have a cast like this prepared to put their faith in a couple of kids like David and me and come up to Aberdeen when they could easily be playing much bigger venues,” Anderson says.
As for Aberdeen Arts Centre itself, “They’re very much looking ahead. This is just the start for them. We’re rehearsing Company in London just because everybody’s here, but eventually I think the people at the venue would like to change that as they grow into a producing house and bring more local people in. We had local musicians and actors in Cabaret, and there’s a long term plan to develop talent for the city as a whole and hopefully inspire a new generation of artists.”
By way of a start, Anderson and the Company cast will lead a series of workshops with young people, “helping them develop their talent. There’s a lot of us who left Aberdeen who’ve done well in, but there are a lot more who stopped doing it and gave up, just because there was nowhere in the city for them to go. We want to try and make sure that’s no longer the case.”
Could Anderson, the successful London director, ever see himself returning on a more permanent basis?
“If I could sustain enough work to live in Aberdeen,” he says, “I would.”
In the meantime, after just one day off once Company is up and running, Anderson jets out to Germany to begin work on his next show. This will be a production of Robert Adkins’ Tony winning play, Hand to God, presented by the English Theatre Frankfurt. As far as Company goes, Anderson will be leaving it in safe hands.
“To get a cast like this alone is a real coup. If I was still living in Aberdeen and wanting to see stuff, I’d be blown away by a cast like this. To see them as well in such a rarely performed musical as Company is a great opportunity for audiences. It’s the sort of work you don’t often get in Aberdeen, especially in such an intimate house. In my opinion it’s also one of the greatest musicals ever written.”
Company, Aberdeen Arts Centre, February 1-10.
The Herald, January 19th 2018