A pick and mix ethos has always pervaded at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, which opens its annual summer season this weekend with an all singing, all dancing production of Kander and Ebb’s musical, Chicago. As pretty much the only old-school repertory company in the UK, over the next five months, the resident ensemble of seventeen actors will move between six different productions performed in rotation.
This year will also mark the first season since the departure of John Durnin, who, over his fifteen years as artistic director, attempted to push the perceptions of what was possible in PFT’s riverside auditorium. This has included the introduction of a large-scale musical to open each season, as well as initiating a new autumn strand. Durnin also introduced a Christmas show into the programme. As if to illustrate the enticing range of work on show, this season, programmed by Durnin before his departure, even features a play called Quality Street.
The original plan was that J.M Barrie’s little-known play would be directed by Richard Baron, whose association with the theatre go back more than twenty years. Baron’s early productions at PFT included Giles Havergal’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel, Travels With My Aunt, and a memorable look at Eugene O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Durnin’s departure has seen Baron taking over Chicago, which the outgoing director had originally earmarked for himself.
With Baron also stepping up to direct Tom Stoppard’s play, Travesties, and The Last Witch by Rona Munro, Quality Street will now be directed by Liz Carruthers. Gemma Fairlie, who was drafted in by Durnin for the new associate director’s post at PFT, will direct Jim Cartwright’s play, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, as well as Rodney Ackland’s dramatization of W. Somerset Maugham’s short story, Before the Party. Fairlie will also oversee this year’s Christmas production of The Wizard of Oz, as well as working on PFT’s youth and community engagement. Despite the reshuffles, this all sounds pretty much business as usual for the Pitlochry Festival Theatre machine.
“The logistics of things certainly haven’t changed,” says Baron, referring to the scheduling gymnastics of programming a season of six shows which have to be rehearsed alongside each other. “There’s a set way of getting things on in order for audiences to be able to see six shows in a week. Obviously, John decided what shows were going to be in the programme, and since he left, the entire company has rallied round to make everything work as smoothly as it normally does. The only real change for me is to be doing a big musical like Chicago.”
As with most of the musicals staged by PFT, Chicago is more usually seen on the celebrity-friendly commercial touring circuit. This is where the company can take advantage of having such a large acting ensemble.
“We’ve also got the biggest band we’ve ever had on the Pitlochry stage,” Baron says of his production of the prohibition era musical, “When it was first done in the 1970s, it was written as a response to Watergate. Then when it was updated in 1996, it came out while the O.J. Simpson trial was going on. It’s all about celebrity in America, and is deeply satirical.”
Music and drama combine again for The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, Cartwright’s drama about a young woman who finds salvation through song. Fairlie’s production follows on from PFT’s 2013 take on another Cartwright play, Two.
While PFT has a long history of producing work by J.M. Barrie, Quality Street is something of a neglected classic.
“It was hugely popular in its day,” says Baron, “so much so that the chocolates were named after it, but it’s a play that’s almost forgotten about now. Part of that is to do with the large cast required to do it, but it’s very much a strong play for women.”
Travesties will mark something of a reunion for Baron with Stoppard’s Zurich-based play featuring novelist James Joyce, Dadaist Tristan Tzara and Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin.
“It was the first play I ever directed when I was a trainee director at the Lyceum in Edinburgh,” Baron says. “About ten years later I did it again at Nottingham Playhouse. It’s a play about revolution and modern art, and Stoppard uses every theatrical trick in the book with it.”
Baron describes Before the Party as “a John Durnin discovery.” Rodney Ackland’s adaptation of a short story by W. Somerset Maugham looks at “how the English middle class responded to the Second World War. It’s a fascinating discovery, that has a very dark heart to it.”
The final show to open will be The Last Witch, Rona Munro’s historical drama, which was first produced by the Traverse as part of the 2009 Edinburgh International Festival. This revival continues another Durnin initiative, of doing plays by living Scottish writers. It also marks a brand new partnership between PFT and Firebrand Theatre Company, the Borders-based company which has adopted a similar policy of taking a fresh look at contemporary Scottish work which may have only received one production before falling out of view.
While Firebrand was co-founded and is run by Ellie Zeegan and Janet Coulson, Baron is the company’s director of productions, and will take his PFT/Firebrand production on tour to the Tron Theatre in Glasgow and the Traverse, Edinburgh.
“We’re all very keen for Pitlochry to connect with the rest of the Scottish theatre scene,” says Baron, “and Firebrand working with Pitlochry connects up two parts of the country, as well as opening up opportunities to do a different range of plays by Scottish writers.”
Baron directed a revival of Munro’s women’s prison-set play, Iron, for Firebrand, and recently oversaw her Northern Irish Troubles-based piece, Bold Girls, at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow.
“Rona Munro pointed out to me recently that I’m the director who’s done her work the most,” says Baron, “but that’s only three shows, which I think demonstrates how few revivals there are of contemporary Scottish plays. That’s something both Firebrand and Pitlochry would like to see change.”
Until a metaphorical white puff of smoke appears alongside the announcement of who will be Durnin’s successor at PFT, Baron will have the best of all worlds. While he is overseeing the theatre’s new season, he appears to have ruled himself out of taking over on a permanent basis.
“I think I’m better as a freelancer,” he says. “It will obviously be interesting to see who takes over, so I can give them all my support. I’ve been an associate director at Dundee, Perth and Nottingham, and I’ve always watched the various artistic directors with admiration. It’s a very different job, and for me the important thing is directing the work itself without having to look after all the other stuff. A freelancer like me is a lucky chap who gets to nip in and do what they want to do and then go away again.”
Baron will be nipping in and out of Pitlochry a lot over the next few months.
“I think out of all the seasons I’ve worked on, this one is probably the most challenging,” he says. “It stretches what the company can do to the absolute limit. To see seventeen different actors take on such an array of different artforms, styles and genres, it’s an extraordinary achievement. Logistically, apart from anything else, it’s extraordinary, but to then apply such a range of different acting styles to the material is astonishing. I’m in awe of the actors’ ability, especially as sometimes there can be a ten-day gap between doing a show again.
“The Quality Street analogy is a good one. They’re all wrapped in nice shiny paper, but when you unwrap them you discover that they’ve all got different flavours. Some are crunchy, and some are sweeter than others, and hopefully what you’re left with is a box of theatrical delights.”
Chicago opens Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s 2018 season on May 25. The season runs until October 20.
The Herald, May 22nd 2018