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Feature: Spotlight on Adam Penford

Posted on 15 April 2014 by Tom Powell

You probably won’t know the name of the director Adam Penford. But it’s pretty likely you or someone you know will see something of his work this year. Because Penford’s productions have that highly coveted attribute – they’re being seen by thousands upon thousands of people. As we speak, his revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1987 hit A Small Family Business is running on the National’s cavernous Olivier stage, and he’s about to commence rehearsing a touring version of One Man Two Guv’nors. Not bad, especially as his route to the metaphorical director’s chair started seemingly by accident: “I’d applied to five English courses, and on a bit of a last minute whim applied to LIPA, the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts. I got a place to study acting but as soon as I got there I realised I didn’t want to be an actor.”

We speak on the phone, and he’s unrelentingly warm, personable, and sincerely tries to answer each question. It’s easy to imagine him in a rehearsal room, speaking in the same considered manner. “I knew I wanted to work in theatre, but I didn’t know in what capacity – I knew I didn’t want to work on the technical side, so I suppose that meant I assumed I’d be an actor…” He laughs gently. “I must have been a very very naive 18-year-old because I didn’t really think about what other artistic roles there are.”

Two contrasting experiences of working with professional directors at LIPA – one incredible, one, erm, a bit less so – ignited and then sustained his desire to direct. Which has taken him to where he is now, overseeing Ayckbourn’s ASFB . What’s it like working with the most popular living British playwright?

Penford hesitates for a second. “You get summoned up to Scarborough, where Alan lives, to have lunch – I think all directors who do his work in the UK have to do that – and it’s basically a getting to know you lunch, but you suspect there’s a little bit of sussing out involved.” Enthusiasm gushes from his voice. “But he’s lovely, really lovely.”

It was intimidating, too, to be working on the infamous “arena stage” of the Olivier. “It’s an incredibly hard space to work in. The one thing I held on to was that Alan had specifically written it for the Olivier in 1986/87 so we knew that it had worked. But for a long time I wasn’t sure how. For a time the temptation would be for the actors to play it out – like you would if you’re in the cast of King Lear  – but what we discovered once we’d got on stage with the design was that Alan had been incredibly clever – what he’d essentially done was divided that huge space into little boxes, i.e. rooms in the house and that allows you to play it much more intimately. It took me and the creatives and the actors until we did the tech with the actual set to realise that, of course, Alan knew what he was doing.”

The play is arguably more than a domestic drama – perhaps more than other Ayckbourn plays, ASFB is steeped in its own history. It’s a play about an honest man’s choice between his integrity and protecting his family. The family, of course, are up to their eyeballs in furniture retail – a small family business. Mark Ravenhill called it the most important political play of the 1980s, and as I saw Ayckbourn interviewed on stage at the NT Platform before ASFB, the night before this interview, he’s aware and more than a little proud of how it’s been seen as a response to Thatcherism – to a culture of unfettered greed, selfishness and individualism.

Surely this resonates with the current social and political climate? “I think when Nick [Hytner] programmed it, he was certainly aware of that. You could argue that socially it’s deteriorated or that it’s just become the norm. But more than the sort of headline grabbing stuff, it’s the little things that during rehearsals kind of popped out at us – just on a very personal level – it’s…” Penford pauses to grasp for words, and then gives us his own take: “We’re all primarily programmed to be selfish, because we’re all programmed to survive, and so I think even on a personal level rather than on a big headline level, it remains relevant.”

“But I think, as with most Morality Plays, the issues it raises are timeless. Jack’s choice is between leaving his family vulnerable or taking action, he opts for the latter as I think most people would in theory. And whilst most people would condemn murder or drugs smuggling, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when you as an audience member would have made the opposite choice to Jack. The message of the play is deliberately not as straightforward as some commentators think it is and that is still the case today.”

Depending on where you stand – the stalls or the gods – Ayckbourn is viewed as a national treasure or as a purveyor of middle-brow, middle-class stuff. Penford is firmly in the former camp, and explains the latter as because, “Alan’s work, even the darker stuff, is effortlessly amusing and usually about ordinary people and there is a snobbery around that. Also, there is an idea of tortured artists slaving away for years to achieve their single masterpiece and Alan’s quantity of work (70 something plays) doesn’t fit that image.” He acknowledges that bad productions have taken their toll as well.

His advice for young directors draws directly from his own experience. “The first thing is that there is no set route. Look at any successful director, and they will have a different route.” His own breakthrough came in doing a course at the National Theatre Studio in 2009 – I get the impression that since then he’s been under the wing of Nick Hytner. Penford speaks incredibly warmly of Nick, and of Alan, with much more sincerity than someone who simply knows which way their bread is buttered.

Our time’s up. He’s off. To direct yet another massive play.

Adam Penford will be talking about A Small Family Business at the National Theatre on 15 April at 6pm. A Small Family Business plays at the National Theatre until 27 August. One Man, Two Guv’nors will be touring to over 30 cities in the UK and Ireland and opens in Sheffield in 12 May.

Tom Powell

Tom Powell

Tom's dramatic writing has won the National Radio Drama Award, and the Cambridge Footlights' Harry Porter Prize. He is a co-founder of PinchVanishProductions and an Associate Director of Dippermouth. He is currently enrolled in the Writing for Performance MA at Goldsmiths.

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Review: One Man Two Guvnors

Posted on 21 March 2012 by Eleanor Turney

One Man Two Guvnors, Owain Arthur

I didn’t think the National’s production of One Man Two Guvnors  could be bettered. I am delighted to say I was wrong: the new incarnation at the Haymarket surpasses the comic heights of the original, and provides a truly wonderful evening’s entertainment.

Owain Arthur, stepping into James Corden’s role as the ever-hungry Francis, was always going to have big shoes to fill – and fill them he did. Comparisons with Corden’s brilliant and likeable Francis are inevitable, and, if pushed, I’d say that Arthur just pips Corden to the post. Arthur’s tumbling, ad libbing and comic timing were superb, and he mugs fantastically when things don’t go quite to plan: “this is the glittering lights of London’s West End, not panto!” he cries at one point. He’s right, but the constant wry asides to the audience, the fart jokes and the brilliantly choreographed slapstick all owe a certain something to the antics of a panto. This is slicker than the average panto but it wears its mastery lightly; it never feels too clever or over-rehearsed, rather the comedy often comes from the slight air of unpredictability hovering over proceedings – and flickering across Arthur’s mobile face.

Ben Mansfield is blissfully funny as Stanley, a man so posh as to be almost incomprehensible. He expostulates frequently and nonsensically – “Oh, soggy biscuits!” – and is an absolute master of the double entendre. And the single entendre, come to that. It’s not often one hears talk of ahem, “buggering the dolphin” on a night out… Mansfield’s Stanley does not make boarding school sound like a whole lot of fun. Mansfield has the gift of the ad-lib, reducing Arthur to helpless giggles at least twice, and his nonsensical witterings left me crying with laughter.

Richard Bean’s script is still sharp, although it relies a little too heavily on the talents on the cast to keep the laughs coming, and it barrels along at quite a pace despite coming in at nearly three hours. The music, provided by skiffle band ‘The Craze’ and various cast members, is perfect; it manages to be evocative of the setting (1960s Brighton) while remaining witty and musically interesting. Snazzy purple suits, too. Jodie Prenger, of I’d Do Anything fame, has a lovely voice which she is not given enough chance to use, and enviable curves which she is given slightly too many chances to wriggle. Her singing is rather better than her acting, but she puts in a decent turn as Arthur’s love interest and sassy women’s-libber.

This production feels like more of a team effort than the run at the National; although Arthur is superb, he is matched by the other talents onstage and works with them. Again, Mansfield is particularly brilliant – the two men stand out in a strong cast. This is a blissfully funny evening, and one I cannot recommend highly enough. Go.

One Man Two Guvnors is currently booking at the Haymarket Theatre until 1 September.

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney is the Managing Editor of A Younger Theatre, as well as a freelance journalist, writer and editor. She has written for The Guardian, The Stage, The FT and Ideas Tap, and worked for the Poetry Society and the British Council.

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Round Up: 2011

Posted on 31 December 2011 by Jessica Wilson

2011 has seen an abundance of productions start, continue and end their theatrical journeys. There have been shows that have received a facelift, with a new cast heading for a different venue (One Man, Two Guvnors for example – read our review here). Across the country, fringe theatre has responded to the social climate and added context to existing plays as with the Lyric Hammersmith’s production of Edward Bond’s Saved (read our article about the show here and our review here). In doing so, new benchmarks for theatre in 2012 may well have been set.

One of the most prominent and admirable ventures this year was the Old Vic 24 Hour Plays. 2011 marked the project’s eighth anniversary as 31 actors, seven directors, seven producers and seven writers worked through the night and following day to create seven short plays all written, learnt, directed and produced in just 24 hours. This challenge culminated in a unique evening of performance on the Old Vic’s celebrated stage (see what we thought here or relive the experience vicariously with our Editor’s live blog). Sat at home, we can only imagine the dedication of these intense theatre-makers. It indicates, however, the wealth of achievement to be found elsewhere during 2011.

Following a sell-out season at the Courtyard Theatre, the Cambridge Theatre hosted the West End transfer of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda The Musical. 2011 has seen much debate concerning innovative musicals and those adapted from a film or novel. Despite this, Matilda The Musicalwas nominated for a total of nine WhatsOnStage Awards and its booking period has been extended until October 2012 (read our verdict here). Yet the recipe for theatrical success is still unclear and adaptation does not automatically make for great theatre: @SusanElkinJourn found her least favourite theatrical experience of 2011 to be “Roald Dahl’s Twisted Tales at Lyric Hammersmith and the best being Matilda. Odd that they’re linked by Dahl” (see what Editor Jake Orr thought of Twisted Tales here). The Royal Shakespeare Company was also supported by @leenahassan‘s appreciation of their revival of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. She additionally tweeted support for Shakespeare’s Richard III and Edward Hall’s Comedy of Errors at the National Theatre. @TimSim85 and A Younger Theatre’s Editor @jakeyoh loved One Man, Two Guvnors, with @Audreydirector also advocating London Road, which were both performed at the National Theatre. Despite some resistance to As You Like It, the National Theatre produced the goods through alternative productions. For both @AmeliaHockey and @LaurenCaddick, Frankenstein was a clear favourite – “just brilliant”.

Additional Twitter responses to the theatre highs and lows of 2011 focused less on commercial and mainstream productions, instead with a view to support the well-known in ‘smaller’ venues and debuting productions. A Younger Theatre’s Web Editor @eleanorturney tweeted for Richard II, and @Cpt_Shortbread’s best was Cinderella, both of which played at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol, whereas @Cpt_Shortbread’s worst was “perhaps Evita at Bath”. A multitude of Shakespeare productions – aside from the success of the Royal Shakespeare Company – received much praise. @John_murphy1 and @millingtonbell both saw Othello at the Sheffield Crucible, with @millingtonbell also praising the German Hamlet production at the Barbican Centre. @PascaleKasirabo thought As You Like It at the Rose Theatre in Kingston “was thrilling… a splendid job!” Conversely, Twelfth Night at the National Theatre was the “driest production of Shakespeare ever!” to @roseannanna. The Barbican Centre’s programming won support through Lullaby, which turned the Pit into a communal bedroom for the audience, with @johnhunter calling it “snoozily brilliant!”

The best theatre of 2011 was incredibly diverse and to be found up and down the country, not just in London. Yet we see mixed responses to various Clockwork Orange productions across the UK: @teddyfizz felt the “worst Clockwork Orange” was the version at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, whereas for @PascaleKasirabo, the Volcano Theatre Company’s version at the Gulbenkian Theatre in Canterbury was “pretty impressive. Acting, Staging and script!” He consequently saw the show numerous times and always “left the theatre with a smile”.

There was much positivity elsewhere on Twitter for Bound by Bear Trap Theatre. The company has won numerous awards preceding their upcoming tour of the production throughout 2012. Put simply by @LondonFarmBoy, “my favourite play of the year has to be Bound [at the Southwark Playhouse]… moved me like no other”. The Young Company at the Southwark Playhouse, @YoCoSwkPlay, also loved Bound from this multi-award-winning international touring company. Bear Trap Theatre was copiously praised by Lyn Gardner in The Guardian online following their performance at the Edinburgh Festival 2010, indicating the abundant talent of the festival  through their approach to simplistic theatre. As a result of their success within 2010, Bear Trap Theatre made their way into Top 10 plays of 2011, including that compiled by The Spectator. @tessagillett tweeted her best theatre of 2011, naming “Bound by Bear Trap Theatre…and Fela! – Totally different but both totally brilliant”. Here, the sheer contrast between favoured productions indicates the diverse range that have won audiences’ hearts throughout 2011.

Not all productions that premiered in fringe venues were received positively however. Whilst @EveNicol and @teddyfizz placed Tender Napalm first along with Happy Days in the Art World, the worst @EveNicol  saw “was fringe stuff I’d feel terrible naming and shaming”. By its very nature, fringe theatre is the ideal birthing ground for both the incredible and the dire. For example, @sundancemckid felt The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart “was the only halfway memorable play I saw this year”. For Editor @jakeyoh, “thinking of worst…I’d rather not name. Mostly fringe work”.

Away from the mainstream, fringe theatre and festival productions have gone on to great heights from original incarnations, but many have also flopped following the unique starting opportunities provided by fringe springboards. With the alternative view of fringe as a platform for new and innovative work to be performed, can fringe work be placed under such scrutiny in a predominantly test-tube environment? However, without criticisms and critics alike, there may be no hope to develop fringe theatre further in 2012.

With the good, the bad and the downright ridiculous highs and lows from 2011, 2012 is sure to have a whole host of theatrical extravaganzas in store for us. Happy New Year!

Image credit: bayasaa

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