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.