I’ve know Brian Hook for many years, we worked together at the Manchester Palace Theatre doing front of house (don’t we all do that job at some point?) From day one it was clear to see that he had a huge passion for this industry, I guess that’s what got us talking and why we have remained friends. He’s always had big ideas, so big that sometimes it was easy to dismiss him as a dreamer, I know when I first met him that’s what I thought, but that didn’t last long.
Brian was an actor working the fringe scene, he loved it and we would have long chats in the grand tier bar about what we were both doing and all things industry related. However not long after he informed me that he had a new business partner Louis Hartshorn, and was setting up a production company, he had no doubt in his mind that it was going to be big, he had big aspirations but unlike most had the talent and drive to back it up. We were working FOH at The Producers when Brian’s journey began.
After talking to an actor in the show (Robin Sebastian) it was suggested by him that Brian should meet a member of the crew who was of a similar mind set, that crew member was Louis Hartshorn and after a few pints in the now closed Cast Bar, things changed for the duo forever. However it was a drama at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival that sealed the deal when Hook and others managed to save a group of shows from falling through due to a venue going in to liquidation. Hartshorn enjoying success with his production of The Rat Pack watched from afar and on both returning to Manchester Hartshorn-Hook Productions was born.
“It was a two man team in a pokey bedroom at Louis mum's house. Though even in our naivety and youth our hopes were high and we took the job exceptionally seriously” says Hook. It was that drive that would turn them into the youngest West End producers only a few years later.
Brian’s passion is clear to see, I got a firsthand look at his dedication when he worked on one of my shows (Rage) as an actor. Whilst great fun to be in a room with he took the work very seriously and often offered advice (which was very much appreciated as we struggled to get the play to the level we wanted, something we only half realised when it finally get on stage). As an actor he got great reviews in the show, but you could always see that Brian was looking at all aspects of what we were doing, he finds this industry fascinating.
We all have dreams of getting a show to the West End but Brian and Louis never doubted it for a second, "Getting a show to the West End has been one of our long standing goals, it was on the wall of our office from day one. We had given ourselves a timescale of five years and yet have achieved it twice in three years." Hook recalls. Quite an impressive accomplishment for two young guys that met in a bar. Recently they enjoyed a profitable run of The Music of the Blues Brothers and next up for the team in the same venue is Woody Sez opening this month, this company are showing no signs of slowing down and the West End looks ready to embrace them.
“There is nothing on this earth that prepares you for the buzz of a sold out show, standing in the tech box of the Blues Brothers with a full house on their feet dancing and singing. One night we had kids from 11 to a great grandfather of 89 dancing in the aisles on the same row to a show we had created from scratch." says Hook.
Anyone can tell you that opening a show in London is terrifying and hard work, and it was no exception for them. "We faced challenges on a size and scale that we had never encountered before and our team knuckled down and worked hard. We are two of the youngest producers to have ever worked in this arena and the reasons are clear. It’s a harsh but rewarding environment.”
Hartshorn-Hook Productions is enjoying so much success in London and around the country because they have a special ingredient.... friendship which leads to a great working relationship.
“Our relationship is fantastic though personally we are very different people, described very memorably as 'the posh boy' and 'the pirate'. It’s an odd starting point going into business with someone you only met in a pub once before, though from day one there has been a level of trust and respect that has seen me table my life savings, take unfathomable risks and push each other further than either of us could imagine making it on our own”.
Both bring their own things to the table, this is very much an equal partnership, in Hook's words "Louis is very much the business head, he keeps a lid on the finances and steers the monetary ship, it’s my job to keep the company striving for the next big adventure, to see that the marketing works and that we continually develop our skill sets."
The company are not afraid to admit they’re commercial, knowing that their shows have to bring the money in as the money is coming out of their pockets, but whilst it may be commercial they still like to take chances. "Just because we are commercial theatre producers doesn't mean we settle for the easy heartless cash cows. We look for innovative, passionate and provocative shows or partners to work with, and then we just fit a model and a theatre around it."
Indeed, for every Blues Brothers to get the audience up and dancing there is a What’s Wrong With Angry and as long as the company stay diverse its clear to see that Brian and Louis could become big names on the theatre scene.
So what does the future hold for the local boys that have put themselves on the map?
"We are currently in pre production for the largest project we have ever undertaken. It’s a long way away from opening night but the show, is already drumming up a massive stir with everyone involved. It’s quite simply colossal." Amazingly the team have not forgotten their roots with hopes to return to the Edinburgh Fringe and Brian is also still very much acting with film projects coming up and has a list of shows he would love to produce.
I wish I could say I was shocked, surprised, blown away by the success that Brian has achieved as a producer, but I’m really not. I look at Brian and he reminds me a lot of me, someone who is hard working, dedicated and passionate about what he does, it’s because of that that Hartshorn-Hook Productions will steam ahead and keep climbing, because Brian and his business partner Louis live for and love this.
I look forward to seeing one of their productions back in Manchester, word has it that this may happen very soon. Yep, the boy did good!
Woody Sez opens at the Arts Theatre, London on 18 January (previews from 13 January 2011) where it plays until 2 April 2011.
- Craig Hepworth