We all enjoyed it so much both when it toured last year right through the run at London’s Gielgud Theatre that the cast – including its stars Alison Steadman and David Troughton wanted to take it on the road again. Alan Bennett set it in Leeds, yet the previous tour never went there. This time we’ve made sure that it does, though Bradford (for a variety of reasons) is the nearest we get to Leeds. It’s a work which perhaps didn’t make its full impression in 1984, as it didn’t seem then to fit in the sort of category Bennett’s plays were thought to slot into – a somewhat cosy one. It deals with a lot of difficult issues pretty unflinchingly, but always with humour.
You also have a new production of The History Boys on tour.
That’s proving to be another happy show. I’ve talked about it quite a lot to Bennett over time and it looks as though it will a success. Gerard Murphy is playing the Richard Griffiths part of the history teacher. I worked with him a lot when we were both acting with the RSC in the early 1990s. It’s one of those parts which it can be difficult to cast – like Falstaff. I’ve also been trawling the drama schools for young actors to play the school-boys; they needed to look young but be thoroughly trained. The ones cast are all excellent.
How do you find that regional audiences differ from London ones?
You get the best reactions these days from audiences when on tour. They’re enthusiastic, while the West End can be treacherous. You get full houses, when West End theatres can be only half-full. Mid-week matinees seem to be increasingly popular with playgoers of all types and ages; indeed performances at the beginning and in the middle of the week overall seem to attract more people than the traditionally more popular (and expensive) Friday and Saturday ones.
You also direct revues and musicals. How did that come about?
Well, I enjoy doing them. At the moment I’ve The Rocky Horror Show on tour – that’s a revival from 2006.And I’ve a new production of Spamalot on the road from April; both are for the Ambassadors Theatre Group. I think a got the taste when I did a Footlights revue at Cambridge and then later when I put together The Shakespeare Revue at the RSC. You get a big company, a band, lots of scenery as well. You must, of course, always have just as much respect for the text of a musical as for that of a straight play.
How did you switch from being an actor to becoming a director?
I had 17 years acting then The Shakespeare Revue came up. I’d put it together so it just seemed logical that I would direct it as well. Then I came across an almost unknown Noël Coward play – Star Quality – and directed that for Bill Kenwright. Somehow the buzz you get from acting was replaced from that you receive through controlling the whole show, not just one part of it. And once you’ve tasted forbidden fruit, you can never go back. I like working with actors and I think they like working with someone who knows what it’s like from their angle.
Apart from the Kenwright tour of Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime (with Kate O’Mara, Derren Nesbit and David Ross which is on until April) and is another revival? It would be The Merry Wives of Windsor at Shakespeare’s Globe which I first did there in 2008.
The History Boys is at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge from 8 to 20 March. at the Brighton Theatre Royal between 29 March and 3 April and at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 24 and 29 May. Enjoy is at the Theatre Royal, Norwich from 22 to 27 March.