Brief Encounter With … Willy Russell

A playwright, novelist, composer and (occasional) performer, Willy Russell’s plays and musicals include Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine, (both are currently playing in Rep as part of a revival in London) Breezeblock Park, Stags and Hens, John Paul George Ringo and Bert, One For The Road and Blood Brothers. For the screen he has written Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine, Dancin’ Thru The Dark, Our Day Out, One Summer, The Daughters Of Albion and Terraces. His novel, The Wrong Boy, is to be adapted for the screen. Along with fellow playwright and performer Tim Firth, Willy Russell  wrote and performed In Other Words and The Singing Playwrights, both shows featuring songs from his album, Hoovering The Moon. Although constantly and widely produced throughout the world, Russell continues to live and work in Liverpool where his latest stage work, Our Day Out – The Musical, will open for a seven -week run at the Royal Court Theatre in August 2010.

What do you feel makes Our Day Out so popular?
That is a difficult question and one I feel is best answered by critics and audience members. But I believe it to be popular because it can touch the human heart and spirit. It has a universality that engages many sets of people, rather than just a narrow audience. I try to make theatre for everybody.

This piece originally began as a play. Seeing as the adaptation has proved to be advantageous, would you be tempted to add music to any of your other plays?
There has been talk of Stags and Hens being turned into a musical, but I am not itching to go back to the idea. The film version of the play Dancin’ Thru The Dark had music in that. I can’t really see plays like Shirley Valentine as a musical. There is a possibility of doing One Summer (the television series on Channel Four) on the stage, not necessarily as a musical, but with music in it. I do love the use of music in the theatre- it makes it exhilarating and visceral, and that’s what theatre should be. Music will touch you in ways that the spoken word can’t.

How do you feel that The Royal Court compliments the production?
It is a wonderful theatre to work with, as everything that is made in the box office goes straight back into production. It is a big theatre, so if it is as successful as last year, it could earn back the hefty production costs. We aim to have the same production values as a number one Broadway or West End show.

Blood Brothers returns to the Empire in Liverpool in November. Is there something special for you personally to see the play returned to its hometown?
Yes, it is all special in Liverpool. It is where Blood Brothers was first seen, albeit not at the Empire itself. The Liverpool audience treats it as their own, which is a lovely compliment!

Melanie C is treading the boards as the latest Mrs J. What are your opinions of her interpretation of the role? Does she bring something new to the character?
It was inspired casting. Mel has had to deal with prejudice in some quarters, with comments like ‘She was a Spice Girl- how could she possible be in the West End?’ Gloriously, she has proven it all wrong and has rightly been called ‘sensational’ by the critics. Every different actor will bring their own set of skills and their own uniqueness and Mel’s no different than the other terrific singers.

Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine are now back in London at The Trafalgar Studios. Did your ability to write about strong female protagonists come from your time as a hairdresser with female clients and have any of your customers’ stories inspired your writing?
No, not directly, unlike Our Day Out. As a young teacher, I went on a school trip very similar to that! I wasn’t a good hairdresser, so I compensated by being a good listener. I suppose it encouraged empathy and feeling for a feminine view of the world, but I was never conscious that I was writing about women- it just happened. I was just desperate to write a play.

Finally, what project is next on the cards for you?
I have been so busy in the last twelve months- the last six, in particular- flipping three shows, with all of their rehearsals. There is nothing planned for the immediate future. I would like to gather my wits and (dare I say it?!) take a holiday, where I can wander, think and let my brain roll around some ideas. A day is not a satisfactory day without me doing some form of work.

Willy Russell was speaking to Rebecca Cohen.

Our Day Out is at the Royal Court in Liverpool from 27 August – 9 October. This is followed by Blood Brothers at the Liverpool Empire from 8 – 20 November. Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita are currently playing at the Trafalgar Studios in London until 30 October.

** DON’T MISS our exclusive Whatsonstage.com Outing to Educating Rita on 2 September 2010 including a FREE programme, FREE drink and our EXCLUSIVE post-show Q&A – click here for details! We’re also running an Outing to Shirley Valentine – including FREE programme, FREE drink and our EXCLUSIVE Q&A with Meera Syal – on Thursday 26 August 2010 – click here for details! **