Alastair Whatley on Original Theatre and Three Men in a Boat
I set up the company in one of those long and languorous summer holidays between one's second and third year of university. It is almost seven years to the day that I coined the name Original Theatre in my little student flat; ambitions in the first year began very modestly with a small scale outdoor tour planned for the following summer (2005).
Over the course of the next 12 months, I set up a production of Twelfth Night that played at 22 venues ranging from the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith's Studio to the Edinburgh Festival to school halls and Accrington Stanley football club. The story of that first year is probably best left to a book, which would no doubt, in the words of Twelfth Night‘s Fabian: “be considered an improbable fiction”.
For now, let's just say that I learnt a lot of hard lessons which I've made sure not to repeat. The aim, however, was always to produce top-quality theatre and tour it as extensively as possible. We've refined this since then of course, but I'd say that seven years on we still work to that same blueprint – built out of the idealism and passion of my student years. We've travelled literally half-way to the moon since 2005, but I hope we still hold true to those guiding principles of inclusive access to the arts.
What are the advantages – and disadvantages, if any – of being Suffolk-based?
The simple answer is that being based in Suffolk means a lot of travelling. We work mainly in the south-east which often necessitates daily commutes of six hours – maybe more. Yet I have firmly resisted the seemingly sensible suggestion of moving to London. The advantage to being Suffolk-based is simply that that is where our home is. Even if we're all touring and don't see it for weeks on end, we are and have always been a Suffolk company.
We try and come back as often as we feasibly can – even when we cannot match our programme with the local theatres we have managed to find a way. From performing in a pub garden in Hawkedon in 2007 to the Abbey Gardens in Bury St Edmunds from 2005-2007, and at the Bury Theatre Royal and Ipswich New Wolsey Theatre in 2010.
Last autumn we found a way to bring our production of See How They Run into a sports hall at a local school in Bury, totally transforming it into a 1940s vicarage. It turned out to be one of the most daring, audacious, financially demanding and inspiring things I think we have ever done. One of those memories that all those who saw it and were part of it will never forget, We hope to be bringing our next production back to Ipswich and are looking hard at ways of tying in with our local theatres on a more regular and sustainable basis.
Which past Original productions are those of which you've been most proud?
All 14 productions are intensely personal, and each one has a provided memories that will long stay with me, but if I had to pick I would say Dancing at Lughnasa and Journey's End stand out.
Dancing at Lughnasa in 2011 brought together the most wonderful cast and crew in a play that simply took my breath away on a nightly basis. In the course of the four months which we toured the country with the production I fell deeply in love with Brian Friel's writing, the play's heady blend of nostalgia, memory and brutal reality along with our great team just produced something which I remain very proud of.
Journey's End in 2010 again brought together a unique, eccentric and diverse group of lads. Again we had the joy of working on a really demanding and brilliant piece of writing; the tour was very different to all other tours before or since. The whole company became a family and the bond created still exists I think with all of us.
We created something that we all felt very passionate about and we had an absolute riotous time off stage. One of those rare occasions when a harmony is found on every aspect of a production – we spent our final night of the tour in a caravan park in Rhyl in North Wales with the full company aged between 18 and 65 all celebrating and saying goodbye. Very happy memories.
How did you come to choose "Three Men in a Boat for this new touring production?
It’s a book I first read at school. I remember rather vividly laughing out loud amidst the commuters on my daily train journey to school. It has always been an ambition to produce it for the stage, but I couldn’t find the right slot – or indeed the right version – to make it happen previously. Our last production (Our Country's Good) had a large cast of ten actors which was wonderful, but made it hard to make ends meet financially in the current climate.
Three Men in a Boat was suggested by my then assistant director Craig Gilbert this time last year while rehearsing for Twelfth Night and considering what would play would follow. He offered to adapt it and talked me through his vision for the play as an homage to a wide and broad comic tradition celebrating England's comedic heritage whilst still rooting it firmly in Jerome's writing and characters.
Furthermore we have found a huge appetite for the book and for the characters which I hope means we have an existing audience as well as material that I think offers a real universal appeal to first-time theatre goers and those unfamiliar with the book. What’s more, there is a smaller cast which appeals to the producer in me at a time when money is tighter than ever.
There have been other adaptations of the book quite recently? How does yours differ?
Without giving too much away, I think we have managed to find a really fresh way of telling this story that I hope treads the line between a reverence and respect for the book whilst at the same time being wholly anarchic and irreverent in our approach to it and indeed with our story-telling.
It is like nothing we have ever put on the stage before and I am both hugely excited and naturally nervous about seeing how audiences will respond. There is always great pressure in taking on characters and material held in such affection by so many people. Yet you have to try and cast this aside and just tell the story with your own voice and trust that your audience will follow you.
Without giving away too many surprises then, what's unusual about this production?
Well...I can say that it features a wonderful lady pianist who also ends up getting involved in the action on stage... that we have set the production in a working pub... and that three walking sticks may end up upstaging all of us... Beyond that you'll just have to fill in the gaps and see the finished production for yourself!
What are Original's future plans?
In December we go into rehearsals for the first-ever touring production of Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong in an adaptation by Rachel Wagstaff. The show is touring for eight months all over the country and we are already working intensely on the project. Another adaptation of a truly loved and revered book, the pressure is already mounting – our ambitions for the staging are epic and we are trying to find ways of making that work in 28 different theatres across the UK. If we can pull it off, it's going to be a production that will stay with the audiences who see it for a long, long time...