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Naomi Jones talks about "River Lane"

This new work by Tony Ramsay is a play with a difference, as its director Naomi Jones explains.

You've directed a number of productions for Eastern Angles over the past few years. What draws you to this company in particular?

Naomi Jones

Having started my career working with Max Stafford-Clark at Out of Joint, I have always been inspired by new writing. New work is the life-blood of theatre and I think it is crucial that this work continues to thrive across the country and not just in our major cities.

Eastern Angles is a company which not only supports new writing and new writers, but also ensures that audiences across East Anglia have access to this work. And producing new work is risky.

You don't have the safety blanket of a tried and tested script with a star name to ensure bums on seats, but what Eastern Angles have built up over the years is an audience which is loyal to the company name.

That audience trusts that work presented under the banner of Eastern Angles will be of high quality so its members are willing to take a risk and see a play they have never heard of!

Whilst there isn't a specifically an Eastern Angles "house style", as a company we tend to present work with a distinctly local flavour. I think there is something very special about telling stories about particular communities and producing that work within that same locale.  

What is special about River Lane?

Community plays are very special events, whatever script you have selected to perform. They bring together a diverse group of people with very different experiences of theatre and unite them in a shared enterprise of telling a story for an audience. Unlike established community theatre groups, the cast of River Lane have never worked together before.

The performers range in age from 11 to 76; some have been in three productions a year for the last 20 years, others have never been on stage before. We have singers and dancers and musicians and prop makers and seamstresses from all across the city of Peterborough and – come 8 May 2014 – they will have all contributed something vital to the production.

All these factors make River Lane a very special event and that's before even mentioning the script itself. River Lane as a play benefits hugely from Tony Ramsay's personal connection with the city of Peterborough. He grew up there and so the text is packed full of local references. It is teeming with recognisable people and places and the script zings with colour having been written from personal experiences.

I often describe it as a "love letter to Peterborough" and, although Tony has not ignored all the bad, the story is written from the heart and a note of warmth and nostalgia rings throughout the piece. And that is right for a community play. It was commissioned for the people of Peterborough to be performed by them to their community. It's right that the play is a celebration of the city, its past and its present.

Do you think the impact on its audiences will differ from that of other Eastern Angles productions you have directed? Why?

Definitely. The scale of this production is quite unlike anything I have directed for the company before. We will have 70 performers onstage in the finale, which includes 20 members of the Peterborough Gospel Choir. In these cash-strapped times, audiences are becoming increasingly accustomed to small-cast productions so there should be a great impact created by the spectacle of seeing that many performers onstage – and they sing which is always good!

Added to this there is something quite special about seeing people you know onstage telling a story which has been specifically commissioned for them. I am also working with a movement director, Ed Woodall, on this production and we are using quite a physical language to deliver the narrative. Ed has been very demanding of the company. I think some of the ensemble sections will be quite unexpected.

What factors have been paramount in choosing to be a director? How did you arrive at this decision?

I first directed at school. I was lucky enough to have a very supportive drama teacher who believed in me.  When, aged 16, I said I wanted to direct The Duchess of Malfi,, he didn't laugh at my precociousness. Instead he said: "Yes, you must... we'll do it together. I'll do the teacher bit and make sure they turn up and you can get on with the creative bit!"

I had been to see Cheek-by-Jowl's production of The Duchess of Malfi and fell in love with the play but didn't want to play any of the female characters so I thought would direct it. After that, being onstage felt alien, like I was inside the picture when I wanted to be looking at it and sculpting it. I spent a lot of time at university sculpting images. It was only when I started working with Max that I learnt that directing was about so much more!

In your opinion, is it easier for actors to make the transition to become directors or not?

There are a lot of great directors who have been actors. I worked with Matthew Dunster on Testing the Echo. He has successfully combined acting, directing and writing. I think the best directors like and respect their actors and have a great appreciation for their distinct craft.

Obviously, if you have been an actor yourself you have a keen understanding of what it takes to deliver a good performance. A lot of your job as a director is giving clear, playable notes. If you have been on the other side you know, from first-hand experience, what notes are helpful and playable and which are not.

What are your future plans?

I am actually staying in the Peterborough area. From September I will be Director of the Stahl Theatre in Oundle. It is a receiving house, so I look forward to welcoming Eastern Angles there some time in the near future.

River Lane runs at Unit 23 in the Serpentine Green Shopping Centre, Peterborough between 8 and 18 May.