Annie Get Your Gun director Ian Talbot: 'I want to get up there with them'

The actor and director, who ran the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre for over 20 years, talks about his new touring production of ”Annie Get Your Gun” starring Jason Donovan, Emma Williams and Norman Pace

Ian Talbot
Ian Talbot
© Dan Wooller

Why did you want to direct Annie Get Your Gun?

The score; it's one hit after the other. Irving Berlin wrote lots of songs but not many musicals, and that's another reason I wanted to do it. During my tenure at Regent's Park we revived lots of musicals but never this one, and when I was offered it I knew I had to.

You're using a new version rather than the original

This script was updated in 1999 when Bernadette Peters played Annie, and it's very different from the original. I'd always felt that some of the content, especially references to the 'Red Indians', was not very PC, and this new version alleviates that significantly; they've rebuilt the story and Buffalo Bill comes out of it looking like the wisest character.

Does the show still have a message for modern audiences?

I certainly think it says something about what the Americans did to the Native Americans, and the other fascinating thing is it's a true story – Frank Butler and Annie Oakley really did get married. As far fetched as you might think it is, it actually happened! Frank did in a way give up his career to let Annie take the foreground. And that's certainly relevant to modern relationships.

The score is peppered with classics. Do you have a favourite?

The one that was added last is probably my favourite, though it isn't a 'classic' – "I Got Lost In His Arms", which I adore. And of course "There's No Business Like Show Business", which is the classic isn't it? We open the show with that, which is a bit like starting in fifth gear. I also think "They Say It's Wonderful" is beautiful; but then there's not a bum song in it.

What was it about Jason Donovan that made him right for Frank?

I think Jason is the most wonderful actor. I told him that playing Frank will make people sit back and say "I didn't know he could do that." He admitted it's a huge challenge for him but the chemistry between him and Emma Williams is just wonderful. I think they've learned from each other. She's had to be on her metal for him because he sort of fires the shots back; he's the hardest worker and the nicest man.

And Norman Pace was perhaps a surprise choice to play Buffalo Bill

I worked with Norman when I did a production of Charley's Aunt at the Menier Chocolate Factory. I really admire him because he gave up his successful double act [with Gareth Hale] to do straight theatre and he's been out there winning the battle. I knew he would be perfect casting, not least because his comedy background means he has the confidence to immediately engage an audience.

Norman Pace, Emma Williams and Jason Donovan star in Annie Get Your Gun
Norman Pace, Emma Williams and Jason Donovan star in Annie Get Your Gun

You also act – do you ever direct by example?

I'm afraid so, yes. I try not to but if they're not getting it I say "look, I mean this" and get up and do it. They say I'm a frustrated actor, but I love doing both. I've only directed and been in a show once, The Boyfriend – normally I like to separate the two. In the rehearsal room I try and put myself behind a desk for as long as I can until I get too frustrated.

What's the number one piece of advice you give to young directors?

The hardest lesson to learn is that you can't be everybody's friend; there has to be time when the company goes off on their own and if they want to bitch about you they should. You're the captain of the ship and you've got to learn when it becomes theirs. First nights are the hardest – I always want to get up there with them.

If I was to pin you down and ask you for the absolute stand out moment of your career what would it be?

Two I think. The first time I played Bottom, which was a part I'd always wanted to play. I went on to play it 11 times at the Park and never stopped finding things in it. And also the first night of The Fantasticks, which is one of the first musicals I did there against everybody's advice. They said it wouldn't work, but it was a balmy summer evening and it just took off. I have so many wonderful memories in the Park.

Do you go back regularly to the Open Air Theatre?

I go to the press nights. I can honestly say I don't miss it because I chose to leave, but when I go to the press nights of course I look up and I think about my many years there. Nothing would have upset me more if I'd left and it had gone down the pan and it certainly hasn't done that. I put a lot of it in place, but Tim Sheader's taken over the mantle and is doing really great things.

What's next?

I'd love to do a bit more acting but I take the work as it comes. I adore teaching students, so this summer I'm going to direct Flora the Red Menace at Guildford School of Acting and then Wonderful Town at Arts Ed. After that, my production of Peter James' novel A Perfect Murder is coming back in the autumn and may come into town. Then I'm also fitting in the Wimbledon panto, which I've done for the last five years. So I'm keeping busy.

Annie Get Your Gun continues its UK tour in Sunderland from 3 to 7 June 2014. For full venues click here.