Sean Foley on the Birmingham Rep's autumn season: "It has been a daily fight for survival"

We speak to the Rep’s artistic director about the productions coming in 2021

Sean Foley
Sean Foley
© Hugo Glendinning

Sean Foley has been the artistic director of the Birmingham Rep for two years, and that time has been some of the most challenging in its proud history. Global events aside, he is eager to make up for lost time and the new autumn season at the Birmingham Rep is full of exciting productions.

We spoke with Sean about what the theatre has planned for 2021, as well as the kind of shape the Rep is in as the UK starts to tentatively open up again.

Making its return to the Birmingham Rep 25 years after it was first produced, there can't be many plays that will rival East is East for emotion on opening night?

"It's a phenomenal piece of work that speaks to everyone but especially people of south Asian heritage – talking to people around Birmingham, you realise how much the play means to the city. It will also be Iqbal Khan's first show as an associate director. He is a Brummie through and through, brilliant with all kinds of material and it is a complete feather in our cap to have him at the Rep."

Luke Sheppard and & Juliet cleaned up at the last WOS awards, winning 6 prizes on the evening – what can you tell us about What's New Pussycat? the musical he is directing?

"It is a really witty piece of entertainment and a world premiere. Tom Jones will be heavily involved as well, so having that world class talent in the building is exciting. We are delighted to have Arlene Phillips on board too, not only a Strictly judge but a brilliant choreographer."

Where did The Park Bench Plays idea come from?

"I was sitting around in the middle of last year and thought about commissioning a set of short plays, ten-minute productions about meetings on park benches. These encounters have been important during life in lockdown. We are going to produce them in two ways – as short films and then live as well. They will tour the city, so you could come across them in the park, train stations or other public places."

The Sky Studios partnership looks like an initiative that will generate exciting new work?

"The Rep has a strong record in presenting new plays. But whilst many theatres are geared up for new writing, and this might sound a bit daft, nobody takes comedy seriously.

The idea came out of a conversation with Anil Gupta (The Office, Tartuffe), where we were speaking about the lack of focus on new comedy writers. We are very delighted that this partnership has been invented because it will hopefully find new voices from interesting places, who maybe wouldn't have the access otherwise."

What kind of shape do you think the Rep and Birmingham are in going into this new season?

"It has been a daily fight for survival. Nobody is in this business to be looking at spreadsheets, yet that is what the last twelve months has been like. That is the context in which the Nightingale Court situation arose. It's nothing to do with the theatre's artistic policy but a means for us to have some income. You either accept it or make people redundant. The picture is that we have this daily battle of making tough decisions but they've all been made with the purpose of getting to this point, and being able to re open."