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Brief Encounter with... Third Finger Left Hand director Ian Talbot

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Ian Talbot is an Olivier-Award nominated director, who is currently directing the debut of Dermot Canavan’s play, Third Finger, Left Hand, which opened at the Trafalgar Studios last night (4 April 2013).

In 1987 he became the artistic director of the Open Air Theatre and served there for 20 years. His directing credits include High Society, Lady be Good, Lend Me A Tenor: The Musical and, most recently, Love Letters with Stefanie Powers and David Soul.

Starring Imogen Stubbs and Amanda Daniels, Third Finger, Left Hand runs at the Trafalgar Studios until 27 April.

Why Third Finger, Left Hand?
I chose it because I know the author, I was in show with him and he showed me the play, and I really liked it. It’s taken us about 5 years just to get it on. I just think it’s a great piece of social history; it’s funny, it’s moving, and I’ve just gotten hooked on it really. Not only just through knowing somebody, but I think it’s a poignant piece, and I just like it. He showed me the script and I said I love it, and if it ever comes about I’d love to direct it. And here I am directing it.

Do you want to give us a quick synopsis of the play?
I won’t give away the plot for you, but it’s about two sisters who were very close to each other, but they had an abusive father and it’s how they reacted to how he treated them.

How do you feel about working with a star, Olivier-nominated cast?
I’ve worked with Imogen before, but not as a director, as an actor when I was on tour with Alphabetical Order. We became friends and when I read the play she was my first choice, and luckily, she said yes. Amanda has done it before at the Edinburgh Festival, and I’m very happy because she was terrific in it. As for the creative team, I’ve worked with Jason Taylor before. Jenny I’m very thrilled to be working with, because she’s a great Olivier nominee. It’s just a very strong team, so of course I’m really pleased to be working with them.

What have you learnt from performance that’s different from the directing realm?
I love doing them both and I am very lucky I can still do both. But it is a very different thing. I learned a lot of my directing skills from directing the Open Air for so long. I haven’t done a lot of new work, I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare and a lot of musicals, and I’ve discovered that the hardest thing for a director is standing there right before your show is about to go on and realizing that you have to take a step back. As an actor, that’s the moment where the show becomes yours.

So as I said, I love doing both really. I never imagined myself directing as much as I have. But since I left Regents Park I’ve done two jobs abroad and I’ve taught a bit, and I’m just about to go to San Diego to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I might come back and do a new play at the Charing Cross Theatre also, so I’ve definitely got more directing work than acting work now, but I haven’t given up acting.

Do you think being a performer has made you a better director?
Yes, I do. I have a strong empathy with actors, and I know ultimately that they’re the ones that have to get up and do it and I think a lot of people forget that they’re the ones getting up and doing the work.

Your most recent production was Love Letters, which dealt with similar themes. Do you think your success with Love Letters will help your direction with Third Finger, Left Hand?
Love Letters actually came about after I had agreed to do this show, so I didn’t know at first. But suddenly as we were doing Love Letters I thought the similarities were quite extraordinary. I suddenly realized that in both plays bother characters are looking back thinking about how they could have made their relationships better, so there’s a strong similarity, you’re right.

Amanda Daniels & Imogen Stubbs. Photo Helen Murray

What's next, apart from directing A Midsummer Night's Dream in America?
I am going to do a play at the Charing Cross Theatre, called Afraid of the Dark, which is a horror story, which I’m looking forward to. And then at Christmas I am going to direct a pantomime at the Wimbledon theatre, which I did last year as well.

Are you taking any performance roles in these?
I don’t know, and I can’t really say at the moment. If it’s the pantomime I’m thinking it will be, than yes, I will be in that as well. But I better not say what it is right now because they might cancel it and schedule in another one. Sadly I just missed a television job because I’m busy, but I do want to act again. When you get to my age you worry whether or not you can remember the lines, but I think I still can.

Do you think you’d ever like to run a venue again?
I wouldn’t like to run a theatre as big as the Open Air again, but if a smaller theatre ever came up I might. I wouldn’t like to do it simply because of the pressure, and you never knew whether or not you could do a show because of the weather, etc. I knew it was about the right time for me to leave. 20 years I thought was enough.

Finally, tell us why the theatre-goers should come see Third Finger, Left Hand.
Because I think there’s a little slice of family history that I think everyone can identify with in this play. During the course of rehearsal we’ve all had examples, to one degree or another, where we can see similarities to what happens in the play. I think that people, even in a simple analogy, when they get together with their families at Christmas, there’s a little bit of friction. And this play is about quite a large family, and the friction is bigger than most families, but it’s there for people to recognize.

It goes back to that old phrase “You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your relations.” And I think this is why they say things like ‘But she was my sister’ and ‘He was my dad’ and ‘She was my mum’, but there was a lot of skeletons in the cupboard and some of them come out and some of them don’t. I think they should come because it’s not only that but it’s also extremely funny. It’s got a little bit of everything, and it’s also just exciting to see a new work. So I’m really excited about it.

- Ian Talbot was talking to Katherine Boone


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