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New Secret Garden, Beaton Does Brecht in Leeds

Alistair Beaton, Brecht and a new musical version of The Secret Garden are amongst the highlights of the newly announced autumn season at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. In fact, all four new in-house productions are re-imaginings of established texts or stories; three of the four are technically world premieres, though all of the titles and subjects are familiar.

The first premiere is of Alistair Beaton’s new version of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle (opening 25 September 2009). Those of us who rejoiced in Hamish McColl and Sean Foley’s inspired take on Mr Puntila and his Man Matti some ten years ago at the Edinburgh Festival and the Almeida can look forward to a version of Brecht that restores the laughs alongside the message.

Political satirist Beaton (Feelgood, TV’s A Very Social Secretary and Drop the Dead Donkey) talks a good show: “Many versions of Brecht treat him like a temple, a church. We have to approach him reverently, but still make him come alive for contemporary audiences. It’s easy to get preoccupied with the alienation effect. Brecht also talked of epic theatre and that’s much more what I’m interested in.”

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a co-production with Shared Experience and Nottingham Playhouse and will be directed by Shared Experience’s Nancy Meckler. At Leeds and on tour, it will involve a 30-strong community choir, “West Yorkshire’s Got Talent”, according to Beaton, though he concedes they’ve been unable to cast Susan Boyle.

Running alongside the Brecht will be Dial M for Murder, Frederick Knott’s classic thriller, in the Courtyard Theatre (opening 11 September 2009). We are promised a visual twist on the original and there is a whiff of film noir and movie thrillers in the air. Dial M for Murder, of course, became a memorable Hitchcock film, co-producers Fiery Angel last collaborated with West Yorkshire Playhouse on the irresistible The 39 Steps and director Lucy Bailey has on her CV a striking take on The Postman Always Rings Twice in Leeds and London.

Christmas at the West Yorkshire Playhouse traditionally involves a large-scale adaptation of a children’s classic in the Quarry Theatre and one of Mike Kenny’s “big plays for small people” in the Courtyard. This year it’s to be a new adaptation of The Secret Garden by Garry Lyons, directed by artistic director Ian Brown, and Cinderella directed by Gail McIntyre who was responsible for last year’s The Snow Queen.

The parallels abound. Tim Sutton’s very English, folk-song-related music for The Secret Garden is an antidote to Broadway block-busting versions of the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel, while Mike Kenny sees himself offering “an alternative to Disney”. And both plays offer unusual perspectives: The Secret Garden is seen from the point of view of the servants (sturdy Yorkshire souls, of course), and the rats, it seems, will tell the story of Cinderella!

A hefty programme of visiting shows (from the Northern Ballet Theatre to the Shakespeare Schools Festival, from stand-up to a rap opera) includes two major productions in November: English Touring Theatre and Chichester Festival Theatre’s all-star production of The Grapes of Wrath and Sherman Cymru’s deeply disturbing award-winner, Deep Cut.


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