Rod’s Blog 06.04.16
Yes you read that correctly – April 6th 2016 …the last time I wrote a blog was after ‘We’re Not Going Back’ went on tour back in 2014. Lazy? The world’s greatest procrastinator? Nope – busy. When you run a company that is outside the National Portfolio you suddenly find that you work three times harder to survive. “Three times harder” meaning that Chris Lloyd applied and was successfully appointed as the acting CEO of Phoenix Dance Theatre and has been juggling that huge role with the equally huge role of Producer for Red Ladder. I spent all of the autumn term teaching physical theatre at Northern School of Contemporary Dance and so the Red Ladder answer phone was chock full of messages most days because our office has been a bit like the Mary Celeste…
But I digress. So back in 2014 when we failed to gain re-entry into the National Portfolio, our good friend and supporter David Peace offered us the rights to make a stage adaptation of his book ‘The Damned United’. That was one of those moments when you rub your eyes and ask yourself if you are actually awake. I remember having what felt like a mini anxiety attack when I thought, “Oh my God …that is a hugely generous offer …he has given us the entire family silver and now I have the responsibility to make the most important piece of theatre of my career in order to ‘save’ a company that is nearly 50 years old, a company that I have led for now ten years with the constant threat hanging over me of being the last artistic director of a famous radical company.
So for the last twelve months – as we plugged on with our work including making a play about Muslim extremism co-produced with Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, and while we continued to tour our small but powerful plays like ‘Rabbitskin’ and ‘Wrong Un’ (88 performances since 2013!) the spectre of ‘The Damned United’ floated around me. James Brining at The West Yorkshire Playhouse being incredibly enthusiastic and positive about us co-producing (at LAST a proper Red Ladder/WYP co-pro….gulp!). It’s like everything one could wish for …but with tons of pressure to ‘get it right’.
What would ‘getting it right’ mean? Well ….to me it meant one thing – drawing in crowds of Leeds United fans who never, by choice, go the theatre and who would walk out saying ‘Ay …that were good’. That would be a big tick box for James as well – he is Leeds born and bred and a Leeds fan to boot. In fact, James desperately wanted to direct the play himself and was probably very jealous of my good fortune to have David’s gift sitting in my lap. What would a Liverpool fan know about the infamous 44 days of Brian Clough’s disastrous management of Revie’s Super Leeds? Well quite a lot as it turns out. I was in the Lower Sixth for the 74/75 season and a season ticket holder in the Liverpool Kop and I had seen all our games against Revie’s team – Hunter, Lorimer, Clarke, Gray et al and I was quietly a fan of Old Big Mouth – although I wouldn’t have wanted him to manage Liverpool!
But the other big challenge – was not just to bring in new attendees at the theatre but also to please their regular audience – many of whom might not be in the slightest bit interested in football, or Clough or even David Peace’s book. As loyal customers of the theatre they deserved the respect of the building to be entertained despite all those niche interests. The key was in the playwright who would adapt the book for us – and in so doing, make us something completely different to the famous film of the book, more famous for Michael Sheen’s impersonation of Brian Clough than for its faith in representing David’s dark and atmospheric novel.
We approached another friend of the company, a playwright whose work was notorious for its politics and with successes at The Royal Court and The Arcola in London – Anders Lustgarten. Anders is a passionate football fan and I knew that he would be really excited to take on this quite daunting task. Anders delivered a really superb first draft two months ahead of his deadline and that was when I knew that we were in safe hands.
Six months later and we are about to transfer the show to Derby. The show has been, without doubt, the most successful show in Red Ladder’s history. The production attracted the services of one of the best creative teams in the country: set design by Signe Beckmann (who is designing for several high profile buildings across the UK); sound design by Isobel Waller-Bridge (straight off the back of her sound and composition for the BBC’s epic serialised ‘War and Peace’); video design by Nina Dunn who has designed for Northern Ballet, The RSC and many other high profile companies and lighting design by the inimitable Tim Skelly.
With a cast of very experienced and skilful actors – Andrew Lancel as Brian Clough, Tony Bell as Peter Taylor, John Graham Davies, Tony Turner and Tom Lorcan playing several roles, the cast was completed with an ensemble of undergraduate dancers from Northern School. Whilst ‘Great Expectations’ filled the Quarry next door, our production with 11 performers onstage is nearly as large in scale and ambition and asks as much from the audience.
And what an audience. The show has sold out for the full four weeks of the run at West Yorkshire Playhouse. Every night the Courtyard Theatre has been filled to the rafters with a lot of beer swilling men (getting up for a pee at the most inappropriate moments – just as Tony B was doing a particularly fine piece of emotional acting!). The percentage of new attendees is very high and so in every way the production has been a success for us and The Playhouse.
Which is a huge relief: we have paid back David’s generosity, we have paid back James Brining’s trust in us as a company and we have paid back all those wonderful supporters over the last year or so who contributed their hard earned cash into the Save Red Ladder campaign fund – a fund which, through crowdfunding broke a few records in reaching over £30K and enabled us to do this project – with the help of a generous Arts Council grant.
And what’s next? Well it depends on whether our next application to the Arts Council is successful. Watch this space.
Photo by Malcom Johnson
About Rod: Rod became Artistic Director of Red Ladder Theatre Company in 2006, following his role as associate director at the Barbican Theatre in Plymouth. He has also ran The Hub Theatre School in Cornwall and been an actor with several companies including Kneehigh Theatre. Directing credits for Red Ladder include Where’s Vietnam?, Forgotten Things, Riot, Rebellion & Bloody Insurrection, Ugly, Sex & Docks & Rock ‘N’ Roll, Big Society! and Promised Land. Rod is both a life-long Liverpool supporter and a believer in Proudhon’s principles of anarchy – the two might be connected.