Is it a book? Is it a play?...
Over 40,000 people come to Nottingham Playhouse each Christmas to see our pantomime, and this audience is also our most diverse. It’s inspiring to see people of all backgrounds and ages sat in the auditorium enjoying the performance together. As the new Artistic Director, I want to see if I can encourage this group back into the venue at another time of the year by programing a show that has the same qualities as panto, minus Jingle Bells playing in the foyer.
In April, we’re producing Holes, based on the best-selling novel by Louis Sachar. It’s a gamble. Nottingham Playhouse hasn’t staged a family show for some years, and they aren’t cheap to produce, but my instinct tells me that there’s an audience out there who would relish this kind of work. We just need to persuade them to come in.
I’ve been working as a London-based freelance theatre director for the last two decades, but I’m originally from Nottingham. I grew up in Mapperley, attended Bilborough College and was a member of the Nottingham Youth Theatre. My first theatrical experiences were watching the pantomine at Nottingham Playhouse, and I vividly remember how grown-up and exciting it felt. Those magical early memories were why I fell in love with the art form and pursued it as a career. They’re also the reason I returned to run the Playhouse, with the aim of producing world-class theatre that challenges and entertains audiences.
Nottingham Playhouse has always produced literary adaptations; two of the biggest hits from the last few years were The Kite Runner and 1984, both of which have toured extensively. Indeed, this reflects the theatre scene generally. The National Theatre’s productions of War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time have both enjoyed major success and are still touring, the former having been seen by over seven million people worldwide. The popularity of a familiar title is clearly a major reason why theatres love literary adaptations, but I also think the challenge they present to theatre directors and their collaborators is another primary factor. They often feature large casts of characters, multiple locations, and plots that are seemingly unstageable. This forces the creative team to be inventive and can lead to thrilling theatre.
I first came upon Holes in 2003 when I was working my way through the BBC’s Good Read list of the nation’s 100 favourite novels; it was at number 83, which wasn’t bad going when you consider it was wedged between I Capture the Castle and Gormenghast. I instantly loved it, and subsequently discovered that a whole generation of children had studied it at school and watched the Disney film version, starring Sigourney Weaver and a young, untainted Shia LaBeouf. I’ve frequently seen adults reading it on the tube as well.
I don’t think there are many novels that have such a broad appeal, which is one of the reasons I’ve chosen to programme it. Holes is part-fable, part-adventure story, exploring friendship, race, poverty and justice. It’s a quirky novel that keeps its reader guessing and is beautifully plotted with compelling twists. Like pantomime, the production will be a good night out for schools, families and adults alike. Holes is one of the most performed plays in the USA, but has only had one other professional production in the UK and this is a newly updated version, so it’s a bit of a programming coup.
Part of the novel’s popularity is Sachar’s unusual protagonist, Stanley Yelnats; a fifteen year-old anti-hero who’s been accused of stealing. Stanley gets sent to Camp Green Lake in the middle of the Texan desert – there’s no lake and it isn’t green – where, along with a group of other misfits, he’s forced to dig a hole five foot deep, five foot in diameter, each day to “build character.” The camp is run by another wonderful Sachar creation, the Warden, who wears nail polish made of rattlesnake venom, and Stanley soon discovers the Warden is looking for something in these holes.
Kacey Ainsworth, best known for playing Little Mo in Eastenders, is playing our Warden. Kacey had a great reputation for her stage work long before the BBC came calling. Her children, who are fans of the book, insisted she take the role. We’re also really lucky that Nottingham Playhouse regular, John Elkington, who delights our panto audience every year, is playing the Warden’s sidekick, Mr Sir.
One reason I’m sure the story hooks younger readers is that Sachar doesn’t patronise them by diluting the dangers his characters are exposed to. The landscape is a character itself; Stanley and the boys are digging holes in the baked earth under the Texan sun. They get sunstroke, blisters, and have to contend with tarantulas and deadly yellow-spotted lizards.
Representing these dangers on stage is a big challenge. How do we stage those digging scenes and represent the physical exhaustion of sustained labour, not to mention the heat? How do we make the yellow-spotted lizards as genuinely fear-inducing as Sachar does? We’re quite far into the design process now and we’re discovering potential answers to these questions, but you never really know until you hit the rehearsal room, and ultimately present the production to an audience.
Holes is just one part of next year’s programme. A few weeks ago we unveiled the whole of our 2018 season; the first time that Nottingham Playhouse has ever announced a whole year’s programme in one go. I felt it was important to demonstrate the breadth of our renewed artistic vision now we’re entering a new chapter. Arts funding is being squeezed, and we have 750 seats to fill each night, so we can only continue to survive and thrive if we inspire the people of Nottingham to support us by coming to watch the shows. We’ve worked hard to put together a hugely ambitious programme of work including a major revival of Alan Bennett’s modern classic, The Madness of George III starring Mark Gatiss (League of Gentlemen, Sherlock) and the Broadway classic, Sweet Charity, which is the first musical we’ve produced in years.
I’m kicking off the season in February with Wonderland; a play about the miners’ strike by local writer, Beth Steel, whose dad worked at Welbeck Colliery. It’s particularly important that Nottingham Playhouse supports local playwrights given the city’s UNESCO heritage status. Audiences can sometimes be suspicious of new work – they prefer something tried and tested – but we have to support playwrights by buying a ticket or theatres won’t be able to commission or programme new plays. Beth’s play is really special. It’s incredibly funny and moving with great characters, and looks at the strike in a fresh way. The set design is hugely ambitious and there are movement sequences and live music; it’s going to be a visual treat. We have assembled a terrific cast including Harry Hepple (Boy Meets Girl), Matthew Cottle (Game On, The Windsors) and more loads more talent.
As soon as Wonderland is open, I begin rehearsals for Holes. I think the key is to get to the heart of the source material, to explore what it was the novelist was trying to say, and then work as a creative team to reinterpret it. If you try to slavishly recreate the original, you’ll fail, and the audience may as well stay at home and read the book. The story has to be reimagined for a different platform. Theatre as an art form has existed for 2,500 years because there’s something life-enhancing about sitting in a space with other people and going on a journey together. Literacy and theatre have always crossed paths. Most of Nottingham’s acclaimed authors, historic and contemporary, have also written for theatre. After all, both forms are fundamentally about telling stories.
Holes is showing at Nottingham Playhouse from Saturday 31 March - Sunday 22 April 2018.
Nottingham Playhouse website
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