David Pugh - the producer behind some of theatre's biggest hits

David Pugh, one of Britain's top stage producers, talks to Nick Ahad about the two hit shows he's bringing to the region.

Theatre producer David Pugh. Picture by James Hardisty.

Thanks to Simon Cowell, Andrew Lloyd-Webber and their ilk coming out from behind the scenes and stepping into the television spotlight, these days we have a much firmer grasp on the dark art of the producer.

Time was when the power behind theatrical thrones tended to stay in the shadows.

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One of theatre’s most successful impresarios, producers, maestros, call him what you will, is David Pugh. The name may not ring a bell, but that’s because like producers of old he is highly effective at staying out of the spotlight while putting the work for which he is responsible firmly in it. He is easily one of the most entertaining people in showbusiness I have ever come across: it’s almost a shame that he stays out of the limelight.

The new production of Art with Nigel Havers, Denis Lawson and Steven Tompkinson.

This spring he is responsible for two enormous shows coming to the region, one of them a revival of a hit play which helped to make his name as one of British theatre’s most powerful forces two decades ago and the other his latest show which saw him working alongside one of the most successful bands in British music history.

First, Art.

“I was home one Sunday having just watched the Eastenders omnibus and the phone rang. It was back when we had ansaphones which you could listen to and screen your calls. I let the phone ring and there was someone doing a very convincing Sean Connery impression leaving a message,” says Pugh. He has a lot of stories like this.

He answered the phone and realised it wasn’t an impersonator, but Sir Sean. Connery’s wife had seen a new play in Paris written by Yasmina Reza and convinced her husband that it would work for the London stage. Sir Sean had the money to bring the play to Britain, but lacked the producing skills. David Pugh had them in abundance. “I went, along with my CSE Grade 2 in French, and headed to Paris to see this play with a literal translation in my pocket,” says Pugh.

The Band features the music of Take That.

Along with his producing partner Dafyyd Rogers, the two of them named by trade newspaper The Stage as the 44th most powerful people in British theatre this year, he pulled together a London production of Art.

“We had to wait for Christopher Hampton to be free. He’d written Les Liaisons Dangereuses so we knew he was the perfect person to do this, but he was also very busy,” says Pugh.

He was also waiting for the cast.

He had Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay ready to go, but was waiting for Michael Gambon to complete the trio.

The new production of Art with Nigel Havers, Denis Lawson and Steven Tompkinson.

“I’d also seen a young director called Matthew Warchus and his production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse of Death of a Salesman. I saw something in him – he was 25, 26 at the time, but I saw something in him and so did the cast,” says Pugh. In the end the diaries never quite aligned and Gambon didn’t end up in the first London production, the part he was due to play instead being taking by Ken Stott.

Art tells the story of three long-time friends, Serge, Marc and Yvan. Serge buys an expensive, completely white painting, leading to anger and tensions bubbling to the surface and testing the friendship between the three.

In 1997 it won the Olivier Award for Best Comedy and when Pugh transferred the show to Broadway a year later, it won a Tony award and a Drama Desk Award.

This is the production Pugh is bringing back out on the road this year, 21 years after it was first seen on the stage in Britain. One of the strokes of genius Pugh had with this production was to keep casts engaged for a 16-week run, which meant big names would commit to a relatively short period in a highly regarded play. Alfred Molina appeared on Broadway.

The Band features the music of Take That.

This year it heads out on the road with Nigel Havers, Stephen Tompkinson and Denis Lawson in the three roles. “What we now know works is to ask someone we want and then say ‘who are your mates?’ Inevitably actors will have actor friends and it is the friendships that matter to making this play a success,” say Pugh.

Funny he should mention that. Friendships are at the heart of the other play Pugh is taking out on the road this year.

The Band had some serious clout behind it before it was even on stages. Better known as the Take That musical, the performers in The Band came from the BBC talent show Let it Shine. Once it arrived in theatres, opening in Manchester last year before heading out on a national tour, audiences queued up for tickets for a whole host of reasons: some had become fans of the boy band created via Let it Shine, some were there for the Take That music incorporated into the show, some wanted to see the new work by Calendar Girls writer Tim Firth and others were fans of musicals.

“We were slightly concerned that people wouldn’t quite get the show – it’s a musical about a boy band featuring the music of Take That, but it’s not Take That the musical. It’s a show that is for anyone who had a poster of a popstar on their wall when they were a teenager.

“While Art is a story about male friendships, The Band is also very much a story about female friendships.”

The musical tells the story of a group of women, once a group of girls and teenage friends, who come together after 25 years for a reunion. It is a heartfelt piece of work and writer Tim Firth hits all the emotional buttons you expect him to.

The remarkable thing about the sell-out show is that the man behind it can go from an intimate three-hander to a big beast of a musical like The Band. That’s the real art of the producer.

Art, by Yazmina Reza, starring Nigel Havers, Stephen Tompkinson and Denis Lawson is currently on a national tour and will be coming to Leeds Grand, April 3-7. For tickets call the box office on 0844 848 2700 or visit leedsgrandtheatre.com. It will also be at the Sheffield Lyceum, April 16-21, for tickets call the box office on 0114 249 6000 or visit www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk

The Band the Musical is at Hull New Theatre, March 6-17. Tickets from the box office 01482 300306 or www.hulltheatres.co.uk Leeds Grand Theatre, March 20-31. Details www.thebandmusical.com