Conrad Nelson and Deb McAndrew on life after Barrie Rutter’s at Northern Broadsides

Husband and wife team Conrad Nelson and Deb McAndrew on life after Barrie Rutter at Northern Broadsides. 'Picture Bruce Rollinson
Husband and wife team Conrad Nelson and Deb McAndrew on life after Barrie Rutter at Northern Broadsides. 'Picture Bruce Rollinson
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When Barrie Rutter left Northern Broadsides, Conrad Nelson was left in charge. Nick Ahad finds out what happened next.

Northern Broadsides was, Barrie Rutter. And Rutter, the company’s founder and, until recently, its artistic director was Northern Broadsides. Except the true story of Broadsides is more complex than that. When Rutter announced last summer that he would be leaving the company that he set up in his home city of Hull in 1992, it sent shockwaves across the theatre industry. Rutter’s resignation was still being discussed as recently as early this month by John Humphries and Mishal Husain on Radio 4’s Today programme.

Entertaining as it was to hear Rutter take arms against the Arts Council, the question in the back of most people’s minds was always ‘what happens next?’. It was generally assumed that Conrad Nelson, long-time associate director of Northern Broadsides, would step seamlessly into the post.

The king is dead, long live the king, sort of thing.Nelson dips his head and raises his eyebrows in a manner that echoes the chilling looks he levelled at the audience while playing Iago to Lenny Henry’s Othello.

“Yes, lots of people thought that. Of course it’s not true,” he says.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say Nelson was the power behind the throne on which Rutter sat – and nor would he – but the facts speak for themselves.

“I have been involved in every production we have done since 2004. At two a year, that’s 28 productions. I have either directed, written the music for, been in or choreographed every single one. Barrie was only involved in the ones he directed. When I was directing, he wasn’t involved, but when he was directing, in some way I was always involved. We totted it up the other day and it’s something like 58 shows,” says Nelson.

Deborah McAndrew chips in. The writer and her husband have the kind of symbiosis which means they often finish each other’s sentences.

“For the past 14 years Barrie hasn’t had any input in Con’s shows, but he’s always been involved in Barrie’s, either as a composer or choreographer,” she says, before Nelson chips back in with: “That’s not about me saying I’m more important or anything like that.”

And there’s the rub.

People believed that Rutter was the essence of Broadsides because his was the face the company presented to the world. But if you have been entertained by one of their shows over the past 20 years, then you have bought into the work of Nelson too. He has defined the style of the company at least as much (and arguably more) than Rutter. Clog dances and rousing music? Nelson. The co-star who challenged Lenny Henry on stage to raise his game as Othello? Nelson. The performance of Richard III which formed the centrepiece of the Wars of the Roses productions in 2006? Nelson.

When we meet in the rehearsal rooms in Halifax’s Dean Clough mill development, Broadsides’ home, there is a sense of nervousness about McAndrew and Nelson.

At the minute they are working as writer and director, McAndrew having adapted Dickens’ Hard Times for the company and Nelson standing at the helm of the production, which has its premiere in Halifax on February 16 before heading out on a national tour. The position of writer and director for this husband and wife team is one they have taken several times for Broadsides in the past.

Working as de facto temporary artistic director and writer is something far more unusual and less comfortable for the pair. Always Nelson and McAndrew are careful to pay respect to the past, to what Rutter created and to Rutter himself, but they also won’t lie.

“The content was led by Barrie and he has that largesse of personality, that was why he wanted to be on stage and have that recognition, but I’m not that bothered about that. I wouldn’t come in and suggest to do a show because I want to play the lead, that would be ridiculous,” says Nelson.

“What is tricky sometimes is the comparative recognition you receive for the work that has been done... but no, not recognition, because that sounds crass.

“It’s about understanding where you sit within an organisation.”

McAndrew steps in. “It’s about knowing the worth and knowing both the work that you have done and how that has impacted and influenced the character of Northern Broadsides. Even though Barrie was the figurehead, in terms of character of the work, it has had two artistic minds working on it.

“Barrie isn’t like Samson pushing over pillars and the whole thing comes crashing down. There are actors and an audience and friends of the company who have had an intimate relationship with Broadsides who have given so much support over the years.”

They’re tying themselves in knots and it’s easy to see why.

They both owe so much to Rutter, but they have to now look to the future while respecting the man who led them.

Without Rutter there would not have been a Northern Broadsides. It was his idea. He created it and through force of personality, made it manifest. Over the past 20 years, however, it has been anything but a one-man band. A huge retinue of actors have passed through the company as have a number of writers, but the man who has worked on his craft and whose craft has informed the company every step of the way and shaped what audiences have come to understand as the Broadsides sensibility, is Nelson.

The question remains: what happens next?

“Most people assumed that I would step in,” says Nelson. “Behind the scenes that simply wasn’t the case. As an organisation we are publicly funded, so you have to advertise that job and the way that we will be structured and funded in the future, it means there is only one position at the head of the company. Not a shared position in the way it was…” Nelson catches himself.

McAndrew finishes the thought: “In the way it was with Conrad and Barrie.”

There is clearly a period of reflection Nelson and McAndrew are now facing. Although Nelson is the associate director and McAndrew describes herself as an intermittent employee of the company, she knows that whatever Nelson’s decision, it will have an impact on both of them and their family.

The surprise is that Nelson might not even want the job.

“In some ways if I decide not to go for the job, it will be a relief, you go ‘right, I’ve done that and on we go’,” he says. I heard Rutter say the same and I believe it less from Nelson.

The company is where he met his wife. Broadsides has interwoven itself into his life in very obvious ways. If he does go for the job of leader of the company, he will move forward while honouring the past.

“It couldn’t be the same thing because it can’t be that, we have to move forward,” says Nelson.

“It couldn’t be the same thing because it wouldn’t be Barrie and Conrad,” adds McAndrew.

Speaking of that relationship, last year must have been a weird one.

It transpires there was an odd period last year when Rutter announced to the Press, on a Friday, that he was leaving, but hadn’t yet informed the board. That would wait until Monday. McAndrew says: “That was a weird weekend.”

Nelson adds: “It’s been a weird weekend for 25 years.”

■ Hard Times: Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, Feb 16 to 24, then touring.