Northern Broadsides is 25 years old. Nick Ahad meets its long-serving husband and wife team Conrad Nelson and Deborah McAndrew.
It’s a big year for Northern Broadsides. The indomitable company, led by its indomitable leader is celebrating its quarter century. Not a figure that would have a batsman waving his willow perhaps, but 25 is a fine age for a theatre company to reach.
The man in charge is of course Barrie Rutter.
Castaway on Kirsty Young’s Desert Island, son of a Hull dock worker, Rutter is an actor-manager of the old school and he leads the company with an energy and passion that would shame those who are half his 70 years.
However, right behind Rutter’s throne are two other people. Conrad Nelson and Deborah McAndrew. Together, the husband and wife team are one of the power couples of British theatre.
As the creative director of Broadsides, Nelson has had a hand in shaping the company over the past two and a half decades. Over the last 10 years McAndrew has also been the writing talent for several of the company’s most successful plays, updating A Government Inspector, The Grand Gesture and Accidental Death of an Anarchist for the stage, among others. She also provided a new play to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War last year, An August Bank Holiday Lark, which received rave reviews.
This year the team are working together again on McAndrew’s new version of Cyrano, another updated version of an old story, this time reimagining Cyrano de Bergerac.
Backstage at the New Vic Theatre in Stoke, Nelson and McAndrew are making cups of tea and being the generally amiable and lovely couple they are.
Over the years audiences have seen Nelson play evil incarnate Richard III and malevolence incarnate Iago, and there’s no denying that in real life there is a real intensity about the actor who played the master manipulator to Lenny Henry’s Othello, but there is also a gentleness and inquisitiveness about the man. He is enthusiasm itself as he shows me around the backstage area of the New Vic, showing off the workshops where the sets are made and the sewing room where costumes are created. He loves the craft of his work, the creation of a character on stage and the work that happens to make that happen backstage.
“Con is very technical, while I’m quite emotional,” McAndrew says, once her husband has finished showing me around the engine rooms of the productions that end up on the stage at the New Vic.
Before we go any further, why are we in Stoke?
Northern Broadsides, as the name was always supposed to suggest, is rooted firmly above Sheffield. It was born in Hull, where Rutter staged Richard III a quarter of a century ago and has made its offices in Halifax ever since.
The company has had a long-standing relationship with the New Vic for the simple reason that McAndrew and Nelson live down there. It’s where they have always been based, they have a family and being based there has allowed the Yorkshire-based company to forge links with the highly-regarded theatre in Stoke.
That Rutter is happy to allow the company he created to have this second place to call home is a testament to the importance of this creative team to Northern Broadsides.
Twenty-five years ago, while Rutter was thumping his chest at the National Theatre and telling anyone who’d listen that he was going to set up a company in the North that would celebrate the ‘dignity of the Northern voice’, Nelson was a little busy.
He’d worked with Rutter when they were both actors in Tony Harrison’s The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus and the two had clearly found something special in each other’s talents. Rutter wanted Nelson to come on board with Broadsides immediately.
“I was doing a play with Ken Branagh at Chichester and then he asked me to be in the film of Much Ado About Nothing,” says Nelson. That will be the film directed by and starring Branagh. And Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves, Denzel Washington, Brian Blessed, Emma Thompson, alongside Nelson.
“And where are they now?” laughs Nelson.
“That was why I couldn’t do the first Broadsides production, Richard III, but I’ve been involved ever since then, so it’s been 25 years for me.”
I’ve been to see Rutter in Hull this year and I’ve also chatted with actors who have spent a long time with Broadsides and there seems to be a genuine sense of reflection this year with everyone associated with the company. Turning 25 is really having an effect.
McAndrew is also wistful.
“It’s been such a long time, such a part of our lives,” she says.
Although now a writer, many still remember McAndrew as Angie Freeman in Coronation Street, object of Curly Watts’ affections. When she and Nelson met, her writing career was still a way off.
“We first met as actors, in a Broadsides show, 23 years ago. We were married 18 years ago, our daughter has grown up listening to the conversations about the company and the work.”
Speaking of the work – how does that work? When McAndrew writes for the company, Nelson, as Rutter’s second-in-command, has the invidious task of commissioning his wife and the even less attractive job of giving notes and directing her work.
Nelson jokes: “Gone are those intimate conversations into the small hours. Pillow talk is ‘what shall we do about that line?’.”
McAndrew adds: “We are careful with each other and we have little boundaries, but our work defines who we are, so much of what it is that makes us, but rather than being something divisive, it really binds us.”
McAndrew first wrote for Broadsides in 2004, when she updated the gothic Leopold Lewis work The Bells. At the time I wrote for The Yorkshire Post that it was chillingly brilliant. Her work for the company has maintained a high quality ever since.
“I’ve been really nurtured as a writer by the company and to have the trust of Barrie has been wonderful,” she says.
“He never wavered, never flickered. The fact that he trusted me gave me a real sense of belonging.”
That’s an appropriate word – belonging – and one that audiences of Broadsides will recognise. It feels like the company belongs to us and we belong to them.
“We’re very open, very happy to have people in to see what we do, to see us make the work even,” says Nelson.
“The work is rigorous and necessary and most of the time when you see art you see only nine-tenths of it, you only see the surface. We say come and see the dirty bits below, we’ll shake your hand and bring you in – this is publicly funded stuff, we want to show you what we do. It’s entertainment, it’s inspirational, we should all experience it together and we definitely don’t need to put it on a pedestal.”
Nelson might not want the work on one, but Broadsides the company, 25 years since its birth, remains on a pedestal for many.
Cyrano, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, April 4 to 8; York Theatre Royal, April 11 to 15; The Viaduct, Halifax, May 9 to 13. For full details go to northern-broadsides.co.uk