Barrie Rutter is a tough act to follow, but Northern Broadsides’ new artistic director is not daunted. Nick Ahad reports.
Rarely can a theatre company’s identity have been so wrapped up in the personality of a single person.
Even though he was succeeded by Conrad Nelson when he stepped down as artistic director in 2017, the name of Barrie Rutter ran through the Northern Broadsides like Blackpool through a hard sugary seaside confection.
Nelson was always likely to be an interim captain, steadying the ship ready to be handed over to another skipper and that person turned out to be Laurie Sansom, who found himself in familiar territory when taking on a job previously occupied by a pretty big character.
In 2006 he became artistic director of the Royal and Derngate Theatre in Northampton, following Rupert Goold into the role. Then in 2013 he followed Vicky Featherstone into the position of artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland. Given that Featherstone had been the founder of the National Theatre, it was at the time a big role to fill.
“It feels like I’ve always been asked the question my whole career, how it feels to follow such successful and big characters and the truth is, it doesn’t really cross my mind,” says Sansom. “You take the job simply if it feels like a good fit between you, the company and the board of the company.”
Clearly everyone involved felt like it was a good fit and last year Sansom was announced as the new man in charge of the Halifax-based company. When he arrived it was actually a return to Yorkshire: he began his career learning at the side of one Sir Alan Ayckbourn at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. He was an associate artist at the theatre for four years from 2002.
“I was catching up with Alan soon after I came back and he said ‘they really couldn’t have found a more opposite person to Barrie to take over if they tried’. It’s true, I think we are very different,” says Sansom, understating the disparity a little. How different is something audiences will soon discover, as Sansom’s debut production for the company will be unveiled on Valentine’s Day at the Halifax Viaduct Theatre home of Broadsides.
Sansom is very aware of the lineage he follows, not just in terms of taking over from Rutter and Nelson, who were so integral to defining what Broadsides is, but also in terms of the company and its audiences. “When I was in Scarborough I saw that Broadsides was such a lynchpin to the season, which was the case not just for us, but for all the theatres where they toured,” says Sansom. “That remit of classics and new writing reflecting a particular part of the country was something I thought was so special and important and it really spoke to me. I have always been interested in work that does that. I thought joining Broadsides would be a great opportunity to come back to Yorkshire, where I had a very happy time. It surprised me, to be honest, what a good fit it was. It also seemed like a really good opportunity to bring some fresh and challenging new ideas to the company.”
Sansom is impressive. He’s also no fool. He knows that there is one heck of a tightrope he has to walk in paying respect to the history of Northern Broadsides while ensuring that it is moving forward and has a future. He’s playing his part perfectly, but it doesn’t feel like it’s put on. He’s genuinely seen an opportunity to do something new and exciting at the Halifax institution and is ready to make the most of that chance.
To wit, his first production as the man at the helm of Broadsides. Not a Shakespeare, not a new take on a classic, but a revival of a rarely seen little gem of a play.
JM Barrie is best known, of course, as the creator of Peter Pan.
“His playwriting career has been eclipsed by the boy who never grew up, but he was the first Edwardian English celebrity millionaire playwright,” says Sansom. “When I arrived we talked to our audiences a lot and asked them what it is they want to get from Broadsides and they kept saying the same thing: ‘a really entertaining night out’. That seems obvious, but it was just such a clear message. I put the Ibsen and Brecht to one side and started to look for a great broad comedy.
“I started to read a JM Barrie play and it was good, but I felt I knew where it was going. I assumed it was a gentle regency romcom and then it suddenly became this incredibly subversive, funny play with these brilliant female characters at the heart of it with a lot to say to a contemporary audience.” The play was called Quality Street. Sansom then discovered that the chocolates, made in Halifax, take their name from the JM Barrie play. “You literally can’t miss the factory because you see it from the train every time it pulls into the station at Halifax,” says Sansom. “The two lead characters in the play have appeared on every box of Quality Street since they were first made in Halifax in 1936. It was staring me in the face.”
It’s a pretty brilliant decision, you have to admit. It also looks to be quite a change of direction for the company, the rehearsal room populated by puppets as well as actors. “I’m not going to mess with the DNA of the company, so it will be Northern actors, speaking in their own voices and it will be bold and accessible storytelling,” says Sansom. “I will be doing some things differently, even just in terms of production, but it’s not necessarily something audiences will notice on a level other than subliminal. Of course as director I have my own tastes and style and that will be reflected, but audiences will still get great storytelling.”
They can also expect a bold new era for a Yorkshire treasure.
Quality Street runs at the Viaduct Theatre in Halifax from 14 – 22 Feb, before going to Leeds Playhouse 21 – 25 April, Stephen Joseph Theatre 12 – 16 May, Harrogate Theatre 19 – 23 May, Hull Truck Theatre 2 – 6 June and York Theatre Royal 9 – 13 June, https://www.northern-broadsides.co.uk/quality-street/