A theatre season to remember

West Yorkshire Playhouse Artistic Director James Brining.
West Yorkshire Playhouse Artistic Director James Brining.
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The West Yorkshire Playhouse’s new chief has announced his first season. James Brining spoke exclusively to Nick Ahad about his plans.

Good news: the new boss at West Yorkshire Playhouse is a man of his word.

In an exclusive interview with the Yorkshire Post when he first arrived to take over the Leeds theatre, James Brining outlined his plans. He had big ambitions, but his aim was clear. He wanted to strengthen the connection the theatre had to the city it was in, but keep an eye on the national and indeed international picture. Conquer Leeds, then West Yorkshire and, well, the rest would follow.

His first season – the first he has fully programmed – will be seen by audiences in September. He launched the season at the Playhouse last night, but gave the Yorkshire Post an exclusive preview of what he will be bringing audiences come the autumn.

Clearly the proof of the pudding is yet to be seen, but Brining is on a serious mission to place the theatre of which he is now in charge on a significant platform.

The plans Brining revealed show that he has absolutely committed to rooting his theatre in the vibrant ecology currently being experienced by performance artists in Yorkshire. Among the big plans are ideas that will make the Playhouse walls more porous – a telling phrase he used when we first met. It means we will see the likes of Rash Dash and Unlimited Theatre, both resident companies in the theatre, take a more active role in the way the Playhouse is run. We will also see more scratch events, more smaller, lower key works taking the Playhouse in a new and exciting direction.

All these will be built around, however, four tent poles of Brining’s first season.

Briefly these are Sweeney Todd, which Brining will direct, My Generation by Leeds writer Alice Nutter, a Christmas production of The Jungle Book and a new production of a play for children, also at Christmas.

“Even though I’ve been around since last summer, this is the first season I have programmed entirely,” says Brining, whose enthusiasm is infectious, but underpinned by a steely core.

“It is a new start and a new era. With my first season I want to demonstrate that idea of a new beginning – we’re not chucking the baby out with the bathwater, but I do want to say to our audiences, quite clearly, that here is a new start and here are some new ideas.”

The first production, is a big one – in many different ways.

The Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd is one that has played an important part in Brining’s career to date.

“I first saw this show at the National Theatre in the early 1990s and I thought it was just absolutely stunning,” says Brining.

“At the time I remember it was one of those theatre experiences that has a huge impact and I remember thinking that one day I wanted to direct that show.” Brining did go on to direct it, while he was running Dundee Rep, with some considerable success. This is not a case, however, of him wheeling out a safe show he has already stage successfully.
“It’s a really political piece of work and it feels particularly pertinent right now. I had virtually an infinite number of shows I could have chosen, but this spoke to me because it has something to say about today, because it’s epic, it’s entertaining, ambitious, not pretentious and is like a real rollercoaster.”

Given that he will have a lot of eyes on this first production, what does Brining think it will say about the commencement of his reign?

“I hope it demonstrates my ambition. It’s an entertaining show, but it also has weight – I want this to be a theatre for lots of people.”

He will surely achieve that aim with the second piece of work, Alice Nutter’s My Generation, which spans four decades of a family in Leeds, stretching from the 1970s.

“I wish I could direct this piece,” says Brining. “It’s important that we have the Leeds accent in the work that we do and this is a brilliant play about family and politics, particularly oppositional politics – for me it’s like an autobiography of an aspect of Leeds and feels like a story that hasn’t been told yet.”

“Our primary focus right now is Leeds, and I know people will complain, because we are the West Yorkshire Playhouse, but I need people to give me time – there is only so much I can do with four shows that we are producing. This is the start of a much longer term plan for this theatre.”

Brining will keep the tradition of a big Christmas show, with internationally renowned director Liam Steel – who choreographed the movie Les Miserables, taking the helm of what promises to be a spectacular new production of The Jungle Book for the Quarry Theatre in November.