Ian Brown has left the building – and returned to restage one of his popular hits. Arts Correspondent Nick Ahad spoke to the director.
During his time in charge of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, one of the big hits of Ian Brown’s tenure was the Alan Bennett version of The Wind in the Willows.
So it is little surprise Brown has chosen to stage the piece as his swansong as he prepares to say a last goodbye to the theatre.
Brown, artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse for ten years before stepping down this summer, is returning to the building this Christmas to wave a final farewell to the loyal audiences who watched his work during the decade he was in charge. One of the great traditions of Brown’s time as artistic director was the staging of a big Christmas show, often a musical. The Wind in the Willows kicked off the tradition, with other hits that followed including The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, The Wizard of Oz, Secret Garden, Peter Pan, A Christmas Carol and Annie. But it was The Wind in the Willows that remains closest to Brown’s heart.
“For me it was the beginning of a lot of things at the Playhouse – it was the one that started that whole tradition of us staging a Christmas show,” says the director.
“It was always going to be the one that I came back to do, to say a proper goodbye to the theatre.”
While he left his post earlier this year and his final show as artistic director was the critically acclaimed Waiting for Godot, it was always on the cards for Brown to return to the theatre this Christmas, albeit as “just” a freelance director. The stage version of The Wind in the Willows that Brown directed 10 years ago is a joyous, celebratory piece and was full of a “feelgood factor” which audiences fell in love with.
Arriving in Leeds from The Traverse theatre in Edinburgh in 2001 to take over the reins from Jude Kelly, Brown was a safe pair of hands for West Yorkshire Playhouse during the decade he was in charge, but towards the end of his tenure was when he received some of the best reviews of his career to date, with King Lear, starring Tim Pigott-Smith, a vast, sweeping epic production on the stage of the Quarry Theatre. It is the same stage on which The Wind in the Willows was presented in 2003 – and will be this time.
“It’s a piece I am very fond of, I have a great warmth for this play, but the first time I did it, I hadn’t done many shows in the Quarry. It is a big space to fill and I think I learnt over the years how to work with it, so it’s going to be great to get back to it and take another look at this piece.”
The version of The Wind in the Willows being directed by Brown is written by Alan Bennett and was a major hit for the National Theatre when it was first staged. Based on Kenneth Grahame’s much-loved classic novel, it tells the story of Mole, Ratty, Mr Toad and Mr Badger and their adventures.
“Quite a few people have said to me that they would like to see the play return to the Playhouse and I understand why. There is something very ‘Alan Bennett’ about the piece, while remaining faithful to Kenneth Grahame. I do think this time round it is sharper and the music parts are much stronger; there is a different cast, different designer, I think the whole thing will have a very different feel to it.”
While he was artistic director at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Brown made one or two forays for work outside the theatre, sometimes to direct in London, but when it came to actually leaving the Playhouse, as the boss, for the last time, he had not lined up any work.
“I always knew that leaving the Playhouse and also moving away from Leeds was going to be quite difficult, but when I left I suddenly felt quite useless. It wasn’t just leaving a job and a building I had been with for a decade, it was leaving everything and moving to London. It took me quite a while to get used to that. It was great to know that I’d be coming back to do a Christmas show, which seemed like a really nice way to say a proper goodbye to the building,” he says.
Given the long lead time theatres have when it comes to planning, the current season and a significant chunk of the coming Spring season were programmed by Brown before he left so, even though new man James Brining has been at the helm for a little while, we are still watching the work Brown programmed. The handover, however, is complete, and Brown is rehearsing his new Christmas show in a building which is now being run by someone else. Does that feel strange?
“I never really considered it ‘my theatre’, it’s a place that belongs to the public and any of us who are artistic director are holding on to it until it’s time to pass the baton on, so it doesn’t actually feel odd.”
Timeless classic of English Literature
Published in 1908, Kenneth Grahame’s novel is one of the most loved in English Literature.
Its first adaptation for the stage came as early as 1929 and was famously written by Winnie the Pooh creator AA Milne.
In 1991 Alan Bennett penned a stage version for the National Theatre and also played the character of Mole. It was instantly hailed a success and has been produced a number of times since at theatres around the country, including at Newcastle’s Northern Stage two years ago.
West Yorkshire Playhouse, to Jan 19. 0113 2137700.