Musical to beat the funding cut blues

Daniel Evans.  Photo: Johan Persson
Daniel Evans. Photo: Johan Persson
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Sheffield Theatres’ artistic director Daniel Evans has a hit show, My Fair Lady, but he wants to talk about other things too, as Nick Ahad found out.

Here’s how it works – or at least, how it’s suppposed to work.

You’re directing a play, I turn up to interview you, you talk about the play – sell it – I write about said play. Daniel Evans wants to play a different game.

The artistic director of Sheffield Theatres is directing this year’s Christmas offering at Sheffield Crucible, My Fair Lady, which already looks like it is going to be a sell-out hit. Evans, clearly, wants to talk about the play, but as with most artistic directors he has also found himself playing the politician for the past couple of years, making the case for the arts and the need for – and great value of – public subsidy.

The week before we meet, Evans was one of a number of theatre directors from around the country who descended on the National Theatre, at the invitation of artistic director Nicholas Hytner, to join him and Danny Boyle to discuss the state of regional theatre.

Evans was invited to speak at the meeting – which is why it is actually quite apt to talk art and politics with him alongside My Fair Lady.

“It came from an article in which Nicholas Hytner said that he thought regional theatre was facing ‘clear and present danger’. He decided it would be a good idea to get us together to send out a united and clear message about the state we are in,” says Evans.

“Having Danny Boyle there was really important because he was able to draw a direct link from the regional, publicly subsidised theatre in Bolton, to the Olympic ceremony that he directed.

“It was great to have Danny there as the ‘Oscar- winning’ movie director, who delivered an amazing opening ceremony, but the important point was to say what happens when we get the Olympics again, many years from now? Where will the person who directs the opening ceremony next time come from – because the way we are heading with the funding of our theatres, it can only be someone from a very affluent background.”

It is telling that, while he is trying to sell his latest production – and clearly, that is what he is there to do – Evans also can’t help but talk about the current state of arts funding in the UK.

It comes from the fact that Evans himself discovered theatre in his local town in Wales, which inspired him to seek out bigger productions in Cardiff, then to London and it was those experiences that convinced him to train as an actor. It is safe to say that he really believes in the transformative power of theatre.

He is also, however, aware that, especially at this time of year, families are looking for some festive cheer. Even if it’s not just about pantomime, people want to see a show that will warm the cockles. Over the past few years Sheffield Crucible has joined other theatres in the region in staging big, spectacular Christmas shows.

The planning for My Fair Lady began over a year ago, when Evans started talking to Dominic West about the possibility of the Sheffield-born actor taking to the stage in a musical for the first time in his career.

“Dominic really wanted to do a musical and even though I have acted in many, I have never directed one,” says Evans.

“So I thought if I was going to do one, then I should pick the best and for my money this is one of the best three musicals ever written. For me, most musicals fall down on their book – the story – but this is based on one of the great plays by a titan of British theatre.”

West is best known for his TV work in The Wire and The Hour, but is returning to Sheffield with happy memories of his success in the role of Iago in Othello.

“He’s great, he’s got a fantastic voice and I think people are going to be really impressed,” says Evans.

“I was inspired to go into theatre when I was younger and maybe we can do the same for people here.”

Background to My Fair Lady

Based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmalion, in 1956 the play was adapted for the stage, using the same structure, but with added music and songs.

The title became My Fair Lady and it tells the story of Professor Henry Higgins, an expert in phonetics, who tries to turn a flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a high society lady.

The Broadway show, starring Rex Harrison as Higgins and Julie Andrews as Eliza, was a major hit and later turned into a film in 1964 with Harrison and Audrey Hepburn as Eliza.

My Fair Lady, Sheffield Crucible, to Jan 26. 0114 249 6000.