Since directing a pie-shop Sweeney Todd that transferred to the West End and New York, Bill Buckhurst has been in demand, with more Sondheim at the Watermill and the Boulevard Theatre’s first show, writes David Benedict
Having never directed a musical in his life, it’s fair to say that in the winter of 2014, Bill Buckhurst didn’t imagine he’d be directing the national tour of a new production of Sister Act. But that’s precisely what he’ll be doing next spring after a raft of other projects including, this week, opening London’s newest venue, the Boulevard Theatre, with the UK premiere of Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet. That his diary should be so impressively jammed is largely down to one show: Sondheim’s serial-killer-thriller Sweeney Todd.
Ever since the London transfer of the original Broadway production flopped in 1980 (it struggled through little more than four months), London has hosted countless revivals of the celebrated singalong-a-slasher. But none has been as dangerously inventive and darkly funny as Buckhurst’s version that began a remarkable journey in October 2014.
Created for Tooting Arts Club, a fringe theatre producing company led by Rachel Edwards that worked in found spaces, this production with a cast of eight and a band of three played just six weeks in Harrington’s 106-year-old pie shop to 32 people a night. Courtesy of Cameron Mackintosh, they then moved to a building he owned on Shaftesbury Avenue, converted it into a 69-seat venue and promptly became the talk of the town. Edwards then rebuilt New York’s tiny Barrow Street Theatre into a 130-seat venue, where it played for 18 months, beating the length of the original Broadway production and notching up the show’s longest ever run. “I’m very aware that it’s also the smallest,” laughs Buckhurst.
‘Until the moment Stephen Sondheim’s taxi arrived I don’t think we quite believed it. Rachel and I were in the street outside, stressed out’
But he’s justifiably proud of the achievement that was lauded to the skies, not least by Sondheim, who flew over for the last night in Tooting. “Until the moment the taxi arrived I don’t think we quite believed it. Rachel and I were in the street outside, stressed out with a full house packed with aficionados, so as soon as he walked in everybody knew.”
Not everything went according to plan during that show. The show used only one blood bag, released by Jeremy Secomb, playing Sweeney, while slitting the judge’s throat. “They’re tricky but he’d mastered it so that, every night, the blood shot off stage left. Until that night, when something slipped and the blood spurted straight at Sondheim… but luckily plumed right over his head.”
Nothing, however, could have pleased Sondheim more, since he had conceived the musical as a small-scale terror to simultaneously scare and delight audiences. It was he who asked Mackintosh if another space could be found and he was back repeatedly when it went to New York.
“At one preview he said: ‘Look around. It’s magnificent to be able to do this. You don’t get many opportunities to do something like this in your career. Remember that.’ ”
Buckhurst’s original career plan had been quite different. After a degree in French he did the postgraduate acting course at Webber Douglas and worked as a jobbing actor. But he had directed at university and wanted to do that too.
Having always loved Shakespeare, he became immersed in it, playing in a history cycle at the Royal Shakespeare Company: “Small parts, wonderful time.”
While at Stratford he directed Anthony Neilson’s The Night Before Christmas for the RSC fringe. He then took it to the Bridewell, where Neilson saw it.
Buckhurst’s fringe career took off with a host of productions including The Vegemite Tales – his first paid directing job – which had splendid reviews. “I kept on being unavailable for auditions. My acting agent at the time asked: ‘Which are you, actor or director?’ Casting directors would come up and say: ‘Given up acting?’ ” He assisted Dominic Cooke at London’s Royal Court on Aunt Dan and Lemon and then assisted and was in Neilson’s young people’s show at the same venue – Get Santa! – which was hairy. “It was written during rehearsals. We were still doing the last scene half an hour before we went on for the first preview.”
His other career motor was Shakespeare’s Globe, where he initially worked in the education department directing full-scale productions of 90-minute versions of the plays, free of charge to London schoolkids. Alongside artistic director Dominic Dromgoole, he co-directed the Hamlet that toured the world for two years.
Buckhurst’s multifaceted work at the Globe “sharpened my directorial toolkit” and led him to directing a succession of short films for Dromgoole for the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. “I did a take on the abdication in Richard II and we shot it in the Great Hall of Westminster, the very place it would have happened. James Norton played Richard II.”
He also did a Lear short with Zawe Ashton and Joseph Marcell and The Comedy of Errors with Omid Djalili. He loved the medium so much that when Dromgoole founded a production company, Buckhurst directed his first feature. Pond Life, released earlier this year, is an indie adaptation of Richard Cameron’s 1992 slice-of-life play, premiered at the Bush, about a group of kids one summer in a South Yorkshire mining village.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Sorting the dirty laundry at the Kensington Roof Gardens Hotel. It was in the basement. It felt like minus two degrees.
What was your first professional theatre job?
When I was eight or nine, I played one of the princes in the Tower for BBC Radio 4 with Ian Holm as Richard III, recorded at BBC Maida Vale.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Don’t compare yourself or your career to other people’s.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
What’s your best advice for auditions?
I wish someone had told me not to take it personally. If the job isn’t right for you, you won’t want to do that job.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
A teacher. I love working with young people.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
As an actor I was terribly superstitious but as a director, I have none.
In the meantime, Sondheim is back on the agenda. Nottingham Playhouse and the Watermill wanted a co-production and chose Assassins. Buckhurst knew the score but, happily, his view of Sondheim and John Weidman’s show was unclouded, having never seen it performed. His production, now running, rebalances things in two ways.
“We have a female balladeer. That’s not been done before. Having a female voice throughout looking at predominantly male history gives it a fresh perspective,” Buckhurst says.
His insightful handling of musical theatre stems in part from direct experience. He learned piano, then violin – “I was one of those bad violinists kicked into the orchestra’s viola section” – and then took up the bassoon. He’d wanted to play sax but had his arm twisted “because the second orchestra needed a bassoonist”. That understanding led him to cast Assassins with actor-musicians.
“They’re a natural fit for Sondheim. When he’s writing, he’s living and breathing every moment of the emotional journey, so having all three elements created by the actor making all the sounds makes total sense. There’s real symbiosis.”
Other projects on the horizon include a large-scale project in Beijing and a new musical, entirely under wraps, that he’s workshopping at the end of this year. But first, the little matter of opening the Boulevard Theatre.
While in New York with Sweeney Todd, he and Rachel Edwards, now artistic director of the Boulevard, saw Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy’s maverick musical take on War and Peace. “We sat at the back in the cheapest seats and we loved it.” So when Edwards began programming the Boulevard, Buckhurst suggested Malloy’s Ghost Quartet.
“It’s a later piece, closer to a song cycle for four actor-musicians in a room. Malloy is an encyclopedia of music history, a musical magpie. He’ll take bebop and twist it into a number in the style of Bowie. He’s unafraid to draw on a myriad of influences – jazz, rock’n’roll, bluegrass, musical theatre – to create a style all his own. Each song individually is a beautiful nugget of storytelling but with threads that collide and overlap.”
Versatility is also one of the most immediately impressive things about the Boulevard itself. The theatre space can be totally reconfigured at, as Buckhurst puts it, “the flip of a switch”. So what staging shape is he using for Ghost Quartet? “The musical invites the audience into the world it creates, so we’re doing it in-the-round.”
Does directing the inaugural show there add unwelcome pressure? “Not pressure – more excitement. It’s not every day you get to be involved in the beginnings of a new theatre.”
Born: 1972, London
Training: Acting at Webber Douglas
• Sweeney Todd, Tooting Arts Club (2014), Shaftesbury Avenue (2015), Barrow Street Theatre, New York (2017)
• Renee Stepham Award for best presentation of touring theatre at the UK Theatre Awards for Hamlet, Globe Tour (2014)
• The Stage Awards – for Hamlet, Globe Tour (2015)
• Outstanding revival at the Lucille Lortel Awards for Sweeney Todd (2017)
• Best musical revival at the Off-Broadway Alliance Awards for Sweeney Todd (2017)
• Best musical production at the Off West End Awards for Sweeney Todd (2015)
Agent: Jessica Stone at Independent Talent
Ghost Quartet runs at the Boulevard Theatre, London, until January 4
Assassins is at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury, until October 26 and Nottingham Playhouse from October 30 to November 16
Sister Act starts a UK tour at Leicester Curve on April 21, 2020