Glen Walford: ‘I got Willy Russell to play Shirley Valentine after a bottle of wine’
Soon after she took over the running of the Liverpool Everyman in the 1980s, Glen Walford invited local hairdresser-turned-playwright Willy Russell to write a show for her, following the huge success of his musical Blood Brothers at the Playhouse.
“What I really wanted was a musical,” recalls Walford, “but he came up with a play for one woman. I said to him: ‘Does she sing?’ Willy replied: ‘No, she cooks egg and chips.’ ”
Sensing her disappointment, Russell read her the first act and Walford was hooked. The latest incarnation of the play, now on tour with Jodie Prenger, will be the fifth time Walford has directed Shirley Valentine.
Walford says: “The reason it’s still done and still relevant is that it deals with universal things like the fear of taking risks, low self-esteem and feeling you haven’t lived life to the full. It’s been produced all over the world.”
For a director whose reputation is built on richly theatrical shows involving big ideas and huge companies, isn’t having a cast of one a bit disconcerting?
“You really have to like your actor, otherwise you’d go crazy,” she says, smiling. “I liked Jodie as soon as I met her. She has an inner radiance and she made Willy and me laugh at the audition. I’m not overly fond of in-depth analysis in rehearsal, but there is an intensity about directing one person that requires every ounce of your concentration and energy.”
The original Shirley in 1986 was Noreen Kershaw, who had to drop out with a burst appendix with three weeks still to run. “I’d said to Willy that we couldn’t afford an understudy and that if anything happened to Noreen he would have to go on, half joking. He agreed to do it provided I was there every night, that I announced to the audience what was happening and that I shared a bottle of wine in his dressing room before he went on. We also offered to refund anyone who didn’t fancy it, but of course nobody moved. He did it for three weeks, reading from the script, and it was packed every night.”
It has become the stuff of legend among those who saw it. “I never expected to have to go on,” says Russell, “but it sort of built up a head of steam. Now you could fill the Albert Hall with the number of people who say they saw it. Being a phenomenally positive person, Glen embraced the idea of my playing Shirley. She wouldn’t allow it to be done apologetically. Later that year, the Liverpool Daily Post gave the best actress to Noreen, and the best supporting actress to me.”
Walford grew up in Kidderminster, Worcestershire, and says at her secondary school she always felt more at home on stage than she did anywhere else. Failing in get into RADA or the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, she went on to read English at Bristol University, supporting herself as a secretarial temp in London during the holidays. She also applied to Granada’s trainee theatre directors’ course.
“I had a strange mixture of confidence and fear, so when I didn’t get on to the directors’ course I berated one of the panel, Jim Haynes, who was running the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, for not selecting me and he offered me a job. However when I turned up at the Traverse some time later, he seemed to have forgotten all about it. I challenged him and eventually he said he would pay me £10 a week and I could do anything I liked. The first thing I did at the Traverse was an acting job with John Thaw, and the second thing was an adaptation of The Wife of Bath, a solo show that I wrote, directed and played in. So I got into directing by accident, really.”
After a brief spell at the Royal Court in London – “the token girl in a very masculine environment” – Walford was invited to set up her own company by the now defunct Greater London Arts Association.
“Originally they wanted me to set up a touring theatre to put on shows in community halls in London, but I didn’t fancy that, so I made up something on the spot. I said: ‘How about a plastic bubble sort of thing that looks as if it has just landed from out of a space in a park?’ God knows where that came from, but to my amazement they said okay.”
Q&A: Glen Walford
What was your first non-theatre job? Secretarial temping for the BBC.
What was your first professional theatre job? Appearing in La Musica at the Traverse.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? That being bossy and losing your temper isn’t the best way to get your point across. I actually used to frighten people. I’ve had to learn to be gentler and more encouraging.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Colin George who ran Sheffield Playhouse. It was his idea for me to direct.
What’s your best advice for auditions? The minute you enter the room, the director is sizing you up. Do whatever you can to stay in the moment. Never try to second-guess the person who is taking the audition.
If you hadn’t been a director and actor, what would you have been? An explorer or a pilot.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I carry a piece of solidified lava my father brought back from Pompeii with me, and hold it for luck.
For eight years the Bubble Theatre toured London’s parks every spring and summer, putting on vibrant, funny, music-filled, populist and usually home-grown shows in a big tent, aimed at attracting people who didn’t normally go to the theatre. It was quite unlike any other kind of theatre on offer at the time, owing more to Joan Littlewood than George Devine. It was also a development of a style of music-theatre Walford had first evolved with the groundbreaking Theatre Vanguard at the Sheffield Playhouse in the late 1960s.
“We were basically a rep, only a travelling one, the circus coming to town. We saw the raising of the tent as all part of the spectacle. Our arrival at a location intrigued people like a funfair setting up their stalls. When we made our debut with The London Blitz Show in 1972, I’d never seen anything like it. People brought their kids, their dogs, their shopping. They weren’t scared to join in, hiss and boo. We could have been performing the Yellow Pages and I think they still would have had a good time.”
Walford ran the Bubble on and off for eight years, but, knowing it would one day come to an end, hung on to her freelance status and did other things at the same time. “It was hard to let go because I’d started it, but there were always logistical problems with the locations and all the technical equipment we had to lug around.”
Over her extraordinary six-decade career, Walford has probably directed as many shows as any director alive, and a good percentage of those have been in Europe, Japan and the Far East. In the late 1970s, she set up her own company, Chung Ying, in Hong Kong, her favourite port of call, and considered moving there permanently. In 1980 she was invited to direct the opening production at the 3,500-seat Queen Elizabeth Stadium.
“I love the adventure of working in a foreign language,” she says. “Drama and comedy bring cultures together. I’ve been trying to learn Japanese because I work there so much.”
According to Russell, at home or abroad, Walford inspires devotion in all her companies. “She loves to work and once she gets stuck into a show she gives it 1,000%. You always know she will do a fantastic job.”
Given her professional longevity and prodigious track record, it seems an odd question to ask, but has she ever felt at a disadvantage being a woman in what was, until fairly recently, a predominantly male field?
“Oh yes, of course, but I’m not the type to go on marches about it. When it comes to equality, I believe you must take the best person for the job. In the 1970s, you almost expected men to be sexist. These days, men are more careful about what they say, but you never know what they’re thinking.”
How has regional theatre changed since she started out? “I think the TV talent shows have done a lot to damage young people’s perceptions of what it takes to become an actor or a musical star, because they encourage you to believe you can be shot to fame without any graft at all. There is no conception of the incredible amount of hard work and dedication it takes to build a career.”
CV: Glen Walford
Born: Year undisclosed, Kidderminster
Training: Bristol University; no formal drama training
Career highlights: Founder-director of London Bubble Theatre (1972-79), Founder-director of Chung Ying Theatre Company, Hong Kong (1979-82), Artistic director, Liverpool Everyman (1983-89), Guest director, Epidaurus Festival (1988), Guest director, Educating Rita in Tokyo (in Japanese), Director, Our Day Out premiere, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry (1996), Director, Educating Rita, Liverpool Playhouse (2002), Director, Blood Brothers (new version), Hongik Daehangno Centre, Seoul (2014), Director, As You Like It, Hatfield House, Essex (2016)
Agent: Maureen Vincent, United Agents
Shirley Valentine tours the UK until September 23. shirley-valentine.com