He’s worked with James Corden, Spider-Man and Paddington, now Cal McCrystal is directing Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe for the ENO and he’s ‘stuffing it with jokes’, he tells George Hall
Cal McCrystal – once dubbed “Britain’s funniest director” – is more in demand than ever. And the next project of this master of the comic set piece is to stage Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1882 operetta Iolanthe for the English National Opera.
The clowning veteran has an impressive back catalogue as an actor, director and physical comedy consultant for stage and screen, but Iolanthe – about a confrontation between the House of Lords and the fairy kingdom – is only his second operatic production.
His first came in 2014, when he directed an adaptation of Haydn’s Il Mondo Della Luna (Life on the Moon)  for English Touring Opera. It proved a useful introduction for staging the art form because he learned how the relationship with the conductor works – “what belongs to him and what belongs to you,” he says.
“It was also valuable in allowing me to see how versatile singers are these days. I did a very physical production and the singers were keen to develop the breadth to be able to run around and fall over while they were singing.”
Then, 18 months ago, ENO’s artistic director Daniel Kramer invited him to stage one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas. “He said: ‘Which one do you want to do? Don’t say Pirates or Mikado, because we already have those in the rep.’ So I read and listened to them all and Iolanthe was the one I thought I’d have the most fun with,” says McCrystal.
Over the course of his career working in film and theatre, he has become known for his particular style of comedy, which will feature prominently in Iolanthe. Its origins lie in his training: three years on an acting course, at what is now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, were followed by further studies with master clowns Pierre Byland and Philippe Gaulier.
“I’m very happy for it to be described as physical comedy, or even clowning,” McCrystal says. “I started directing shows with physical clowns and we developed our style together. The difference was, unlike most of those people, I also had a Shakespeare/Chekhov conservatoire training, so I tend to mix the two.
“When I do Alan Bennett or Joe Orton or Alan Ayckbourn I bring in these physical elements. I don’t think the big laughs come from clever lines – I think you laugh when people fall over, or fall down stairs, or whatever it is.”
He first directed theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe. In 1996 he worked on Let the Donkey Go, which became a festival hit, and with the Mighty Boosh and clown company Spymonkey , as well as creating comedy routines for Cirque du Soleil.
Nicholas Hytner asked him to join the National Theatre as associate director in 2011 to work on One Man, Two Guvnors  to mastermind the physical comedy for the show.
He continued to be in demand and even consulted on the physical comedy in films including The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and both Paddington movies, which included providing facial expressions for the bear from darkest Peru.
How has his approach to comedy influenced Iolanthe? “Some might say I’ve gone too far in places, but I know exactly where those places are and I’m not tempted to pull back. I’ve added a few extra gags to the dialogue without touching the lyrics or the period – so no Brexit jokes.”
This means potentially new challenges for the ENO’s principals and chorus. He says: “I am pushing them physically but they love the challenge. Every day has been enormous fun. Aside from the very complex choreography they have to learn, the biggest challenge is to simplify. I want all the performers to strip back. Don’t play it like a comedy – play it as if you believe it and allow the audience to laugh at you.”
Q&A: Cal McCrystal
What was your first non-theatre job? As a teenager, I worked in my local pet shop on Saturdays. I earned £3 a day. Loadsamoney!
What was your first professional theatre job? I spent two years presenting children programmes for ITV.
What’s your next job? Back to my beloved Giffords Circus for our 2018 show, My Beautiful Circus.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? That I would still be happily working in the industry 37 years later.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Mel Brooks. Laurel and Hardy. Philippe Gaulier. The performers I work with.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Don’t be scared. We want you to be good.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? Hopefully, I would have continued to perfom.
Occasionally, McCrystal admits to seeing eyebrows raised at how far he pushes the material. “In the first half there’s a very beautiful duet for Strephon and Phyllis and the performers are singing it just as they should, sitting on a tree stump looking into each other’s eyes. But I can’t just have that and so I have a lot of sheep coming in behind them.”
We had real sheep in the promo video I made and I’ll never work with them again. That’s official
Giving away one of the show’s secrets, he admits these will not, in fact, be real sheep. “We had real sheep in the promo video I made and I’ll never work with them again. That’s official.”
Of course, he has consulted his colleagues. “I said to the conductor, Timothy Henty: ‘Where in this beautiful piece of music do you forbid me to get a laugh?’ He said: ‘I’d rather you didn’t do it on this a cappella, or on this harmony, but here, here, here and here would be fine’ – and the places he identified were exactly the places I wanted them.”
Gilbert and Sullivan is, of course, definitely comic opera and McCrystal is clear he is hoping for plenty of laughter in the house. “I’m not just spending my time saying: ‘Oh, there’s a laugh on that line, put a pause before it’. I’m stuffing it with jokes that are more about our production than what is in the text. I love the text and I hope I’m bringing out every laugh that’s there, but I’m also adding our own.”
What about people who are not sure whether the creators’ work is for them? “I’m trying to make a show that everyone will love. I hope that people who have never seen Iolanthe before will say: ‘Oh my God, is this Gilbert and Sullivan? When’s the next one?’”
CV: Cal Mccrystal
Born: 1959, Belfast
Training: Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Ecole Philippe Gaulier
Landmark productions: Cooped, Spymonkey (2001), Stiff, Spymonkey (2000), Let The Donkey Go, Peepolykus (1996), The Mighty Boosh, Edinburgh Fringe (1998), Varekai, Cirque du Soleil (2002), Zumanity, Cirque du Soleil (2013), One Man, Two Guvnors, National Theatre (2012), Office Party, Barbican (2008), Don Quixote, Royal Shakespeare Company (2015)
Awards: Perrier award for best newcomer at the Edinburgh Comedy Awards for The Mighty Boosh
Iolanthe runs at the London Coliseum  from February 13-April 7