In the latest look at a show that should have opened this week but could not because of the coronavirus lockdown, Lyn Gardner talks to the Nottingham Playhouse artistic director Adam Penford. His revival of Pam Gem’s play about Edith Piaf was set to reunite Jenna Russell and Sally Ann Triplett on stage for the first time in 30 years
What is it?
A revival at Nottingham Playhouse of Pam Gems’ 1978 play, with songs by the French chanteuse Edith Piaf, was due to run from Friday May 8 to 23. The world premiere of Piaf had been produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon and starred Jane Lapotaire and a young Ian Charleson. The first Nottingham production in 1981 had Imelda Staunton in the lead role.
The Playhouse’s artistic director Adam Penford, who was due to direct, says: “Over the two and a half years since I’ve been at Nottingham, I’ve gone up and down the back stairs 20 times a day and there is a poster there for that 1981 production. It’s been percolating in my brain that we should do it again.
“Edith Piaf is such a strong working-class character – one who is not always likeable. That rebellious outlook chimes very much with Nottingham, which is sometimes called ‘the rebel city’. It’s a play with balls, and it was selling incredibly well.”
Who was involved?
“It was perfect, because I was longing to work with Jenna Russell who was playing Edith, and she knew that Sally Ann Triplett had done a reading of the part of Toine in New York for a revival that didn’t happen. So it was a dream getting them on stage together for the first time for three decades since they did Follies.”
Others already cast included Garry Robson, Sara Poyzer, Louis Gaunt and Samuel James. The lighting designer was Jack Knowles and the designer was Frankie Bradshaw.
Penford says: “We were transforming the auditorium into a boulevard cafe, complete with onstage bar, which was quite a logistical undertaking. The design was complete but because it was the third show in the season we hadn’t started building yet.”
How far did they get?
“We were two weeks off starting rehearsals,” Penford continues. “As has always been the case since I became an artistic director, I was behind with my preparation.”
Will it be rescheduled?
“I hope so. We want to do it next spring instead, but it’s about trying to align it with cast availability. But I’m hopeful we can do it. I will be prepared,” he says.
What is Penford doing during the shutdown?
“Learning a lot. I’ve learned so much since I arrived in Nottingham, but during the last few weeks the learning has accelerated,” he says. “A month ago, I had never heard of the word ‘furlough’. Now it’s what’s keeping us and other theatres afloat. It’s an anxious time – 75% of our income at the Playhouse is earned, and the questions we need to answer are about how we can be more financially robust in the future and also examine our purposes – what we do and who we do it for.
“We’ve currently got 11 different scenarios modelling our reopening. We can’t expect that when we reopen the doors the audience will just come back. What I’d really like to do is come back with something community-based. Our head of props has been making PPE, and local people liked that we were doing that and fulfilling our civic responsibility. They can see that the Playhouse is playing a role in the current situation. That’s important.”
Piaf was due to have its press night at Nottingham Playhouse on May 12, with the run continuing until May 23. Visit: nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk
Three Kingdoms, by Simon Stephens and directed by Sebastian Nübling, opened at London’s Lyric Hammersmith on May 8 and ran until May 19.
Stephens’ Lynchian nightmare about two detectives investigating a European sex-trafficking ring was an unusual thing for British theatre eight years ago. It was a pan-European co-production between the Lyric, Munich Kammerspiele and Estonia’s Theatre No99 with an international creative team and cast (including the UK’s Ferdy Roberts and Nicolas Tennant) and was performed in three languages.
It was notable because it exposed some of the fault lines in British theatre between younger practitioners with a European sensibility who embraced its strange hallucinatory qualities, and mainstream newspaper critics who responded with the same bewilderment with which they had greeted Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party and Sarah Kane’s Blasted.
The reviewers tutted loudly at what they saw as Nübling’s violation of the text, rather than accepting that Stephens was a willing collaborator. The Independent’s Paul Taylor railed against “the director interposing his own look-at-me ego between the subject and the audience”, Dominic Maxwell in the Times declared it “gratuitous,” and in the Guardian, Michael Billington criticised what he saw as the production’s excess.
While established critics were perplexed, a younger generation of bloggers responded with enthusiasm, welcoming the opportunity to engage with something difficult, different and complex.
Three Kingdoms was important not just for what it was, but because it was a flashpoint in British theatre criticism. It was the moment when British theatre belatedly recognised that the last word was no longer confined to the pronouncements of a few established critics, and that bloggers could also hold sway and offer a different narrative around a show.