In the latest look at a show that should have opened this week but couldn’t, Lyn Gardner talks to Liz Stevenson, the new artistic director of Theatre by the Lake whose first season was due to open with a handful of world premieres, including The Climbers. We also looks at a significant show that opened this week in a previous year
The Climbers by British-Lebanese playwright Carmen Nasr was one of five world-premiere productions due to open at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick this summer, as part of the first season programmed under the leadership of new artistic director Liz Stevenson. The production would have run in rep from July 30 to October 27, with a press night on August 1.
“Guy Jones, who grew up climbing in Keswick and who was going to direct it, sent me the play when I was thinking about my first season,” says Stevenson. “It was such a gripping and haunting play. I knew we had to do it and it was exciting that it would be a world premiere in the main space.
“It felt so right for Theatre by the Lake because Keswick is the birthplace of the UK climbing movement. Famous mountaineers such as Doug Scott and Chris Bonington live locally. And who wouldn’t want the challenge of putting Everest on stage?”
The Climbers is about a couple who make a pact to climb Everest together. But when only one of them comes back, her account of what happened doesn’t match the memories of others.
‘We were on the edge of everything coming to life. It was heartbreaking’
“It has an interesting form with an unusual narration element,” Stevenson says. “Some scenes are domestic, and some are more surreal. It is interesting about what it is that drives people to climb, the relationship of humans to the landscape, and the Western ego and the need to conquer.”
Who was involved?
The show’s director was to be Guy Jones, with Max Johns designing. Jess Bernberg was to do the lighting design, with Alexandra Faye Braithwaite the sound designer and Chi-San Howard the movement director.
How far did they get?
“We got as far as the final design meeting,” says Stevenson. “There was a real element of spectacle and surprise around it. But losing the whole season was heartbreaking, particularly just at the point when we were right on the edge of seeing everything come to life. Emma Rice’s Malory Towers had been due to run from the end of March, which was an exciting start. We have lost the Christmas production too, and sadly we are now in the process of making redundancies. By late August we will be a very small team trying to rebuild from the ground up.”
Will The Climbers be seen eventually?
“I hope so, because there was quite a buzz around it. But I can’t say anything for sure. I really can’t see us doing a summer season next year, at least not in the same way. The world has changed, and we need to think about different ways of working,” says Stevenson.
“When I arrived here, I imagined I’d be leading the theatre through a process of evolution. Change was already coming, but Covid has altered where we find ourselves almost overnight. It’s like suddenly staring at a blank slate at the same time everyone is adjusting to the huge loss and the shock and the challenge the theatre closure brings to the community. The theatre has faced crises before, but it always managed to keep going, keep producing.”
What has Stevenson been doing during lockdown?
“Going on the steepest learning curve. I grew up in Chorley in Lancashire, where there wasn’t a theatre. If we wanted to go to the theatre we had to get on the train to Bolton. So, I know that a building can be a beacon of hope in a community and provide opportunities for that community, including local artists.
“What we are facing now is scary, but it is also a chance to listen to the community and reconsider what we do and why we do it. It was the local community who set this theatre up 20 years ago and we must listen to them, particularly the young people. Theatre by the Lake is the only producing theatre in Cumbria, a region where there is not much access to art. When it gets tough and feels overwhelming, I just remind myself that we have a job to do and we need to get on and do it.”
Further details: theatrebythelake.com
A show that did open this week, in 2012, was Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It tells the story of Christopher, an autistic teenager, who discovers his neighbour’s dog has been killed by a garden fork.
The production ran in the National Theatre’s Cottesloe space (now the Dorfman) from July 24 to October 27, with a press night on August 2.
The production was directed by Marianne Elliott, designed by Bunny Christie and featured terrific movement sequences by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett of Frantic Assembly. The cast included Nicola Walker, Paul Ritter, Niamh Cusack, Howard Ward, Luke Treadaway, Matthew Barker, Nick Sidi, Rhiannon Harper-Rafferty and Sophie Duval.
The show began as a bit of a summer sleeper, and some critics were dismissive of what they described as “cloying kidult entertainment” and a “self-conscious cuteness and sentimentality”. But Stephens’ clever version, combined with Christie’s witty design, in which infinite possibilities and multiplying confusions were represented in squares and numbers, ensured that this was a crowd-pleaser that went on to become a West End and international hit for the National Theatre.
It certainly wagged its tail at the box office. By the time it departed the West End in 2017, it had been seen by 2.5 million people worldwide. It had also won a slew of awards, including seven Oliviers and five Tonys. It became infamous in December 2013 when part of the Apollo Theatre ceiling collapsed during a performance. But it returned to the West End in 2014, taking up residence at the Gielgud Theatre, with the critics lining up to pat the mutt.
“Simon Stephens’ superb script has just gone on the GCSE syllabus. Yet Stephens would be the first to admit that his adroit, playful text is just one component among design, sound, lighting and movement. It’s an accessible, adorable union of the mainstream and the experimental,” declared Dominic Maxwell in the Times, while in Time Out Andrzej Lukowski wrote that the show “remains a thing of unbridled wonder”.