Interview – director Derek Bond brings Sweet Charity to the Royal Exchange Manchester

derekbondFor its Christmas show the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester is staging the Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields musical Sweet Charity, with a book by Neil Simon based on the Fellini film, Nights of Cabiria.

DEREK BOND has returned to the venue to direct the show. Musical Theatre Review’s Chris Bartlett wrote in his review: “And for a joyous 160 minutes this Royal Exchange revival barely puts a foot wrong, finding fresh ways to re-stage Fosse’s iconic choreography in the round, while Derek Bond’s bustling yet metronomic direction nails the flailing maelstrom of personal abandon that surrounds its central character perfectly.”

Bond’s work for the Exchange includes the hugely successful Little Shop of Horrors by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken which was nominated for three Manchester Theatre Awards.

Other credits include As You Like It (Southwark Playhouse), Microcosm (Soho Theatre), Shiver and Lost in Yonkers (Watford Palace), Many Moons (Theatre503) and Floyd Collins (Southwark Playhouse) which was named Best Musical at the Off West End Awards, and was nominated for the Ned Sherrin Award for Best Musical at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards. Other projects have included Jess and Joe Forever (Orange Tree Theatre) and Stig of the Dump (Storyhouse Chester). He was associate director of Theatre503 from 2010-2011. He is also the creator of the PLAYlist project.

Here, he is in conversation with Michael Darvell.

Kaisa Hammarlund Richard Davenport

Kaisa Hammarlund in Sweet Charity at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Picture: Richard Davenport

Was it your idea to stage Sweet Charity for Christmas in Manchester?

It was on a list of shows that I really wanted to do and also on [Royal Exchange artistic director] Sarah Frankcom’s list. We both felt that Sweet Charity was a really exciting choice for the space; we imagined the world swirling around Charity as people come into and out of her life. There’s something very exciting about the Royal Exchange’s space. Characters can enter and exit very fluidly. It keeps the energy going.

Sweet Charity is essentially a dance musical and has been ever since Bob Fosse was involved with the original production. Are you obliged to follow his choreography in the way that Jerome Robbins put his stamp on West Side Story?

No. When you do West Side Story you are generally contractually obliged to use the original Jerome Robbins choreography, but that is not the case with Sweet Charity. Hence we’ve got an amazing choreographer, Aletta Collins, who has created all new original choreography for the show.

In Aletta Collins you have a choreographer with a wide range of experience including Ballet Rambert, London Contemporary Dance Theatre, the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne, the National Theatre etc. Does she have a particular style that runs through her work or is every project totally different?

What’s really exciting about Aletta is the way that she approaches the work. She has got an amazing knowledge of dance history that she brings to everything. In finding a language for the ‘Rich Man’s Frug’ she actually went back to social dance from the 1920s. That might seem unusual for a musical set in 1960s, but it is absolutely the right language for the Pompeii club – a place for the wealthy and famous, where Charity does not belong. Aletta takes that existing language and twists it and moves it on and abstracts it, until it’s something totally new and unlike anything you’ve seen before.

There are great possibilities in Sweet Charity for all kinds of movement styles in songs such as ‘Big Spender’, ‘Rich Man’s Frug’, ‘If My Friends Could See Me Now’, ‘There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This’, ‘The Rhythm of Life’, ‘Where Am I Going?’ etc, and every one is a winner…

I love the music in this show, and so does Aletta, and together we felt really inspired by it. It’s a show that I really wanted to see and I really hope it’s a show that other people want to see as well.

Following in the footsteps of the likes of Gwen Verdon, Ann Reinking, Shirley MacLaine, Juliet Prowse, Bonnie Langford and Tamzin Outhwaite, the show needs a great talent to play Charity. It seems that Kaisa Hammarlund has experience in several different kinds of musicals such as A Little Night Music, Legally Blonde and Desperately Seeking Susan. Did you know her work before or did she just come in for an audition?

Kaisa and I have known each other for over ten years. I was the associate director on Desperately Seeking Susan and we first met in a workshop for that show. I was amazed then by her talent and skill.

sweet-charity-production-photos2-photo-credit-richard-davenport-for-the-other-richardAnd then she was kind enough to be in a production of a South African play called African Gothic that I directed at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington. It’s just had a refurb, but then it was just a room behind a pretty rough pub in south London. Drunk people looking for the toilets would stagger onto the stage in the middle of the show. That production was designed by James Perkins and lit by Sally Ferguson and I’m so pleased that we’re here at the Royal Exchange all working together again.

And Kaisa and I also worked on As You Like It, which I directed at Southwark Playhouse a couple of years ago. I’d work with Kaisa on every show if I could. She’s an amazing actor with huge talent.

Are there any problems in staging a musical in the round at the Royal Exchange? You had a great success with Little Shop of Horrors there. Was that a good experience?

Yes, there are problems. A lot of musicals like Little Shop of Horrors and in fact Sweet Charity were written with a proscenium arch theatre in mind. So you can’t do them in exactly the way that the people who wrote them were imagining you would do them. But that means you are coming at them from a completely fresh and new angle.

So what might seem like a problem becomes something really inspiring because it feels like we are doing the first production of this show; a really brilliant tried and tested classic musical.

Fosse’s choreography is all about the frame and the silhouette that looks great in a proscenium arch, but doesn’t make sense in the round. So what Aletta has done is to bring it into three dimensions. What initially felt like a problem has ended up becoming a great strength of the show. We both really love the space at the Royal Exchange and drawing inspiration from its eccentricities.

What sort of training did you have?

I did a degree in Drama and Theatre Arts at University of Birmingham and then started being an assistant director. I assisted at places like the Almeida, at the National Theatre on The History Boys and The Alchemist, and I’ve also been an assistant or associate on tour and in the West End.


Picture: Richard Davenport

You have directed As You Like It and Floyd Collins at the Southwark Playhouse, one of the best Fringe houses in London, and you have worked both in small spaces such as Soho Theatre and Theatre503 in Battersea as well as traditional houses like Watford Palace. Do you have any preference for the type of theatre you work in?

I always try and make the work suit the space that it is going to be in. The relationship between the audience and the actors is so important and I like it when that relationship is an intimate one. I really love doing theatre in the round.

This is my third production in the round this year – I did Stig of the Dump at Storyhouse in Chester, I did Jess and Joe Forever at the Orange Tree in Richmond. I really enjoy the round because the problems end up posing exciting puzzles that need to be solved, and because the audience is really part of the action.

In your Guardian interview you bemoaned the fact that it is difficult to survive as a full-time stage director. Is it getting any easier or are you still forced to work outside the theatre in the lean times?

I hope I wasn’t moaning! I wrote that piece only about eight months ago, and as soon as Sweet Charity has finished I’ll be looking for some work at a temping agency to tide me over until my next directing job.

It is incredibly difficult to make ends meet when you are directing shows, simply because (like all freelancers) you don’t know when that next show is going to come along, the gaps between them can be large.

I think there are very few directors, particularly freelance directors, who are making enough money from the shows they direct to really survive on that alone. That’s partly because of the amount theatre can pay to directors, and partly because there are fewer and fewer jobs to go around.

Largely for financial reasons, more theatres are doing co-productions, which is a great thing in terms of theatres working together, but whereas before three theatres might each be producing a show and each hiring a different director, now those theatres are collaborating on one co-production and hiring just one director. So it is a particularly difficult time to be a freelancer.

I think, as I said in the Guardian article, most freelance directors are semi-professional – its just something that not a lot of directors talk about, but it’s something that everybody has to do.

sweet-charity-production-photos%0a%0aphoto-credit-richard-davenport-for-the-other-richardWould you ever be interested in working on television or for the cinema?

There’s a strange idea that somehow theatre is what you do in order to get into film or TV which is wrong. I love theatre and if I could I would work in theatre always, but certainly if someone wanted to offer me some camera-based work I’d leap at the chance, but directing film or TV is very different to directing theatre.

Are there any other musicals you would just love to direct, given the chance?

Absolutely, I’ve got a list as long as your arm, none of which I am going to tell you, as that would totally jinx it! But I can tell you some musicals that I love. West Side Story is probably my favourite musical, and I’d love to have a go at that with some original choreography. I’ve loved Parade since I first saw it at the Donmar a few years ago. And I love Kander and Ebb’s work. Almost everything by them is wonderful – I’d love to do Cabaret.

And what is it to be next for director Derek Bond? Are there any firm plans ahead?

The next thing I’m doing is Alice in Wonderland at the new Storyhouse theatre in Chester, which I’m really excited about. It’s a new adaptation of the classic story which is really bold. And to be working in that new theatre – it’s going to be one of the first shows that’s going to be on there – is going to be hugely exciting. I had a blast working there earlier this year on Stig of the Dump at the Open Air Theatre in the park so I’m really excited to be going back.

* Sweet Charity continues at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 28 January 2017.

Readers may also be interested in:

Sweet Charity – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester – Review


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