LUKE SHEPPARD, a young director with a varied – and critically lauded – handful of shows under his (relatively) newly-donned belt, talks to Musical Theatre Review’s Oliver Beatson about his latest production, the Watermill Theatre’s up-and-coming production of Oliver!
In what looks to be Oliver! with a twist – the production (playing at the Newbury venue from 31 July to 19 September) will offer the theatre’s signature integrated-musician staging together with its Victorian surroundings and enticing proximity.
[Sheppard’s acclaimed European premiere production of In the Heights, originally at Southwark Playhouse, will also return to London – the King’s Cross Theatre – on 3 October for a four-week season.]
First things first: what brought you together with this production?
So, since I was younger I’ve always gone to the Watermill Theatre. I grew up not too far away, and throughout my adult working life I’ve still made the pilgrimage down there to see their summer and Christmas shows. While I was there, I’d always knock on the door of Hedda Beeby, who runs the building, and say, “Can I work here one day?” and she’d give me a cup of tea and say “Ooh, maybe, maybe!“
Then, a couple of years ago, I did a production Cameron Mackintosh came to see, and he was very supportive and encouraging, and he actually said to Hedda, “It’d be great to do Oliver! here, and perhaps you should think about Luke doing it with you,” so we joined those dots and went from there. I’d been in Oliver! as a child at the Palladium, so I had a bit of a soft spot for the show, so I suppose in many ways it feels like coming full circle: my adult working life as a director connecting back to my life as a child performer.
What show had Cameron Mackintosh seen of yours?
I directed a drama school production of Betty Blue Eyes, and he was very supportive of that, and so he was quite key in agreeing to let the Watermill do the show. He is one of the patrons of the theatre, so it has quite a special place in his heart, as well.
Do you think having that inside knowledge, having performed in the show as a child, augments how you direct it?
Well, I think one of the most important things about the piece is this idea of all the boys being in it together: the rest of the gang is their family, and that’s something I really remember about being in the production, that it felt like being in a family. So I think it absolutely informs the way I approach it with the young people; it has to be their show and they have to feel a real sense of ownership over it. So yeah, Oliver!’s sort of in my blood!
And it’s exciting to watch, in the early rehearsals we’ve had so far, the kids responding to it in a way that I remember responding to it, however many years ago! I think what is really helpful for me though is that this production will be completely different from both the Palladium and Drury Lane productions, just through necessity. There’s no way we could ever achieve that epic, cinematic, glorious, brilliant production that Cameron Mackintosh put together on those stages – we have to reimagine it from a place of respect that runs through my veins from having been in it, but we have to be much more resourceful, which I think brings a whole wealth of exciting opportunities along with it.
This isn’t the first piece you’ve done with a sizeable younger cast. Does your job change much between directing adults and younger performers?
Actually, not really, I think I treat the adults like children and the children like adults, in many respects! Children are incredibly creative and often do much without you even having to ask. So I think in Oliver! for example, but which was also true for Matilda, as well as The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, another show I just directed, they are much about creating one ensemble, where the children are just as much part of that – everyone can learn from everybody else.
Whether you’re a nine-year-old nipper, or an… older (I won’t give an age!) actor playing Mr. Brownlow. Obviously a huge amount of care goes into making sure the children have an amazing experience. We’re really lucky that we get to do this as our grown-up jobs, but for the children, it’s not a job – it’s an investment of their spare time. And it’s very important to me that for them it’s a hobby with a really positive outcome. That would be the only major difference: the level of care and protection that goes into making sure that ultimately we return to the children a fantastic experience, in exchange for them giving up a portion of their younger developing life rehearsing with us.
The Watermill’s interior is pretty intimate, but it’s also really evocative of the kind of location you think of for a show like Oliver!…
Yeah, that’s what’s amazing about it: it feels like returning Oliver! to its natural home. When it was put together at the Palladium and back at Drury Lane it changed the face of musical theatre in many ways: it was one of the first shows not to use a front cloth, to not obsess over hiding the lights away, and the set was revolutionary at the time. But one of the sources the original set designer looked at was an old mill, as a starting point. So the fact that we’re now performing it, in a repurposed old mill, is like we’re taking that idea, that metaphor to its extreme, and we’re absolutely in conversation with those original aspirations of the creative team.
If we get it right it should feel like you’re in the workhouse. It should be explosive, it’s a small space and this is the biggest show that they’ve ever done. Some people think we’re absolutely bonkers to be taking it on, but to be honest, I think it’s going to bounce beyond those walls, and be incredibly exciting!
It’s great to hear a show being given such a fresh, inventive outing. On a more personal level, what does the piece mean to you, as a story?
For me, it was one of the first theatrical experiences I ever had. I remember walking into that theatre, watching that show, walking out and saying: that’s what I want to do. I think maybe it’s because I connected to the fight in Oliver – wanting to leave the workhouse for the smoke of London. Maybe, as a 12-year-old, that was something that appealed to me, the glamorous, colourful world that London represented. The land of opportunity, aspiration, and that idea of following your dream resonated with me. That’s something very much at the forefront of my mind, taking this on.
But ultimately, it’s a story about love. It’s no coincidence that Oliver sings ‘Where is Love?’ and there’s many ways to read that – where is his love for a significant other as he grows older; where is the love for his mother; for his family; where is love, for a place where he belongs. I think that’s a universal story to tell. The romantic in me believes that we all have that place we belong, and Oliver! is a beautiful, playful, brilliant way of telling that story, with a lot of fun along the journey.
Absolutely. And musically, it’s extraordinary – Lionel Bart’s hit rate is incredible! There isn’t a duff song in the show and every one is memorable, on so many levels: both on the base, tuneful level, but also in that lyrical kernel of what gives each song its own identity; those are great thoughts in their own right. ‘As Long As He Needs Me’ is just a brilliant piece of storytelling. ‘Reviewing the Situation’ is so lyrically sophisticated, as well as having that fantastic tune to go with it. It’s an absolute joy to be hearing that music again.
The Watermill Theatre has a tradition – including the origin of John Doyle’s Sweeney Todd that ended up on Broadway – of using actor-musicians. Will Oliver! be doing this?
Yes! Part of what we’re doing is making it a real ensemble piece, and it is 22 people every night telling this story – and they happen to provide the music as well, so there’s a sort of pub-band feel to it, which absolutely goes hand-in-hand with Oliver! as a musical. There are so many musically performative moments. So for example, ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’, you have the pub band. ‘Consider Yourself’, you have the street musicians. It absolutely made sense that the music surrounds and is a storytelling part of the world.
So, we don’t look at it very much as a actor-musician version of Oliver! because it really isn’t; it’s a unique, once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a site-responsive version of Oliver!, that happens to have a troupe of actors who also diegetically provide the music as part of the storytelling. It’s a really exciting thing to have as part of the rehearsal room – it provides a lot of challenges, but it’s a very natural enrichment of the world that we’re striving to create. It means the cast has to work very hard! But they’re super talented and we’re lucky to have them on board.
You have a wide catalogue of experience, including the premiere of In the Heights. What did you learn from directing that particular show?
I learnt to tackle your fears head-on. When I first listened to that score and I read the script, it completely resonated with me in so many ways, and I never thought twice about taking it on because it was very clear in my mind, I knew how I wanted to make the show. And when we announced it, we suddenly had all these people who loved the show going: that’s so exciting, but really? This 12-year-old director and youthful choreographer, who are not of the ethnicity that the show’s written about, are taking on this cherished Broadway show.
So then the fear set in a little – oh God, we never even questioned the fact that we weren’t the right people to do it. But we just treated it as an absolute party – we went out and found the right people to play the parts, and the right people to collaborate with, and ultimately, something that had been my biggest fear – something I was incredibly frightened of!
We tackled that head on, and went in there in a really brave way and came out having learnt a huge number of lessons. If you’re frightened of something that’s even more a reason to take it on. I think that’s the case with Oliver! as well – it’s a big old production that we’re about to enter into rehearsals for and there’s a lot of challenges that will come up along the way. But that’s the thrill – it’d be really boring to do the shows you know you could easily do. As long as you’ve got people around you, and a vision in your head you can stay true to, you should always take on the things that frighten you.
Why are you so excited to share this with audiences?
It’s going to be something people won’t ever get to experience again. People might think that they know Oliver!, but there’s something about the proximity of this theatre that I think is going bring a whole new dimension to the show. And I really hope that people come and share that experience with us.
It seems like everyone loves these new smaller productions that are happening, because they have so much intimacy…
I think that’s true. And also, you have to embrace theatricality. There’s a reason why I like to tell stories in a live theatrical environment, and that’s the immediacy of it, the playfulness of it, how you have to be resourceful. At the Watermill we can’t do cinematic, or big special effects – so all we have is our ingenuity, and the skills of the actors on that stage. And that’s something as old as time. It’s what they were doing when Lionel Bart wrote the show, which is why it was a hit back then. So it’s absolutely in line with those rediscoveries of productions in a smaller environment. But also absolutely staying true to where the piece originated.
You’ve done quite a lot of work out of town, as well as in London. Do you prefer either one?
I don’t really see a distinction between them. I’m a bit of a regional theatre nut. I love getting on a train and going to Sheffield, Leeds, Chichester; I really try to get out there, because there’s some extraordinary work happening around the country. And I think it’s such a shame in many ways, that there can be a brilliant production that’s absolutely made for its audience or its theatre, but a wider audience doesn’t always get to experience it. So I try to go out and see as much as possible.
Of course, London is my home and there are certain stories that I like telling here. That said, some of the places that I really want to work at are on those train lines out from the capital city. Having just worked at Leicester Curve, what we managed to achieve there was something I was incredibly proud of. There was a real sense of ownership of the show, which was essentially built by people who are producing work for the audiences of Leicester. It really felt like something we’d all pulled off together, and I was really impressed by the production level that they achieved up there. I love telling stories, and I like making theatre work, and I’ll go wherever it’s appropriate to tell the story.
More about Luke Sheppard:
After picking up a first class Drama degree from the University of Bristol, and the inaugural Noël Coward Trainee Director Award at Salisbury Playhouse, Luke Sheppard went on to become a JMK Award finalist in 2010 and ’11 and took part in the National Theatre Directors Course. Later, he took invitations to the Old Vic 24 Hour Plays and the TS Eliot UK/US Exchange.
Sheppard most recently directed the world premiere production of Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ at Leicester’s Curve theatre, the European premiere of In the Heights (Southwark Playhouse) and was associate director for Matilda the Musical (RSC). Other productions he has directed include The History Boys (South Hill Park), Next Fall, 101 Dalmatians and The Adventures of Pinocchio (Castle Theatre) and Soho Cinders (Arts Ed). As associate director, Sheppard has worked on Singin’ in the Rain (Palace Theatre and Chichester Festival Theatre), and as assistant director on Into the Woods (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre).
Readers may also be interested in:
Oliver! at the Watermill – full company revealed – News
Acclaimed In the Heights confirms return to London in October – News