Since returning to his hometown of Leeds and becoming artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, James Brining has directed The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, The Crucible, Enjoy, Talking Heads and Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. He recently re-created Sweeney Todd for Welsh National Opera at the Wales Millennium Centre and on tour.
In December 2015 he directed a new production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at West Yorkshire Playhouse which will tour large-scale venues throughout the UK and Ireland and be the Christmas show at the Lowry in December 2016. He will also direct West Yorkshire Playhouse’s first co-production with Opera North, Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, which will be performed at the Playhouse in June 2016.
Mike Tilling writes: I met James Brining, artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse and director of the current production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, in the theatre’s vibrant mezzanine coffee shop. He strolled over looking for all the world like a leading man from one of his own productions:
What is your first musical theatre memory?
Actually, my earliest memories are of films rather than live theatre. Chitty was certainly one. Oliver! made a particular impression, just because of the singing and the stories were so strong.
I have recently seen Show Boat at Sheffield as well as Chitty here in Leeds, are we developing a Northern Powerhouse for musical theatre?
I don’t think that ‘developing’ is the right word at all. The West Yorkshire Playhouse has always had a strong reputation for musicals since well before I came here, the Crucible Theatre too. I don’t think it’s immodest to say we have always been strong. We aim to be as versatile as possible.
Both shows have big casts. What is it that is driving theatres towards such big productions?
Well, we are a regional theatre, and if we can’t put on big shows no one can. But we are not a job creation scheme. We use a cast that is the right size for the show. I also think that it is public demand. If times are hard, people often want something that is going to take them away from the austerity. We also have a big demographic in Leeds – that helps – and have a great partner in Music & Lyrics* that shares the investment.
Okay, I have to ask it – how do you make the car fly in Chitty?
Well, I’m pleased that you couldn’t see how it was done. We have been able to learn from elsewhere. I think we have got the best from the video projection and it really gives the feeling of motion.
Are you going to have the technical capacity in the other venues when the show goes on tour?
It has been designed to go into different venues. After all, it is going on an 18-month tour and it needs to be capable of adapting. We have a big stage here and that will not always be the case, but we knew that from the start.
Looking at the full houses for shows like Chitty and the recent Dead Dog in a Suitcase, is it a temptation to do more and more musicals and fewer straight theatre shows?
We have to be commercially aware as well as being fully committed to artistic values. It is about being creative, but also being aware of the need to stay viable commercially.
Theatre is a celebration of the imagination. Look at Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. When the car flies off a cliff, no on believes that it can actually happen, but it can in the imagination. That’s what we do, we tell stories and, for me, the story comes first. If the story is good then we want to tell it, whether it is Chitty or The Damned United that we are doing in 2016, with its strong Leeds connection.
Later this season, you are staging Into the Woods in association with Opera North. What is it like to work with opera singers?
I am completely comfortable with it. We are actually casting now and there may be some surprises. The process is different of course, but it is not the first time I have done a collaboration like this. I think there is potential for the development of artists from both sides. And I am looking forward to working with the orchestra of Opera North as well as the members of the Chorus.
By the time James and I had finished, the coffee shop had quietened down and the audience for Chitty had taken their seats. However, another flood of children emerged from the smaller Courtyard Theatre as the curtain had just come down on The Night Before Christmas.
Clearly, James Brining relishes the sheer diversity of audiences that the West Yorkshire Playhouse attracts.
* Music & Lyrics Limited is an award-winning nationwide consortium comprised of the UK’s major independent touring theatres. It aims to champion music theatre in all its forms and provide extended life to productions created by the UK’s major producing theatres.
[James Brining was previously artistic director at TAG Theatre Company (Scotland’s national theatre for children and young people) and Dundee Rep Theatre. While at the latter, he founded a new MA in Theatre Studies and the resident acting company, Dundee Rep Ensemble, was nominated for and won more awards than any other theatre in Scotland. These included UK Theatre Awards for Best Musical for James’ productions of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2010) and Sunshine on Leith (2007). The latter was subsequently made into a feature film.]
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Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds – Review