Actor, director and presenter Tim McArthur is directing Richard Silver and Sean J Hume’s Orton, a new British musical, playing at Above the Stag Theatre, London until 4 May. He is associate director at Above the Stag, and although this is the first production he has staged at the venue in Vauxhall, credits at the theatre’s previous location include Maurice, My Beautiful Launderette, When Harry Met Barry, Oscar’s World and Cleveland Street the Musical. He has also directed and devised shows at Jermyn Street Theatre, Ye Olde Rose and Crown, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, the King’s Head, Greenwich Playhouse, Hen & Chickens, Canal Cafe and the Edinburgh Pleasance.
Below, the director not only explains why supporting and nurturing new work on the London fringe is so important, but touches on the some of the challenges he faces as a result.
“Directing a new piece of theatre is always an exciting challenge, whether it be a new play, a new comedy or even a new musical. In my experience as a director, supporting and nurturing the writers is always the most interesting, and sometimes the most demanding, part of the process.
Over the years I have directed a great range of new works ranging from Casanova to a musical about Obama – even though he was nowhere to be seen in the show – to a play where nothing happened apart from the characters sitting in deck chairs eating custard on a desert island in a play called Oscar’s World. There was no reference to Oscar Wilde, even though a large number of men of a certain persuasion came to see it, anticipating a gay love story and mention of “a handbag”, but they were left to chew over the meaning of cold custard instead.
As I write this, I am anticipating the opening of a new musical I have directed about the colourful-to-bloody life of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell. The piece is called, simply, Orton. I have been liaising with the writers since October – discussing, altering, adapting scenes and looking at song structures, as well as the overall shape, style and feel of the show. It’s an engrossing, intense process.
Over the past half-dozen years, London’s growing fringe scene has really been flourishing, with quite a number of new venues opening and audiences seemingly responding favourably. Many people appear to be seeking something more rewarding and cheaper than the commercially dominated jukebox musicals and film adaptations that have sprouted around London’s West End theatres like a prolific and persistent case of athlete’s foot. On the fringe, new dynamic producers and artistic directors are prepared to take more of a risk in putting on and promoting new works and generally exciting new theatrical experiences for their regular theatre audiences.
Working on London’s fringe scene is exciting but also comes with its complications. With a new piece of work, you don’t have the luxury of a lengthy rehearsal period or even a workshop scenario. A lot of decisions have to be made before you reach the rehearsal process and these involve lengthy discussions and debates with the writers.
How the writers envisage their piece is rarely what comes to life at the end of the day. The members of the creative team – director, musical director and choreographer – will all have a vision of how the final piece should look, sound and feel from the point of view of their area of expertise. The various factors have to be balanced under the watchful eye of the director to make sure everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet. I compare the directorial task to being a puppet-master, pulling all the right strings and hoping that the puppets will come convincingly to life.
Then there are of course the actors. Once they get a grip on the script and the music, a whole new drama begins. They have to feel confident relating to the characters they are playing, understanding the text and subtext, saying the lines, performing the songs, telling the story clearly, convincingly, movingly.
Plus there are the many budgetary considerations: how much money to spend on the set; the most effective way of portraying various scenes in a small space; how many characters need more or less extravagant costumes; how to tackle the lighting; how many musicians you can accommodate… oh, and did I mention the actors? The costs mount up and we haven’t even talked about venue hire! Then there’s PR and press coverage, the sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter cherry on the cake.
Throughout a new production, I do feel one of the critical responsibilities of the director is to make clear to the writers how the creative, collaborative theatrical process will bring their beloved children off the black and white page and turn them into colourful, rounded, many-dimensional characters who will connect with the audiences, stimulate them, excite them, infuriate them and leave a lasting impression on their imaginations.”
* Orton is the story of the controversial 1960s playwright Joe Orton and his long-time lover, collaborator and eventual murderer Kenneth Halliwell. Starting the day they met, and continuing to the day they died, 16 years later, the musical fizzes with their ambitions for success and celebrity… and the lies, despair and chaos which emerge as Orton’s rising fame eclipses Halliwell’s ambitions. This is the story of two prickly, abrasive, funny and brilliant young men set against a London backdrop of the 1960s social and sexual revolution.
In the cast are Kate Brennan as Tina, Valerie Cutko as Mrs C and Peggy Ramsay, Richard Dawes as Joe Orton, Simon Kingsley as Kenneth Williams, Robert McNeilly as Trevor and Andrew Rowney as Kenneth Halliwell. Also in the ensemble are Emily Hardy and Jordan Langford.