How Willy might find a way to Russell up a new play
Jan 15 2008
by Joe Riley, Liverpool Echo
The 2008 summons came too late for Willy Russell. “By the time somebody did ask me to become significantly involved – the week before Christmas – it was too late. I can’t write a play to go on this year. Not now.
“But when there was time for me to do it, I was perfectly open to ideas . . .
“Besides, I have treated Liverpool as Capital of Culture for 30 years, and nothing’s changed there.”
Hearing that variable message from Liverpool’s most feted writer is key to lots of people being mystified why the city’s two main producing theatres, the Everyman and Playhouse – as well as the
Capital of Culture tsars – have missed the boat in nabbing his services.
But all is far from lost.
The independently-run Royal Court, with its plans of establishing a permanent company akin to the old days of repertory, has succeeded in landing the big catch – without a penny of support from town hall, Arts Council or Culture Company coffers.
Willy Russell, to use his own term, is “remixing” Stags and Hens, one of his classic comedies of yesteryear, about the resulting chaos when bride and groom hold their prenuptial parties at the same venue.
“I had already done a major overhaul before it got into rehearsal,” says Willy.
“Revisiting a play is not nearly as difficult as starting from scratch. All the important creative work was done for the original.
“I had also re-engaged along the way, when it became the movie Dancin’ Thru The Dark.”
For the new stage production, Willy has been directly involved in casting and rehearsals, literally re-writing material on the hoof.
“Now it’s much tighter. Partly because we live in the film world, and we don’t watch things in the same way as we did in 1978.
“Stuff that played perfectly fine then, now seems so drawn out. People have a lower boredom threshold. Increasingly, we are into the age of the 90-minute stage play.
“Also, a play set in the ladies and gents of a ballroom once seemed so daring. It was a look into a world people didn’t see in the theatre.
“So it motors along far faster. The language is also far more of today – the colloquial phrases and the use of so-called obscenities.
“But it’s still the same play.”
For all the trappings of success from material performed world-wide (he has just returned from seeing a production of Educating Rita in Paris), Willy still goes to work each day: a luxurious and meticulously tidy two-storey loft apartment in the Georgian quarter behind Liverpool Cathedral houses a grand piano: “I used it to write some extra songs for a planned film of Blood Brothers.
“It’s not happening at the moment because nobody will give us the 50 or 60 million dollars needed.
“I’ve finished the screenplay. Most of that was written in (the movie director) Alan Parker’s Soho office. But I did the music here.”
Willy has never quit Liverpool: “It suits me,” he says.
“The thing some value about me more than my work is that I have stayed. I sometimes think that if Osama bin Laden had come from Anfield, as long as he’d stayed, everyone would be grateful.”
He does some teaching and always has since his mate, the late Adrian Henri, persuaded him to helm writers’ courses back in the 70s.
He reads some of the many scripts sent to him: “A lot of the time they don’t get through. But at the moment I’ve got a novel from an actor I’ve known for years. Now I’m not going to say no to that, am I?”
Willy doesn’t mind the attention when he goes around town: “Most of the time it’s fine if people come up and exchange a word.
“If you’re buying undies and socks then it’s different, which is why I get those in London.”
One more recent project was a performance tour with Calendar Girls writer and musician Tim Firth, during which Willy sang and read from his debut novel The Wrong Boy: “The costs were ginormous. If we had been 25 year-olds it would have been a fantastic beginning.
“I have never stopped working and never will. The emphasis may have changed. I have not written a new stage play for a long time.”
But will things go full circle?
“The reason I am re-doing Stags and Hens, without seeming to announce a manifesto, is because there is an attempt to put together a permanent acting company.
“If that happened, it would mean for the first time in 20 years I would have a theatrical home – for which I may, or may not, write a new play.
“But that’s the sort of situation I could work with.
“I haven’t enjoyed those conditions basically since regional theatre changed beyond all recognition and became administrational rather than creative.
“But it’s very early days.
“I have always required certain conditions to write a play, I have never written specifically for the West End or Broadway. I write plays for groups of people.
“And I still say that when it works, there is nothing better than a full-on theatre experience.”
Courting favour with Willy Russell
...finds Willy Russell enthusiastic and frustrated in equal measure
YOU might think that Willy Russell’s life is a problem-free one. He is, after all, one of Britain’s most successful playwrights, with plays produced worldwide and his musical, Blood Brothers, currently packing them in at the Liverpool Empire. Alas, like anyone else, Mr Russell does have problems.
There is the year he spent writing a screenplay that no-one wants to produce, his film Dancin’ Thru the Dark that remains elusively unavailable on DVD, a loss-making music tour and a couple of medical problems involving regular check-ups.
But Russell at 60 remains decidedly upbeat, a mood enhanced by the forthcoming revival of his comedy, Stags and Hens, at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre. He’s suddenly very enthusiastic about both play and venue. It was not always so, he admits.
It all began when former Liverpool Everyman director Bob Eaton came to town to direct the comedy, Brick Up the Mersey Tunnels, at the Royal Court.
They are old pals and met up for supper where Eaton suggested he do something for the Court, now being run by Kevin Fearon, who had also worked at the Everyman.
In fact, Russell had never met Fearon – “he was an unknown quantity to me” – and was not convinced about the venue. “To be honest, I was quite sceptical because the last time I was at the theatre it was in a terrible state and I had heard they did not have proper theatre seating in the stalls. I was just wary about the whole thing.”
But he met Fearon and was impressed with his vision of creating a regular company at the theatre. “It would be made up of all those top-notch actors we have known and seen for years, and he wanted the kind of theatre that had broad appeal but nevertheless spoke on a serious level as well as a comic one
“In some respects, my work falls naturally into that world more than other theatrical worlds that exist in Liverpool at the moment.”
So he went to see a show at the theatre, the Liverpool comedy, Lost Soul, written by Dave Kirby and directed by Eaton. “You know, I got a great buzz from the theatre, it was warm and well furbished. I had got an impression of the audience there as a baying mob, but it was not like that at all. They were absolutely terrific and the table seating worked perfectly.
“At ten to eight, they closed the bar and the audience gave the show their rapt attention – they were a theatre audience having a great time and a good night out.” So Russell thought he would give it a go.
He had, after all, been as impressed by the theatre staff. “It was so refreshing to find a theatre operated by a tiny group of people who were all so fantastically committed. It did not have four marketing managers or boxes to be ticked every time you opened your mouth, it was not stifled by administration.”
There was an early idea about staging a musical version of Russell’s comedy Our Day Out about a school trip to a zoo. But to do it properly would require a huge budget, and one that the Royal Court operating without subsidy could not afford.
So Eaton suggested Stags and Hens, Russell’s comedy from 1978, first staged at the Everyman, about stag and hen parties meeting up in a club. Russell realised it was 30 years old and doubtful about it, but took a look at his old script.
He thought it was fine but needed an overhaul. So he has done a rewrite keeping it to the period. He calls it a remix version. “It was like a music recording, you develop the bass line, maybe put the treble back and add a couple of new drum lines. It is also told at a much faster 21st-century pace. “Thirty years ago, one told stories at a different pace and moments that held audiences back then now seem like longeurs.”
He was also able to use the F-word rather than the slightly weaker swear words in the original. Willy has never believed in censoring bad language, just does not like “badly-used language”, he says. “If you get it right, it won't offend because it is not gratuitous. Even those people who would never use such language in their own life would understand they were watching a play. Those who are offended would probably be offended by anything and maybe should not go to see the play.
“It also has to fit the scene. If I were writing about the Queen’s Garden Party I would not write ‘Here’s your f****** tea.’ because it would be wrong.”
It is, he says, the third version of the comedy. The first was the orig-inal, the second the film version retitled Dancin’ Thru the Dark and released in 1990. Curiously, it remains unavailable on DVD, a situation which irks Russell.
“It’s a nightmare,” he says. “It was released by Palace Picture and BBC Films. Palace Pictures went bust and BBC Films have buried it deep in their archives. It is never shown on TV. But it is traded flagrantly on the web and anyone can buy it – completely pirated. No one gets a nickel from it.
“I have asked the BBC to release it and that would stop the pirating immediately. I had the same problem with my TV film, One Summer, but as soon as it was released officially all pirate sales dried up.
“I am thinking of taking Dancin’ Thru the Dark to my people, putting a copy together and putting it on my website and giving it away and waiting for them to sue me. Then we might get something done about it.”
Russell has not been idle over the last year or so. He spent a year writing a film script with director Alan Parker of his stage musical Blood Brothers, even composing new music for it. At present, it remains just in script form. “It needs $60m to make, but I have always been a realist and know that it is a British subject, regional at that and historical, everything that $60m would be scared of.”
But he admits he had so much fun working with Parker that the writing took longer than perhaps it ought to have done.
He also did a musical tour with fellow playwright Tim Firth, a show that consisted of original music by Russell and Firth together with readings. It lost money. “We were pretty much an unknown band starting off and not pulling in audiences that justified the outlay. But I enjoyed doing it so while it cost a fortune I don’t begrudge a penny.” As for the Capital of Culture, he WAS interested in doing something, but the formal request came only two weeks before Christmas, far too late for him. But he hints there may be something new in the future.
“I have no plans to take any kind of commission for the time being because I want to get this show open. Then I will see how things develop at the Royal Court . . . ”
His daughter Rachel, 26, is now starting directing, her first show a touring version of Equus due to open at the end of the month. “It’s pretty daunting for her and I am more worried about her rehearsals than I am my own.”
Friday January 25, 2008
As Liverpool celebrates its capital of culture year, Willy Russell is unveiling a revamped version of his 1978 play Stags and Hens. He talks to David Ward about how the script and the city have changed
Playwright Willy Russell has returned to one of his greatest hits, done a spot of trimming and rewriting, and produced what he now calls Stags and Hens - The Remix. The new version opens at the Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool on February 1.
First produced 30 years ago, the play tells of a couple who, by coincidence, spend the night before their wedding in the same Liverpool venue. There were plenty of laughs then, but surely there are more jokes now?
"Oh no," says Russell, now 60 and a grandfather. The gag quotient hasn't risen: "It's just that you didn't laugh at the 1978 jokes."
You could write a decent dissertation on the differences between the two versions. Out go mentions of John Wayne, Britt Ekland, and Tonto (the Lone Ranger's horse); in come Bo Derek, Elvis Costello and Rolf Harris. Clearly, this is not an update. The happy couple can still be found partying in a dancehall with dodgy electrics in Liverpool in 1978. And the deep sadness remains.
"The play will not update," insists Russell. "The tribal thing at the centre of it, the male-female thing, is not true today. The whole booze culture has been replaced by a drug culture. The very idea of this mainstream disco ballroom has gone. And for stag or hen nights now they are on planes going to Amsterdam or Malaga or Dublin."
Kevin Fearon, now staging plays at Liverpool's Royal Court without subsidy, wanted to produce Stags and Hens. Russell agreed - "subject to me taking a look at it. I think it was the prompt I needed. When I heard of other productions, I tended to wince. Not that the subject matter is wrong, but the way I told it in 1978 is not right for now. Under the influence of film, the speed with which we tell stories today is very different. In theatre then, a scene would still largely have to have a beginning, a middle and an end. It's not so today - you can use the cinema device of going straight to the moment."
Russell went to work on the new version immediately. The play is now a good 20 minutes shorter, has far more "fucks" and has lost its only c-word. It's a tougher piece of work. It's still set in the dancehall's toilets, where the groom spends the entire play with his head stuck down a toilet.
The basic theme of staying or leaving remains and is just as relevant. "Ringo Starr has just been given a kicking because he left Liverpool!" adds Russell, recalling the Beatle's return to his home city for the opening of its year as European capital of culture. "Of course he left Liverpool - he was in the Beatles!" The next sentence is preceded by a small sigh of exasperation. "The thing that I'm endlessly praised for, and it's nothing to do with my work, is that I always stayed in Liverpool."
In the play, the bride Linda meets Peter, an ex who has gone to London and found a bit of Top of the Pops glory as a singer. "The debate between Peter and Linda in the remix is stronger than in the original and much more spelled out. While it wasn't consciously at the front of my brain, I must have had the idea in my head because we were just about to embark on this capital of culture thing. I knew this debate was in the air and it must have infused what has been written.
"This thing does not change in Liverpool. Just two weeks ago, [Liverpool lawyer and arts patron] Rex Makin gave Phil Redmond a good kicking because Redmond has moved out to Tarporley [a Cheshire village]. He's not got Liverpool credentials any more!"
That's exactly what Linda, a close relative of Russell's Shirley Valentine and Rita, says to Peter: "I can say just what the fuck I like about living here because I do live here ... So when you come back here an' you hear one of us slaggin' off the place, don't think it gives you the right to join in. You left! Remember?"
Russell lives here too but scorns any idea that Liverpool is some kind of essential inspiration. "I just take it completely for granted. I don't think of it in those terms. I wince when people say 'his beloved Liverpool'. That kind of sentimentality deeply, deeply embarrasses me."
So why didn't he leave, seek fame and fortune in London like Peter? It was, he says, a self-protective thing. By the time of his first success with John, Paul, George Ringo...and Bert, he had already knocked about in the folk world and seen people "screw up badly, do the whole drugs thing, go down the booze path.
"I love living and love a jar. I know that's in me. I was aware of Brendan Behan and becoming the joke of London. I was aware of Robert Burns going to Edinburgh and being feted in the ploughman poet way. I always fought passionately to avoid that kind of thing."
Stags and Hens opens just as Russell's musical Blood Brothers ends a three-week run at the Empire up the road. Russell has other projects on the go in the capital of culture year but none of them are happening under the banner of the Liverpool Capital of Culture Company. "I'm doing what I have always done. And if the perception out there is that it is part of capital of culture, that's something I'm not going to do anything to dispel. I cannot not be part of Liverpool culture with that work going on."
There is an obvious soreness that neither the Playhouse nor the Everyman, theatres with which he has been so closely associated, has commissioned a new play from him for 2008. But he holds back. "Despite my misgivings and serious criticism of lots of the shenanigans, I hope by the end of the year I can look back and say some marvellous things have happened and that Liverpool comes away from it with an enhanced reputation. We all hope that."
Meanwhile, he is keeping watch on the Royal Court's plans to build a permanent company from the wealth of acting talent based in Liverpool. There are also hopes for a television version of his novel The Wrong Boy, a film of Blood Brothers, a full musical version of Our Day Out. But as yet no new play: the last was Shirley Valentine, first produced 22 years ago.
"But I tend to find what I need to do. I love not working. I love being in Portugal and getting the paints out, walking, getting the binoculars out and looking at a bird." And he is now enjoying a senior citizen's benefits. "I got the bus pass last August. I ran down, jumped on a bus and was waiting for everyone to shout, 'Throw him off - he's not 60'. And nobody did.