At the launch of the current spring season programme at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, James Brining was spoiling for a fight.
After presenting the season, he asked if there were any questions. After a couple of queries, he looked directly at me and said ‘come on Nick Ahad, I know you have something to say’.
I didn’t, but didn’t want to be rude, so asked if his season was a little obvious, particularly the Alan Bennett season. Clearly, he wanted to be set up for this question and had an excellent, eloquent defence of the decision at this fingertips (it essentially came down to the fact that someone would celebrate the Leeds playwright eventually, why shouldn’t the biggest theatre in his home city beat everyone to the punch. It was a convincing answer).
If Brining wants me to set him up with a similarly combative question at the launch of his autumn season, he can look askance at me all he likes, I won’t be asking anything. Not if the highlights, released last week, are anything to go by.
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the first major new British production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, a return for the utterly delightful Father Christmas and Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach.
These tentpole productions demonstrate something about Brining’s reign as the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s artistic director: he has a real sense of what the theatre needs to be commercially and critically successful.
It’s many years since we saw a major production of The Crucible in Yorkshire, it remains a set text – so the theatre will get the school groups in for the production when it is staged in October – but as a theatre critic of 15 years, I am also excited to see a new staging of this classic play originating in our county.
Brining tells me: “One of the things that brought me back to Leeds was the opportunity to make shows like The Crucible in the Quarry Theatre. It’s a play I have loved for years and it’s theatrical, political, terrifying and deeply moving. It’s an important story and one of the greatest plays of the 20th Century.”
Couldn’t agree more.
The Christmas show has become an increasingly vital part of all theatres’ annual budget planning. It is easy to argue that the most successful show in this vital programming slot in recent years was Nikolai Foster’s production of Annie.
The brilliant, Skipton-raised Foster was the name on many people’s lips when discussing possible successors to Ian Brownwhen he stepped down as artistic director of the theatre. That Brining invites back one of his main competitors for his job to the theatre tells you much about the director. It’s a wise move.
Anyone who remembers Foster’s Animal Farm on the stage of the Quarry theatre will know that he really understands the vast space. He is going to be at the helm of White Christmas. He says: “It’s great to be returning to the Playhouse to create a new production of this beautiful and much loved title. I’m inspired at the prospect of working on such a timeless and celebrated piece, with a first class creative team, releasing it for a new generation. We’re stripping Irving Berlin’s score back to its jazz-age roots, putting the music centre stage, with an authentic jazz band. This story really is a hymn to all the good theatre can do within a community.”
There are other shows yet to be publicly revealed, but this autumn I expect to see the Playhouse make up more ground in becoming one of our most important venues.
Brining adds: “We want to give a range of shows for people of all ages so we are expanding our offer for Christmas, reviving last year’s hugely popular production of Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas for very small kids and creating an imaginative and playful version of Roald Dahl’s classic story James and the Giant Peach for older children.
“I am hugely excited about Nikolai’s production of White Christmas. This is another iconic show with stunning songs by Irving Berlin which promises to be top class entertainment.”
He’s right. No questions.