Suffolk/Norfolk: Blessed to be staging The Vicar of Dibley

The Seagull Rep stage The Vicar of Dibley

The Seagull Rep stage The Vicar of Dibley - Credit: Archant

Our Father, which art in heaven, give us this day our daily laughs. Entertainment writer Wayne Savage talks to The Seagull Rep about bringing The Vicar of Dibley to the stage.

Agnes Lillis as The Vicar of Dibley, staged by the Seagull Rep

Agnes Lillis as The Vicar of Dibley, staged by the Seagull Rep - Credit: Archant

Director John Hales is feeling pretty blessed right now.

“Rehearsals are great. It’s another good reminder a director knows when to shut up... I’ve never had it easier in my life,” he laughs. “Everybody’s already got their character, their own version... by a day-and-a-half we’d run all three episodes. I’m never cocky but I feel really confident in them and what they’re doing.”

The Lowestoft-based company are staging The Arrival, Songs of Praise and The Easter Bunny at various venues from August 8-September 6.

“Unfortunately the Felixstowe Spa’s gone bless it.. it’s tragic because we loved it. It was many of our guys’ favourite venues on the Fawlty Towers tour. We got one of the warmest receptions we got anywhere... we had something like 400 people,” sighs John.

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They’ve staged three tours of Fawlty Towers over the last four years. While incredibly popular with audiences there comes a point, he says, where you feel like you’re doing something to death.

“The important thing about Dibley, like Fawlty, it’s not a for profit thing; a charity fundraiser for us. It’s about keeping the Seagull Theatre open by doing what we’re supposed to do, put stuff on, contribute to the community, the artistic life.”

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There’s a danger though, adds John, that just programming crowd-pleasers will force companies to only stage shows that will make money.

“The big thing that’s coming up over and over again in our audience research, when we ask ‘why did you come tonight’, is ‘I knew what the show would be like’. They don’t know if it’s going to be any good or not but they’ll spend if they know it’s a safe spend. The idea of ‘I’ll take a chance on something’ money is gone.

“Earlier in the year we did Swimming with Sharks, a West End play about the film industry. It had an 18 certificate, hardcore language... we got five stars, must see, reviews, I was really proud. But we lost tonnes of money. We got nine people at the Fisher Theatre... I got six emails saying it was the best show they’ve seen there in about three years, they were all horrified the numbers were so low.

“In the past, things like Fawlty Towers would pay for Sharks but the financial climate is tougher than it’s ever been. With Dibley we’re working with a company called Creative Arts East. They’ve helped us get into venues that never get theatre. My favourite... we’re actually performing in Freckenham Church; we can’t even take the set but you don’t need it. Even better than that it’s a female vicar. Sometimes life and art just go like that,” he says clapping.

Blasphemous as it sounds, John admits he didn’t like Dibley at first.

“It’s not a new play, it’s not cutting edge drama; what it is, is actually a lot smarter than I thought. I’ve come to appreciate the skill (involved). There are little moments of edge, pathos, issues that are still going on today... it’s a really nice fit. In every episode, there’s a really human, touching moment; something important tucked in among all the japes, the craziness, in all their eclectic little army.”

Adapting Dibley for the stage proved infinitely easier than Fawlty Towers.

“There’s less French farce, less set changes, it’s less manic; you can be quite smooth about it... but it’s still pacey, punchy, quick. We’ve tried to come up with ways of being totally true to the material but say “okay, this isn’t a TV show... how do we take advantage of putting a stage show together’. It’s standard business for us here, ‘what’s the obstacle, how do we turn it into something unusual’.

“We’ve got a couple of fun little things Alice is doing. We’re doing a couple of fun little things to keep it fresh,” he teases, “and also out of practicality. We didn’t have to do Songs of Praise as we are... I just wanted to go the extra mile.

“The Easter Bunny I’ve changed a little because there are certain things that work on TV but you’re in for a treat at the end of that episode, you haven’t seen anything like it... I’m not saying a word.”

Agnes Lillis isn’t worried what the critics think about her portrayal of the Rev Geraldine Granger... she’s a little worried what her mum might say though.

“She’s a huge fan of the TV show so there’s a lot to live up to. She loves the characters, particularly loves Dawn French,” she laughs, “so I don’t how forgiving she’ll be. I’ll get notes (during the interval) sent back (saying) ‘do her like this’.”

The role is world’s away from that of the acid-tongued Sybil in last year’s tour of Fawlty Towers.

“Sybil is very mannered and was quite a character to get into. I came in and out, said the odd barbed comment. With this, Geraldine really drives the scenes.

“She’s very bubbly, natural, easy-going, warm. She trusts people, accepts them... she goes into this village with big eyes, a big heart and (meets) these very interesting characters,” laughs Agnes. “She’s quite a flirt as well so that aspect of it is fun... I’m quite enjoying that side or it,” she laughs.

“I’m really excited... the joy of the situations, the writing is so good. Watching Dawn French is like a masterclass in acting,” adds Agnes, who once served French while working in a shop and one danced with Roger Lloyd Pack, who plays Owen in the TV show.

Agnes has got what she calls good nerves.

“There are loads of lines and I think what if my wig comes off with the surplice at the end of The Arrival, she laughs. “But it’s a good show, people are going to come, have a good time...”

The Vicar of Dibley runs at Lowestoft’s Seagull Theatre, to August 10, August 14-18 and September 1; Freckenham Church, August 11; Fakenham Community Centre, August 20-21; Diss Corn Hall, August 22; Great Yarmouth’s St George’s Theatre, August 23-24; Thetford’s Carnegie Room, August 27; Norwich Playhouse, August 30-31; Beccles Public Hall, September 4-5 and The Atrium, North Walsham, September 6. The fee for the rights to stage it went to Comic Relief.

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