West End show The Go-Between takes producer Joseph Smith back to his Norfolk roots
- Credit: Archant
The Go-Between marks Michael Crawford’s long-awaited return to London’s West End. For the musical’s producer Joseph Smith, it’s a return to his Norfolk roots. Entertainment writer Wayne Savage finds out more.
The theatre was Smith’s playground growing up. His mum, an actress, set up and ran The Angles Theatre, in Wisbech, for many years. For the last two decades she’s served as producer and co-runner of The Westacre Theatre near Swaffham.
He and his two brothers appeared in productions when they were really small. While they went on to become teachers, Smith took after his mum; curious about how shows actually made it to the stage.
“I just seemed to get the bug for it. Obviously when your mum helps run a theatre you have access to everything and I wanted to breathe it all,” he recalls.
Getting involved in the lighting, sound, etc, when it came to university he didn’t want to train as an actor; lacking, in his words, the dedication. Being a technician didn’t interest him either.
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“What I’m really interested in is being an administrator, which at the time wasn’t a very sexy thing to do,” he laughs.
Leaving university with a degree in theatre management he was lucky enough to get a job with The National Theatre, staying there for 10 years. After four years working in New York, he’s spent the last 11 in London’s West End.
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Smith’s involvement with The Go-Between, based on LP Hartley’s classic novel and adapted by David Wood, began when he fell completely in love with a regional production of it at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate Theatre in 2011.
“As a commercial producer I thought ‘this should be seen by a wider audience’. I approached the writers and their representatives and said we really wanted to option the work. It’s taken nearly four years to get to a place from when I first saw that show to actually now realising it. It’s the first time it’s been done in London or the West End.”
A coming of age story, multi Olivier and Tony-award winning Michael Crawford - in his first major musical role for more than a decade - plays Leo Colston, a man still haunted by one hot summer at Norfolk’s Brandham Hall 50 years before.
Spending three weeks at the country home of his school friend Marcus in 1900, he vividly recalls his unwitting role acting as a go-between for the beautiful upper-class Marian and tenant-farmer Ted.
The illicit love affair, carried out against the wishes of her formidable mother and behind the back of Viscount Trimingham drags 12-year-old Leo into an adult world of passion and intrigue where he discovers feelings he’s never experienced before.
Adapted for film twice - the first boasting a screenplay by Harold Pinter and starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates as the lovers - and also as a lavish full-length BBC adaptation, it’s not just about the loss of innocence. It’s also about becoming a grown-up and understanding the adult world.
“What Michael does as the older version of Leo by looking back at the events that played out that summer, that’s what resonates a lot with people either through the novel, the films or the play. That sense of drama in the ability of a 12-year-old boy and Michael to hold the stage and deliver this massively passionate and intriguing story, very ahead of its time in what it was saying.”
Having seen the show just that once, when he started his research Smith was fascinated by how deeply Hartley’s story was rooted in his home county.
“It’s very specific, he changed the name slightly to Brandham Hall but it’s absolutely based on him spending the summer at Bradenham Hall which is between Swaffham and Dereham - literally a stone’s throw from where my parents and I call home now,” he laughs.
“All these kind of coincidences came to light after I started to look more into the show from a historical perspective. The source material - the book Richard (Taylor who wrote the score) and David have created this musical from has existed as a story for 60 or 70 years so it’s an interesting one. Hartley visited the hall originally in 1909 for that summer so it’s a very personal story to him and, in a very different way, very personal for me as well being from that part of the world and having my mum run a theatre there.”
Smith - who describes Taylor’s score as sitting brilliantly between the spirit and lushness of Andrew Lloyd Webber to the intricacy and characterization of Stephen Sondheim, really helping to tell the story - hopes to tour the show once the London run ends.
“It’s a musical that has one set, 11 actors and it’s certainly of a scale that it would look beautiful if we did. We have to see what happens. We have all our fingers crossed that it’s going to be received really well by all the critics. I would love it to come to Norfolk.”
A show like The Go-Between needs somebody of significant standing and ability in the central role of the older Colston. Crawford was the perfect choice, but finding him wasn’t easy recalls Smith.
“Michael really fitted the bill but I had to track him down because he was living abroad and no-one really knew how to contact him. I had a few leads and eventually got him a copy of the script and a scrappy copy of the video from the Northampton production and sent it all off to a rep in LA.
“Out of the blue, probably four weeks later, I got a random call direct from Michael saying ‘I’ve had a read of the script, I’d love to have a conversation with you about it’. Obviously I got very excited and so began the journey.
“This is probably nearly four years ago now; it’s taken that long to make all the stars align in terms of availability, the theatre’s availability, the director’s availability; you’re playing a game of scrabble really to make sure all those things can fit into the timing and the structure you’ve got.”
Smith clearly had faith in the project. So too must Crawford.
“You have to remember, Michael hadn’t done a leading role in a musical for more than 20 years since he did Woman in White. He played the Wizard in Wizard of Oz, but as much as that was a big, lavish production it was very much a cameo role for him. As you know from the story, the Wizard doesn’t come on until the end of the show almost,” he says.
With musicals, the thing that helps you clinch your preferred lead is always the quality of the script and engagement with the music.
“David Wood’s script and Richard Taylor’s music are beautiful, tuneful, the script is funny, poignant... Like all commercial businesses, theatre always needs a little moment of magic and inspiration to unlock its potential and that’s what Michael provided when he read the script and listened to the music. He became massively engaged and committed to the work.
“He’s fantastic in the show. He never leaves the stage and at 74 drives the action of the piece as well and has all the stamina, talent and ability to do that because essentially he’s the star and that’s what stars do.”
The part, suggests Smith, is very suited to where Crawford’s at in his life now.
“It’s about someone who is older, looking back and reflecting on an amazing event that happened to him one summer. I think there was a lot of resonance in the fact that as an older person you look back on your life and think about the events that shaped you as a human being. I think a lot of that is in this piece.
“It’s about memory and remembering what its like to be a young person in this situation, being introduced to all these incredible people and drinking in all these incredible experiences.”
Crawford, whose award-winning career includes orginating the role of the Phantom in The Phantom of The Opera in London, on Broadway and Los Angeles - says: “It’s wonderful to be back in the West End. I have so many happy memories performing in London, but now I am so excited about sharing this new musical with audiences.”
The Go-Between runs at The Apollo Theatre, in London’s Shaftsbury Avenue, until October 15.