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Interview with Bob Eaton

Bob Eaton


A Home At Last. The Liverpool  Royal Court’s resident Director Bob Eaton tells Chris High what it’s like to have found the perfect place in which to work after thirty-five years in the business.

Theatre Director Bob Eaton is enjoying possibly the most fruitful run of his career. Working out of The Royal Court in Liverpool, sixty-one year old Eaton is responsible for directing the vast majority of the shows that are being produced by the theatre and has worked alongside the likes of Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale recently and, also, new writers such as Drew Quayle who makes his Court debut with The Salon later this month.

Like most of those who work in theatre, however, Eaton’s love for the stage began at an early age. ‘My mum and dad were both heavily into amateur dramatics in Bakewell where I was brought up. There were also the school plays which I was always in every year. Actually, the school was very good because they used to take us to places like the Nottingham Playhouse to watch big professional shows that were being put on by the likes of John Neville. Then my English teacher suggested I apply to the National Youth Theatre for Zigger-Zagger down in London and I got in. It was 1967 and a really sexy time to be in London and all thoughts of becoming a teacher or something disappeared because we were treated like Rock stars down there which at 18 kind of stuck. I then went to Manchester University and it was there that the idea of trying my hand at Directing came about, simply because of the women that seemed attracted to these ugly Director types.’

Even at that early stage of his career, Bob had targets. ‘There was one place in particular I wanted to work and that was The Victoria in Stoke because they had this thing about putting on new work that often included music, mostly Folk, but weren’t actually musicals in the big Broadway sense. As it happened they were looking for an assistant director so I applied and got the job, more or less straight out of University and began directing after about nine months, which was when I realised, after about three years of trying, that I didn’t know how to do it.’

Bob stopped directing for a while and concentrated on acting, coming into contact with the likes of Alan Ayckbourn along the way, before the call of the Director’s role came once more. ‘I worked in Ayckbourn’s company out of Scarborough for about four years which was a tremendous education and tremendously fortunate because it was something that I sort of fell into. What it did, though, as well as teach me how to act, it also taught me what to look for from a Director’s point of view so when the opportunity came around again I was much more prepared.’

Having honed his skills over the coming years, Bob then took on the job of Directing shows at Liverpool’s Everyman theatre and his arrival at work on that first day is something he won’t forget. ‘I drove into the city on the Monday after the Toxteth riots of 1981 and I can remember there was still smoke in the air as I came in. It was extraordinary, because although the city wasn’t in the best of conditions, The Everyman was still a tremendous place to work. There was a really nice artistic atmosphere in place because Willy (Russell) and Alan (Bleasdale) and Chris Bond were putting on shows at The Playhouse, had been at The Everyman before I arrived and we’d all known each other for years. We did mainly new work at The Everyman, with the odd bit of Shakespeare thrown in, but the very first show I did was taking over from Ken Campbell, who had spent the entire year’s budget on one show and I’d been told that I had to work more-or-less on Box Office receipts. I said okay and that show was Lennon which grew into such a fantastic success and gave us a platform from which to work. I was only at The Everyman three years or so and I often think I should have stayed longer, but I was sort of seduced by New York once Lennon opened over there, which was put on by Sid Bernstein. He was the man responsible for taking The Beatles to Shea Stadium and when he saw Lennon he came back stage and said it was tailor made for New York. Of course I was a bit sceptical to say the least, but bless him he was true to his word, raised the money and things changed from both a professional and personal point of view as a result. I tried flitting between Liverpool and New York but that didn’t really work, so I concentrated on being in America as much as I could and, off and on, I was there for around six or seven years, despite not getting as much work as I’d have liked over there.’

Then in 2006, two Liverpool writers, Dave Kirby and Nicky Allt, wrote a play that would again change Eaton’s career path when Brick Up The Mersey Tunnels took the city by storm at The Royal Court, which had only recently began trying to put on performance theatre under Chief Executive, Kevin Fearon. ‘What was most surprising was when Kevin phoned me and told me about this play he wanted to put on at The Court. I didn’t really know Kevin then, but I couldn’t get my head around the place being a fully-fledged theatre because my only experience of it had been watching bands in what I thought was a really dark, cold building from years before. My initial reaction was one of “Oh my God”, but then I spoke to Dave Kirby and he told me that the place had completely changed and invited me to take a look for myself. Of course I was completely knocked out by it. The cabaret seating downstairs had replaced the standing room only area I’d known and the whole ambience was very different from what I’d experienced before. The whole place was lovely, so I agreed to do this play in three weeks or so and the response it received was just unforeseeable and took us all completely by surprise. Brick Up was the play that kicked the whole machine into gear and, again, like Lennon had done at The Everyman, gave us the platform to work from.’
Well over 100,000 people have seen the show in under three years, with people constantly asking for it to return. In addition, it brought the theatre to the attention  of great Liverpool writers such as Alan Bleasdale, who staged On The Ledge for the first time in fourteen years there in 2008, and Willy Russell who revamped Stags and Hens, again in 2008, and who has recently, along with Bob Eaton, fulfilled an long-held ambition of turning Our Day Out into a fully fledged musical and to much critical and audience acclaim.  ‘It didn’t take us that long to get Our Day Out – The Musical together, really, only about twenty-five years or so, and I suppose Point A was in 1983 when I asked to put a stage version on at the Everyman which was a real career highlight when it came about. Then from then on we were constantly saying let’s do the musical version. It never happened, of course, then I was at The Belgrade in Coventry in 1996 and we started the process again, then it stopped again. The biggest challenge has been getting the thing together, without question, because we needed a big theatre that wasn’t too big in which to stage it. Then Willy doing Stags and seeing what happened with that, after being a bit nervous of the Court’s audience reaction to the subtleties to his work, and being incredibly impressed having seen Dave Kirby’s Lost Soul, We then spent the next two years working on it.’

And it shows. Our Day Out – The Musical is a big, big show – not least in the fact that it boasts a cast of thirty + members, most of them school children – that smacks wholeheartedly of the West End. Yet its unlikely that any other theatre in the country outside London – let alone Liverpool – could stage it. ‘Right from the outset, Willy wanted to do it on a scale of ambition, and set the benchmark of producing a show fit for The West End and Broadway. In having the wherewithal and drive to carry that out, Kevin Fearon has to take a great deal of credit because even in a subsidised theatre, which The Royal Court isn’t, that scale of ambition is hard to come by. There’s a lot of cynicism in theatre at the moment but Kevin’s input meant we got to within around 90% of what we wanted to achieve. There are still one or two things that need altering, so next time out it’ll be better again hopefully. It’s without doubt my personal career highlight so far, simply because its taken so long to put together, has been produced on a huge scale, has a lot of energy and drive provided by the kids and has music that gets audiences humming on the way home.’

So having hit that particular height, Bob Eaton is drawing breath a little with a show that, although on a smaller scale to Our Day Out, is nonetheless important, particularly as it is one written by a comparatively new writer in Drew Quayle.  ‘The Salon is very different, although the process of putting it on is essentially the same. The difference is that someone like Willy or Alan is so much more experienced. There’s also the point that I know their work. With Drew, not only do I not know his work, though he has had plays produced before, I also don’t really know him that well either, so you have to work out a common language and that rapport takes a while to build. Having said that, after Kevin saw the show earlier in the year at St. Helen’s Theatre Royal, where it was really well received, and then showed me the script and asked if I’d like to do it, I had no hesitation in agreeing. It’s very definitely a Royal Court show in the way that its going to be a lot of fun for audiences, with characters that they will immediately identify with.’

So do pre-show nerves play a part, especially when Directing a new writers’ work? ‘I think the fact is that you’re so busy in the run up to opening night you don’t get time to be nervous. When the lights go down and the curtain goes up, then it’s more of a feeling of “ah well, there’s nothing I can do about it now” and you have to run with it. Although, having said that, I was nervous when my son, Joe, who at thirteen has a brilliant eye for theatre, came to see Our Day Out and it was a relief when he said he’d enjoyed it I must admit.  As an actor I’d be nervous, but you need that adrenaline because I think you’d be in trouble if you didn’t, but being a Director is a different thing altogether.  To do this job, I think it helps if you’ve had experience in as many other areas of theatre as possible. It gives you an understanding of so many other points of view and you can ask your cast to do things you’d only do yourself in many ways. Of course, that experience also gives you confidence as a Director. I’ve worked as an actor with a lot of Directors who haven’t had that experience and as a result are incredibly paranoid that someday someone will find them out, no matter how good a Director they actually are. It’s important, as well, to be able to put yourself in the audience member’s seat so going to see as many plays as possible – and reading as many plays as possible – is vital.’

So are there shows that Bob wishes he’d have done differently? ‘I don’t think so, really, because I tend to feel that we’ve always done the best we could have done with the resources available. I don’t think I’ve ever felt “oh damn, we shouldn’t have done that this way because I’ve missed a trick there”. At the end of the day, no matter the size of the show, from day one in rehearsal, it’s you and the writer and the cast with a few chairs and you see what happens from there. Okay, rehearsals for Our Day Out were a lot noisier than it is on The Salon, but the raw materials are essentially the same although every show is different with different challenges. It’s almost like going out with a different girl every month in a lot of ways.’

And Eaton is delighted to have been working in Liverpool before, during and after the success of the city’s successful Capital of Culture tenure in 2008. ‘Liverpool’s theatre scene is incredibly vibrant and exciting at the moment. Where else can you go and see Jonathan Pryce in The Caretaker one night, then a big West End Touring production at The Empire the next, then a new play at The Unity the next before having a good laugh at The Salon at The Royal Court to round your week off? There is some fantastic talent here, like Michael Starke, Drew Schofield and Suzanne Collins on the acting front, but also new writers like Drew, Dave Kirby and Nicky Allt alongside established writers such as Willy and Alan. It’s a fantastic theatre community and there’s always something going on. Then you have the Floral out in New Brighton on Wirral and The Theatre Royal in St. Helens getting bigger and better shows on. The Capital of Culture undoubtedly gave a lift to places such as The Everyman and Playhouse simply because they were able to produce more, which of course is great. With that said, though, I don’t think it did anything whatsoever for The Royal Court in terms of audiences who were and are being pulled in. In fact, considering the lack of financial assistance he received from just about every quarter, Kevin Fearon deserves a great deal of credit for managing to put together the quality shows that he does with the limited resources at his disposal. Where arts funding and popular theatre are concerned, there’s an awful lot of snobbery involved and somewhere like The Royal Court often gets looked down on, which is a shame.’

So what’s next after The Salon? ‘I’m Directing The Royal Court’s Christmas Show, A Merry Ding-Dong, then I have a break of about three shows. In that time, I’m going to catch up with the family because I live in Coventry these days and commute, but I’m also going to concentrate on writing a book about my time in theatre; my journey through popular theatre since 1969. I’ve got a few tales to tell, and finding The Royal Court and doing Our Day Out feels something like the end of a journey. Not that I’m thinking of retiring or anything, but it’s certainly a seminal moment in my career in a lot of ways.’

Chris High.

The Salon by Drew Quayle opens at The Royal Court on October 30 and runs until November 28. For tickets go to http://www.royalcourtliverpool.co.uk or telephone 0870 787 1866.

 

 

  
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“Writing gets me away for a while' from this world and into one where I, alone, can make or
break the rules as I see fit.” - Chris High 2003.
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