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In Conversation With… ALASTAIR KNIGHTS

alastair knightsThis year marks the 40th anniversary of the West End début for Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s A Little Night Music. To celebrate this momentous occasion a one-off concert version will be staged at the Palace Theatre, currently home to The Commitments, featuring Anne Reid, Janie Dee, Joanna Riding and a host of West End stars.  This week we were delighted to speak to director Alastair Knights about the thrilling event.

Alastair Knights, you will be directing Stephen Sondheim’s and Hugh Wheeler’s musical A Little Night Music in the London West End for one night only. How did this project come about? How did you get involved?
Well, I’ve actually staged A Little Night Music before, about a year and a half ago in Guildford at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre. We absolutely loved doing it and had so much fun the last time. It’s also a piece which works really well in a concert format. We then discovered that it was the 40th anniversary of the show and got given the Palace Theatre, we thought, “Let’s do this”,  get all these people back together, plus a couple of new faces and put the show on again.

So how are you celebrating the 40th anniversary of the show, in what way is it going to be special?
A Little Night Music is such a well-loved musical and we thought we would celebrate its 40th year by getting an all-star dream cast together. Everyone in the show is so brilliantly cast; it’s such an amazing group of people that we would never be able to get together for a long run. We’ve got Anne Reid from Last Tango in Halifax as Madame Armfeldt and Olivier Award Winner Janie Dee, who recently starred in Blithe Spirit in the West End, as Desiree. There’s Olivier Award winners everywhere in this cast! It’s also Sondheim’s 85th birthday this year, so we’re celebrating that as well. Sondheim is a genius isn’t he!

What a shame it’s only on for one day.
Well we’d love to do it for longer and if anyone wants us to do it anywhere else, we will! It just works perfectly with this cast. Maybe some fabulous producer will see it and want to take it on. But again, getting all these stars together is just impossible, that’s why we can only do it for the one night.

Photo by Darren Bell

Photo by Darren Bell

Were the majority of the actors also playing last time?
Anne Reid and Jamie Parker are fabulous new additions to the cast. Many of the other actors in the cast were in the previous production last year, including Janie Dee. I’ve worked with Janie a lot. We did Putting It Together last year and a few concerts together in the past. She is wonderful. What is so funny about Janie is that the character of Desiree, this working mother and actress, is Janie Dee. There are moments in the show which are borderline real life, but that’s what I like about working with her. I like to work with actors who give a lot of themselves to their characters and the piece. It’s always nice to see actors who have a kind of transparency. At times you’re even unsure whether you are watching the actor or you’re watching the character, there is this beautiful merging of personalities. I love working with Janie. She is my muse!

As the director, what main challenges are you facing and what do you enjoy most during the process?
We only have four full days of rehearsal and the cast are all busy rehearsing other things as well so in terms of scheduling, that’s tricky. It’s actually a really big show – when you read the script it says like “a house flies on” and “an enormous car comes on”, and obviously we can’t do that because it’s a one night concert. The challenges are really getting to grips with the material and knowing it so well that we can stage it without any of the big flashy sets or glamorous costumes. I love working this way because the audience really engages with the work as they get to focus solely on the music and the story.  I’m working with a brilliant choreographer, Andrew Wright, and we have been coming up with some exciting ideas on how the simplicity of the staging will hopefully add to the piece rather that detract from it. I’m looking forward to it. This type of event theatre is what I and Alex tend to do best: We have this very old-fashioned way of just getting a great group of people together and putting on a show as quickly as possible. When you start getting bogged down by it, it’s not fun. The reason everyone should be in this industry, is because we love it and because we have a good time.

And the audience really feels that too, doesn’t it?
Yeah, they really do. When a cast has a great time putting on a show an audience definitely feels that as they can tell it has been created in a positive atmosphere. And you want the actors to feel safe and comfortable, obviously. We just like to have a good time.

What else can you tell us about the show’s music?
The music is gorgeous. ‘Send in the Clowns’ is obviously the big hit but there are so many other lush melodies. Sondheim is a legend, the lyrics are so intricate and we have such an amazing group of singers and this beautiful 28 piece orchestra so hopefully the music will really just captivate the audience. Janie said recently that audiences go wild for this music and it’s true because it really penetrates the heart. The show is all about love and romance and the music gets under your skin. People are crying and weeping and standing and cheering. It’s such a fantastic show.

It is quite funny as well?
It’s really funny. The sophistication of the wit is pure Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s book is so charming. I read an interview with another director who said it comes across as one of Sondheim’s coldest works, which I completely disagree with. I think it’s Sondheim with his heart on his sleeve. It’s this beautiful Shakespearian farce really, Act II just has lovers running on and off, falling in love and falling out of love and coming together. It is so perfectly written. It is a masterpiece.

You have some experience with Stephen Sondheim’s work, having previously directed Putting It Together. What has your artistic journey been like so far?
I did Putting It Together last year which was a fantastic experience and was a really big hit at the St James. That production actually began in a very small studio space in Guildford and then, fortunately, Robert Mackintosh, who runs the St. James, came to see it and in the interval of the first show said: “Do you want to bring this to London?” And we did. Loads of people came, lots of exciting things happened for me and then I went on to work on The Elaine Paige Television Show for six episodes. It was amazing working with her, the first lady of musical theatre. She has been really supportive of me; it just opened so many doors. I was an actor before and I never really thought I was going to be a director. But looking back, I was always putting on shows as a little kid, telling my sister and my family “You stand there!”, “You do that!”. So in a way I was always directing. I went into acting for a couple of years and later I branched out into directing more and more. I did A Little Night Music and directed continuously since and had some great opportunities to work with a lot of brilliant people. The thing I like about my career is that I do these big West End concerts but then I go and do a piece of new writing or a play in the fringe. It is always fun to vary your work and that way you’re always learning and growing.

May I ask about your plans for the future – have you got any exciting projects lined up?
I am going to be working on some plays and new writing this year which is a change for me. I am directing a new play as part of the VAULT Festival in February and also holding a development workshop for a new piece that I can’t say too much about just yet. I love working on classic pieces, but also it’s so nice to put on your own stamp and to help develop and form a new piece. Last year was all about big projects, working with well-known stars, whereas this year I feel like I need to work with emerging artists and explore the other side of theatre. I like to keep things varied and you do find yourself getting pigeonholed very easily in all elements of this industry. I know that actors who have trained in musical theatre have a really hard time being seen for straight plays, even though some of the best actors I know are “musical theatre” actors. And again, I don’t want to be known as a musical theatre director. I just want to be known as a director who can do it all. And I enjoy doing it all. As long as it’s good. I was speaking to another director the other day and I was telling him about the difficulties of another show I’m working on and he was like: “It just needs to be good.” I think that’s such a great piece of advice! It just needs to be good. [laughs]

Thank you very much for the interview and best of luck with the show!

Here’s some behind the scenes footage with the cast and creatives…

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Interview by Isabel Wagner

One Night Only – 26th January 2015
Palace Theatre, London, W1D.

For tickets visit www.nimaxtheatres.com

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