All things ‘Ladykillers’ with John Ghent…

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For those that know nothing about The Ladykillers what is it about? 

The Ladykillers is based on the famous Ealing black comedy film of the mid 1950s starring Alec Guinness in one of his memorable film characterisations.  Recently it has been brought to the stage with great success in this adaptation by Grahame Linehan.  It tells of Mrs. Wilberforce, a sweet but rather confused old lady, who rents a room in her house to a gang of criminals who she understands to be members of a string quartet.  The play tells of the gang’s attempts to conduct their nefarious doings although hampered by the innocent interference of their landlady.

Why did you choose to direct it? 

No matter how many times I watch the film, I still delight in favourite moments.  The silhouette of the sinister Professor Marcus seen through the glass panels of the door, and his flashes of malevolent insanity suddenly breaking through his obsequious politeness when crossed, together with the saturnine presence of Herbert Lom as the most vicious of the crooks and the innocent vanquishing of the criminals by sweet, little Katy Johnson.  When I saw the West End stage adaptation, although it remained true to the spirit of the original, I found that Graham Linehan had brilliantly found a way of paying tribute to the source material, but at the same time created something with a life of its own.  Whereas the comedy in the original was quite gentle, the stage version at times can be quite broad, almost farcical.  It is the kind of play that you can sit and watch with a silly smile on your face.  I thought it would be a jolly way to spend several weeks, working on a show like that – hard work but fun.

How long have you been directing and what has been a directing highlight for you? 

The answer to the first part of the question is, “Quite a long time.”  The second part I find nigh impossible to answer as there have been so many productions that have given me a great deal of pleasure and still remember for a variety of reasons.  I like to vary what I do as much as possible, and to that end have tackled classical and modern, comedy and tragedy – Shakespeare, Chekhov, Williams, Coward, Ayckbourn, etc.  I have also directed a good many musicals and revues.  If you press me for titles, I will say The Diary of Anne Frank, 84, Charing Cross Road, The Dresser, This Happy Breed, The History Boys, My Boy Jack, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Ring Round the Moon, Twelve Angry Men, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Summer and Smoke, My Three Angels, The 39 Steps, together with the several revues based on the great American composers and the Music Halls, all of which I compiled and directed.  I’ve also really enjoyed the modern American plays I’ve directed, such as Proof, Doubt and Good People.  A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations which I adapted and directed for extended Christmas runs.  Oh, it’s impossible to answer – I’ve loved working on them all…all except one!

I began directing with a one act play in a house competition at school and we came bottom.  It was mortifying and I vowed never to direct again.  I was forced back into directing eventually when no-one else was prepared to do it.  This time I found that I actually enjoyed it, and now I can’t imagine not doing it.  There was a time when all I wanted to do was act, but now all I really want to do is direct.

What challenges does a show like The Ladykillers present to you as a director? 

First of all to attract a company of people, cast and technical people, who are up for the challenges the play presents.  In farce you need to look for the truth in the character, for they all ordinary folk caught up in extraordinary situations that they are finding difficult to deal with.  That is the nature of farce.  Play the character for laughs and you fail.  Sometimes the pull towards the ridiculous is great, but you must resist it.  You need a cast who are cognisant of that.  The technical crew must come with many talents.  The Ladykillers needs a design showing a rather lopsided old Victorian dwelling near Kings Cross railway station, so close in fact that the trains are deafening when they steam past and rock the building.  The design, therefore, must have all those elements and the sound design must prepare for the clamorous noises of the trains approaching, passing and fading away into the distance.  All the characters are very individual, stereotypical in many respects, and the play is set in the 1950s, so the Costume Designer must take account of that.  There are a lot of stage tricks in The Ladykillers which the designer, lighting and sound technicians, the stage manager and his team must work out and operate.  At times, when the trains are rushing so close by the house, everything shakes.  Not easy to construct a set that is safe for people to work on, yet at times must wobble as a train passes.

In brief, what does directing a play at The Little involve? 

“In brief”…what’s that when talking about directing a play?!!!

Get to know your chosen play really well and then speak with the graphic design team in order to agree your  publicity image for the brochure, poster and programme cover.  Very often, after discussion, you will receive two or three designs to choose from, and after more discussion one of them is chosen.  You will also need to write a short ninety-word blurb about your play for the brochure…giving a taste of what the play is about in order to encourage a prospective customer to book a ticket.

Another early meeting must be with the designer of your set.  The designer will come back to you quite quickly with some ideas based on your discussion, either with drawings or a simple white-card model in the first instance as changes could well be found necessary at this stage.  I always like to involve my stage manager and production manager at an early stage, so that we can look at the practicality of the design.  More meetings, phone calls, emails, texts, and then finally you will have an agreed design.

Book your audition dates with the Theatre Office, after consulting with other directors before and after as to when they are thinking of auditioning, and then start to worry if you will be able to get the cast of fine actors that you know you need to do this play that you rate so highly.  Casting can sometimes be easy, sometimes hard.  When I did The History Boys and Journey’s End, I was worried about finding the good young actors those plays needed, but good young actors came out of the woodwork when the plays were advertised and I could have cast both twice over.

We rehearse each play for approximately six weeks.  Space is at a premium, so we have to timetable rehearsal rooms very carefully throughout the year.  The final week of rehearsals we get into the theatre and onto the stage for the first time, usually on the Wednesday evening.  This is our fit-up week, when the set is being built and the actors start to use it.  During this week the lighting team begin to create their magic and all the elements of a production start to come together.  The weekend prior to the opening is for dress rehearsals, which need to be approached as full-scale performances.  Everything should be in place by then, and nothing left to chance.

As the days tick down towards opening night, the panic and the excitement grow, but you must keep your head and deal with any problems that come to light, at the same time making sure that everyone, cast and crew, is able to work happily and effectively.

What advice would you give to any budding Little Theatre directors out there? 

Get to know Theatre.  Get to know our theatre.  Get in there and get involved with anything and everything.  Directing is not easy, and you really must have at least an aptitude for it.  The finest actors may not be able to direct, and the most creative and inventive of directors may never be able to act.  Find out where you are on the spectrum by working in the theatre and finding your feet.  We run a One Act Showcase in the Haywood Studio during the year, in which we encourage new directors to show there directorial abilities.   If this “toe in the water” is successful, you may be offered the opportunity of a full-length studio play, and if you come through that with flying colours it could mean a main-house opportunity the following season.

John Ghent

The Ladykillers opens on Monday November 9th and runs until Saturday November 14th.