In High Society: An Interview with Martin Bell, Director of The Philadelphia Story

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With the final touches being put on his production, I caught up with Martin Bell, director of The Philadelphia Story, to talk about the play, theatre, and bottom-pinching!

NP: What’s the play about and what do you like most about it?

MB: The play is a screwball comedy about the wedding of Tracy Lord and George Kittredge. The wedding is complicated by the fact that Tracy’s first husband turns up and, to add an extra ingredient, two journalists are invited as well, who have designs on Tracy. So it’s really about this love triangle between them and the complications it creates on the day of the wedding.

I like it because it has a nostalgia about it, it’s fun, and it’s a traditional romantic show. It’s quite hard to direct a play like this because it’s like trying to do a tap dance sequence in Singin’ in the Rain without thinking about Gene Kelly. The ghost of the film and of High Society loom over the whole thing which is a joy and a curse at the same time. So hopefully what we’ve managed to do is specific to us but is also recognisable to people who enjoyed the film. There’s a huge variety of characters, acrobatics and ridiculously cheesy jokes.

There’s also bottom-pinching in it, which is not something you get to see on stage all the time. It’s vexed us quite a bit. Uncle Willie is a lascivious old man and he pinches women’s backsides, including fifteen-year-old Dinah’s. We had a discussion about this—particularly in light of Operation Yew Tree! —and we think we’ve got a space where his pinching the young girl’s bottom is tasteful and innocent. Because the play is set in 1939, there are all sort of things that were fine at the time but have now moved on. But the bottom-pinching is something I think the audiences are going to enjoy!

NP: What can audiences expect from The Philadelphia Story?

MB: We’ve got a really strong cast, so they can expect some great performances from some of the theatre’s foremost actors and also some people they haven’t seen before. There’s Ella Harding, 15, who’s played at Curve and she’s coming to do an LDS show for the first time, which is going to be an absolute treat. The set design will be quite startling. The show itself requires two massive scene changes between inside the building and in the garden. Matt Nunn’s created that by having the set on trucks which spin around. There are some very nice twists in the play, which involve confusion about people’s identities and surprises until the end.

NP:  What’s the thing you love most about theatre?

MB: There’s an intimacy about theatre. You can get the impression that what you saw was something special and different to what everyone else saw, even if you’re seeing a run of something that’s gone on for weeks and weeks. The thing I like most about The Little Theatre is the ethos: putting on quality plays with people who are not paid. I like the intimacy of rehearsing with people as well, so you share in an experience that will never be re-created.

NP: Tell me a bit about your directing history and your style.

MB: This is the sixth play that I’ve directed at The Little Theatre. I tend to do comedies; I prefer plays that have got custard pies and banana skins in them! I like to give the cast an opportunity to tell me how they feel; the play is built that rather than anything I impose upon them. What I hope we end up with is a quality product, but the most important thing for me is that people feel valued. When you’re acting, you render yourself very vulnerable. I try to make sure that no one leaves feeling worse about themselves than when they came in.

NP: What would you say to someone looking to direct the first time?

MB: The most obvious thing is you need to understand the play absolutely fully before you cast it, otherwise you can recognise that in fact you’ve made the wrong decisions about people. I’m really pleased that I’ve made absolutely the right decisions about my cast. When I did The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, I read it over a hundred times so I knew absolutely what I wanted and I think if you know the play inside out you can make much better decisions.

NP: What will you be feeling when the curtain goes up on opening night?

MB: There’ll be nervousness for the cast. Hopefully that the actors enjoy it. I’m always nervous about sitting amongst the audience. But you try to remember what a massive achievement it is to put anything on stage given that you’ve got a cast who come to these rehearsals straight from jobs and who given up all of their free time. I think it’s an important that we celebrate the achievements of those who are doing things for the love of it.

NP: After The Philadelphia Story, what’s next from you in theatre?

MB: I’m doing a clog dance in Mary Jones’ An August Bank Holiday Lark. I’m looking forward to that. I’m also looking forward to having a little bit of a break. There are lots of nice plays to choose from for next season, so with a bit of luck I might get to direct one of them.

NP: If you had to grab audiences with 3 words what would they be?

MB: Can I have The and Phildalephia and Story?

NP: *laughter* No!

MB: It’s warm, it’s fun, and it’s lively. Also, “pinching of bottoms”.

The Philadelphia Story runs 11-16 April and tickets are available now!

Nick Palmer