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Interview with director Karen Simpson

28 January 2015 | Laura Stevens

This February the Rose Theatre has an exciting season of theatre lined up with Tim Firth’s Sign of the Times and audience favourite Three Men in a Boat. Both performances come from Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds and London Calling caught up with Karen Simpson, Director of Theatre Royal and Director of Sign of the Times.

Sign of the Times is perhaps not the most obvious choice for a southern audience. A play firmly located in Northern England, Firth’s play introduces us to Yorkshiremen Frank and Alan. Frank is the Head of Installation at Forshaws and Alan is his reluctant teenage trainee - who is far more interested in his iPod than electrical isolators. Speaking to director, Karen Simpson the northern setting is irrelevant for this character drama:

“In those characters, no matter where you live, you’ll know people or you’ll know elements of it to do with your own life anyway. The Yorkshire thing gives it that theatricality.”  

For the two performers, they had “great fun playing” with the accent and working with a vocal coach to ensure their diction was just right.

For Simpson the comedy resonates with the audiences, as “whether we’re young or older, there’s just something about how Tim Firth has encapsulated the human spirit in the characters of Alan and Frank.” If that is sounding all rather philosophical and existential you’ll be pleased to hear that alongside this “he does make you smile”!

Having recently shared a preview at Theatre Royal this character drama not only made the audience laugh, but also for the creative team the introvert aspect of the piece shone through: “We all said when we shared an extract that we didn’t realise how much it would make you think about yourself – so I think it’s lovely, like a little onion.”

Opening the new season at the Rose, this Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds production will feel right at home. The Rose is “like a modern version of the Theatre Royal. Both theatres have a pit, same configuration – but of course one is 200 years old and one is the new version of it.”

“It’s really interesting that we’re going to be taking it into two theatres that are the same sort of feel, expect for one’s old and one’s brand new!” 

Another Theatre Royal production performing at the Rose is Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. Described by Simpson as “a complete romp of a story”, a declaration that is evidenced through its popular reception in Bury St Edmund from all ages.

The comic tale deals with the camaraderie of youth, the absurdity of existence and is overflowing with comic songs. Adapting the novel for stage presented challenges but the laughs have definitely been kept in this interpretation:

“I think the team has been really clever in being faithful to the book, but actually treating it as a fantastic story telling opportunity. And, just exposing all this glorious madness really!”

In particular for Kingston locals there will be geographical references that are very apt when being staged on the Thames!

At the heart of both performances is Simpson’s desire that the plays deliver “a really good night out. The best theatre does it all. You go out feeling excited and interested and wanting to talk about it.”

It is this prioritising of the audience that has lead to the Theatre Royal going on tour as for Simpson “it’s lovely to bring a beautiful work into London. And, it’s important that work we create goes everywhere.”

Sign of the Times will play at the Rose Theatre, Kingston 3-7 February and Three Men in a Boat will play 12-14 February. For tickets to both go to the Rose's website.

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