Interview with Alastair Whatley, Artistic Director of Original Theatre Company.

The Original Theatre Company are preparing to bring Hattie Naylor’s adaptation of best-selling author Sarah Water’s novel The Night Watch to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre from Monday 23 – Saturday 28 September.

In anticipation of the company’s sixteenth visit to the Yvonne Arnaud, we had a chat with Artistic Director, Alastair Whatley about the show and the relationship Original Theatre have formed with Guildford over the past decade of touring their shows at the Yvonne Arnaud.


Can you tell us a bit about what the Original Theatre Company has to offer?

I suppose we’ve spent the last fifteen years desperately trying to live up to the name! We don’t have a set style but the hope is that we with each production we chose we make it as brilliant as we possibly can.  It’s not rocket science in that respect!  Regarding the plays that we chose and the programming we do – we started off doing Shakespeare plays, but we’ve moved increasingly towards favouring new writing and new commissioning of new writers.  At the same time, we’re providing plays that are accessible to a wide range of audiences and try to juggle those two focal points.  This year we had Napoli Brooklyn over from the states, a brand new play by Torben Betts called Caroline’s Kitchen, set in the very familiar ambiance of a North London kitchen, and then we’ve been delving back in time with The Night Watch, which obviously is an adaptation of a novel, so we try to serve a variety and to serve that variety with honesty and integrity. We’re becoming possibly more daring in our choice of plays.   


What can audiences expect from The Night Watch?

Anyone that saw our production of Birdsong, which I directed, will know we took a very broad canvas with it.  These are theatrical adaptations, they’re not TV versions.  An adaptation on stage has to have a good reason behind it. For a novel to be told on stage you have to find a theatrical language for it.  Audiences can expect big experience theatre that involves lots of design elements and some fantastic acting. Which will hopefully all come together to create an experience that you can only have in a theatre.


How does the stage adaptation compare the much-loved novel?

If you’ve read the novel you get to see the characters that you’ve read in your mind live in three dimensions.  If you haven’t read the novel you get to experience this stunning story from Sarah, from one of her most popular and best novels, about a pretty untold corner of history, one that we think we’re familiar with, just after the war at the end of the blitz.  Sarah does huge amounts of research and with that knowledge creates such an amazing atmosphere of a time that it’s like time travel! Hopefully the experience of watching the show will be a bit like stepping back in time and really having the past in front of you.


What themes are at the core of play and how do these resonate in 2019? 

Sarah does two things; first and foremost, she takes not just untold corners of a time but also people on the fringes of society at those times. She doesn’t just explore the obvious people or the obvious heroes for novels.  She’s very famous for writing gay women, but she’s maybe less famous for finding those characters and other protagonists who are just hiding at the fringes and the margins, who have fascinating stories but are just slightly untold.

 In this story you meet a young lad who starts off working in a candle factory.  You meet two girls who are planning the process of a dating agency.  And then you meet a strange lady dressed as a man walking around London on her own and watching the second half of films only, never watching the first half.  So you meet these four, disparate people and then ultimately through the play we really learn how they became those people and what lead them to where they are.  So, in that respect, it’s a thriller about characters living in extraordinary times and dealing with the aftermath of those extraordinary times.  But it’s not about those times itself, it’s very much people driven and exploring characters rather left-field-centre.

 Obviously Sarah is now one of our most celebrated and popular authors.  She’s brought – in her words – lesbian pastiche fiction – not my words! – into the mainstream. The Night Watch has been on for millions of people on BBC, making Sarah one of the first people to bring it back around and make what was previously seen as gay or lesbian fiction, and make it populist to just be gay.  But certainly, for us, it’s something we didn’t explore and hear at school about the lives of gay men and women in the home front of the war and how permissive society had become. 

Everything had broken down, the social order broke down and it was actually after the war when we start the play as it’s told in a reverse chronology, so you start at the end and work your way back to the beginning, that then the oldest order had reasserted itself and all the ground that had been made then had all the walls brought back up again. And the following years were spent trying to break them down again for the greater good against a common enemy.  I suppose in our fractured social climate we now find ourselves in, it’s nice to look and see the English largely behaving – well, in this play anyway. We really see the after effects of when we meet the characters and everyone is lost, isolated and very alone, so I think it works in the times we’re living in in 2019. It was originally done in 2016 at the exchange.


What kind of response do you find you usually get/do you from Guildford audiences?

We’ve been brining shows to you since 2009, I believe that’s when the first one was. I think you’ve had well over 15+, nearly every show we’ve ever done since then. We like coming to Guildford! We like the audiences and we like the staff.  The late Jamie Barber, the previous Director of the Arnaud, was a mentor of mine, so he mentored me when I was a young producer and we co-produced Mill Studio shows with the whole Arnaud team. We know the insides, the outsides, the back and front of the theatre and we just love the place. It’s a wonderful space and the audience are lovely and close, it’s right by the river so it’s a lovely place to go and really enjoy the surroundings. It’s always in our tour diaries and we will always return there. The actors love how close to London Guildford is on the train, but the producers don’t love it as much when the cast are stuck on the edge of Woking in the morning! I’ve stayed and enjoyed many nights in the various pubs and clubs of Guildford over the years!

What is your favourite production that you’ve brought to the Yvonne Arnaud?

I always remember the first show we did which was Vincent, back when we were doing smaller scale 300 seat theatres. At the end of that run we booked in three slightly bigger ones.  Now we realise Guildford is a lovely intimate space compared to lots of the other venues but at the time it didn’t seem it! Arriving to the bottles of wine and the smart ushers, we felt like we’d entered into another world of theatre. I’ll always remember that one! Opening The Importance of Being Earnest was a big one for us - the Yvonne Arnaud had it first in the middle of winter a couple of years ago.  We’re very proud of that one. 

To wind up – what has been the most memorable experience Original Theatre have had at the Yvonne Arnaud?

When we brought See How They Run to the Yvonne Arnaud we had a dog on stage.  We auditioned dogs in every town and the chosen Guildford dog, a Labrador I think, was very well behaved in rehearsals. On the first night it ran on stage, looked out as the audience gasped and cheered and promptly jumped off the stage and ran around the auditorium. We had ushers chasing the dog and actors chasing the ushers. It was a wonderful chase seen. The audience were just loving it despite the fact it completely ruined the show really because we never recovered from that! That was certainly memorable.