Robin Herford - Ten Times Table Interview

Ten Times Table: Robin Herford Q&A

The acclaimed director tells us about his new production of Alan Ayckbourn’s hysterical committee comedy.

Hi Robin. You’re directing Ayckbourn’s hilarious Ten Times Table. What’s it about?

Well, a motley group of local residents form a committee to put on a pageant in a village. This immediately spells trouble. They want to try and reenact a scene from local history, which is rather similar to the Tolpuddle Martyrs. As they set it up, the political factions within the committee begin to show themselves, and what starts as a lovely community activity to bring people together ends up being extremely acrimonious.

You have a long personal history with the play, don’t you?

I do. I was in the original production when Alan wrote it in 1977. I’d just joined his company and this was the first original play he’d written since I’d been there. It was just extraordinary. He wrote me the most appallingly boring, pedantic councillor to play, who sits at the chairman’s right hand side and corrects spelling mistakes, points of order and procedural matters. He’s the ghastliest, dullest man. Over the years I’ve got used to playing the most appalling people that Alan has written for me. Of course, they’re always much more fun to play than the straight ones!

I’ve directed Ten Times Table twice since then too. This is the third time. Each time I do it, it seems to ring a new bell. It’s incredibly topical. Although it was written in 1977 it has great resonance with our current political situation. That’s the extraordinary thing with Alan’s plays. Human nature doesn’t change that much. I suppose the make-up of committees doesn’t change that much either. There are always people with different priorities who want to bang on about this and that.

What’s the draw of returning to the same play again?

Whenever you put a new cast into a show, it becomes a different show. Obviously the essence of the play is there, but you get different colours and approaches and it just makes the whole thing richer.

How have you found your cast for this production, which is led by Robert Daws, Craig Gazey and Gemma Oaten?

I’ve actually worked with five of this cast before. I think it’s reassuring for the new people to the company to think ‘He can’t be a complete idiot because they’re coming back to work for him again!’

Robert and I worked together when he played Doctor Watson in a production of The Secret of Sherlock Holmes I directed at the Duchess Theatre. He is the most delightful man. He’s just so easy. He’s a real leader of a company.

The character he plays is a lovely man too. He is one of those people who thinks, “I’m doing alright. If I put in a bit of effort, everyone else can enjoy the fruits of it.” So he puts together the pageant because he thinks it’s going to make life better and be fun for everyone. It’s such a positive thing to do, but it turns out to be a nightmare, yet he remains relentlessly optimistic even at the end. I can’t help thinking, “I’m glad there are people like him around, because it makes life worth living.”

Alan Ayckbourn is a prolific playwright, who’s written more than 80 plays and won awards on both sides of the Atlantic. What do you think makes him so special?

He’s a genius, and I do not flash that word around lightly. I worked with him initially in the 70s when he was at the height of his power, but he just goes on with the most fruitful imagination. It is extraordinary how he has these incredible ideas and then he delivers them brilliantly and makes them work. Anyone who has a love of theatre must be in awe of him. And his work is just so truthful; he encapsulates all of human life. My one note to actors is, “Just play the truth of it and it will be funny.”

Ten Times Table is touring the UK. How important is touring theatre?

I think it’s absolutely crucial. The touring circuit is very vibrant and it affords the possibility for people to see really good quality work that does the rounds. Also, audiences are often really chuffed to see their heroes and heroines on stage. It’s a wonderful thing to do from our point of view as well; you arrive somewhere new and people are really pleased to see you.

In a world where so much entertainment is available at the touch of a button, what’s special about making an effort to go to the theatre?

You get a live experience. You’re breathing the same air. You’re witnessing, with a communal audience, the same thing at the same time. There’s nothing like a group of several hundred people all being told a joke at the same time and laughing at the same time. That sense of sharing a moment with a huge community of people who are getting it at the exact same second that you are is great. You look along the row, see other people doubled up with laughter and it makes you feel fantastic.