Friday, 9 January 2015

Interview: Matthew White

Matthew White is currently starring in the first London revival of Bat Boy. The musical begins performances at the Southwark Playhouse tonight (9th January) and runs until Saturday 31st January 2015.

Bat Boy was inspired by an article run by American tabloid The Weekly World News; a paper of fabricated stories that many unsuspecting readers believed to be real. The musical won New York’s Outer Critics Circle and Lucille Lortel Awards for Best Off-Broadway Musical in 2001. It received its UK premiere in 2004 at West Yorkshire Playhouse prior to a West End run at the Shaftesbury Theatre.

Matthew’s theatre credits include Ragtime (Piccadilly, Olivier Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor), Chicago (Adelphi), The Phantom of the Opera (Her Majesty’s), Kiss of the Spider Woman (Shaftesbury) and Les Misérables (Palace). 

Matthew is also a hugely successful director. His work includes: Top Hat (Aldwych/UK Tour), Sweet Charity (Menier Chocolate Factory/Theatre Royal, Haymarket) and Little Shop of Horrors (Menier Chocolate Factory/Duke of York’s Theatre). He is also directing the upcoming UK Tour of The Producers starring Jason Manford, Louie Spence and Ross Noble.

I recently spoke to Matthew about what people can expect from Bat Boy and what first attracted him to the production as well as Top Hat’s huge success and why he’s so thrilled to be directing The Producers…

Over recent years you have been best known for your work as a director, so what attracted you to starring in Bat Boy?
Well I have never actually given up acting, I’ve always carried on doing it – just maybe not in a very high profile way. I thought Bat Boy was a fascinating piece, I didn’t know it very well. I liked the character, Dr Parker. He’s pretty dark and I generally tend to be drawn to darker characters… I don’t really know why [laughs]. I really like the Southwark Playhouse, I love these smaller fringe venues that are popping up around London. They tend to put on some really good stuff. I just thought it would be a nice job and it’s just a short contract which, for me, works really well. So it appealed to me on lots of different levels, plus I recently saw Luke’s production of Carousel and thought he looked like an interesting young director to work with!

There is certainly nothing else like Bat Boy on in London at the moment, what do you think audiences can expect?
The piece is very quirky and it has got so many contrasting styles. One moment it is a Vampire-esque story, then it’s a revenge tragedy… it has got all these different elements to it and is actually quite moving! I think audiences will really connect to the central character, Bat Boy. He’s a lonely outsider and is damaged. Hopefully people will also find it darkly funny. There may be uproarious laughter at one moment and then hushed silence the next. I think it’s one of those pieces where you never quite know what is around the corner. 

And what’s the score like? What are the influences?
I think there’s a combination of influences. There’s some classic musical theatre in there. This is written by the guy who wrote Legally Blonde – although I think it came before Legally Blonde – so there are some definite parallels. There are some snappy, very recognisable melodic stuff, but then there is also some funkier stuff with a rocky vibe. There are moments which feel like we’re in RENT, moments which feel like a more conventional musical and then there are wordy, clever moments where it feels like we’re doing a piece of Sondheim. It really is a combination of styles which suits the nature of the piece. 

What has the atmosphere been like in rehearsals?
Very good! Everyone has been very committed and it has been lovely. They’re a good bunch of people and everyone seems to be getting on very well. We had to work quite hard because we rehearsed for three weeks and then had a week off for Christmas. We knew we had to get through the whole show before Christmas so it has been quite intense – it’s quite a big piece, there’s a lot going on. The cast have been great, they’re a jolly group! They’re very talented and there are some extraordinary voices… they’re physical beasts [laughs]!

Do you enjoy performing in these more intimate fringe theatres? The experience is totally different for the cast and audience.
Yes… it’s terrifying [laughs]! When you are that close you are very conscious of your audience. It is quite scary, but it’s also very thrilling. It really is very different doing a show in a venue like this. The last one I did was a musical at Riverside Studios and you can see the whites of people’s eyes. It makes you up your game and reminds you of the contract between the audience and the actors. In a proscenium arch if you’re blinded by a spotlight you can’t really see the audience very well and you have to remind yourself that there are individuals out there. In a space like Southwark you can’t get away from it – you can see them all the time. It definitely feels like you have more of a connection with the audience. 

Alan Burkitt and Charlotte Gooch in Top Hat / Photo Credit: Max Lacome-Shaw

We also have to discuss Top Hat which just seems to get better and better. What has your journey with the show been like?
It has been an extraordinary experience! We essentially started the piece with a script, which was the film script, and about five or six songs from the film. We then expanded it and obviously did the adaptation. Then we did a workshop with about eleven people which was followed by a tour. We were then able to refine and change some numbers and put some new stuff in before we opened in the West End. It was a real work-in-progress and I think that if we had not gone through that preliminary process we would not have been able to create the piece we managed to end up with. It was invaluable. 

I think that really is the key, so many shows open straight in the West End before they have found their feet.
Well sometimes people can’t afford to do it that way, but personally I think it’s a brilliant way. You are able to see the piece in front of an audience and you can gauge their reaction and really start to work out what does and doesn’t work. We made a lot of changes between the tour and the West End and even after the West End run we did some more tweaking before taking it back on tour. It has been a constant process of refining. 

Jason Manford in The Producers
Have you enjoyed working with Alan Burkitt and Charlotte Gooch on the tour? They are incredible together!
We were very lucky to find Charlotte and Alan who are not only terrific as individuals, but they work spectacularly well together. I think that has been what is so striking about the tour, they partner each other brilliantly. It is partly because they’re phenomenal dancers/singers/actors, but also they have a connection in real life. They really, really get on and trust each other which makes a lot of difference. We’ve been thrilled with them, they have been absolutely fabulous and are the most consistent performers in the world – they’re never off those two! They’re workhorses! It has been delightful. 

And then finally, after Bat Boy you are directing the UK Tour of The Producers. I’m sure you’ve been working on the production for a while, but are you looking forward to getting stuck into rehearsals?
Yes, we’ve been doing a lot of work already – trying to design it, working with the choreographer and arrangers and getting all that stuff sorted. It’s such a great, funny piece; it’s nice to be working on a piece which is so strong. Sometimes with other musicals I feel like I want to start pulling them apart, but The Producers is such a well written show and I don’t want to change anything. Having said that, we’re doing a new production – it’s not Susan Stroman’s production. I’m hoping it all pulls together. You never really know, you choose the people who you think are best for the job but until you actually get them together in the rehearsal room you never quite know what the chemistry is going to be. I’m really looking forward to it actually, I think we’ve got a great cast and it will be really good fun!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Bat Boy runs at the Southwark Playhouse until Saturday 31st January 2015.
Please visit for further information and tickets.

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