Thursday, September 23

West End Producer David Pugh: ‘My guiding principle has always been: Will Mommy like it?’ | Theater

RReports of the stereotypical West End producer’s death have been exaggerated. I’m in Bath, sitting in the sun with businessman David Pugh, who’s smoking cigarettes, drinking vodka and Coke, and whispering indiscreet showbiz gossip in my face. What a lunch time! With his pledges of allegiance to mid-20th century entertainment values ​​(“I want to be Ken Dodd”), the 62-year-old Pugh might seem like a throwback. But he’s also a progressive, a rare example of a commercial producer committed to new work from unexpected sources.

“I like exciting theater,” he says, “and many producers don’t do exciting theater. They do it safely. But there are few times when you can do Relatively Speaking with Penelope Keith. “This is quickly followed by an apology of” ooh, am I not horrible? “For taking Ms. Keith’s name in vain. If I didn’t know that Pugh he’s a fan of old school comedy, you’d know by his vaudevillian and vaudevillian speech patterns. weakly camp, yes. When I remind Pugh that he was once played on stage by Toby Jones, on his hit Morecambe tribute show and Wise The Play What I Wrote (“I’m David Pugh!” nose. Too much camping, I thought. My mother was not happy. “

Usually it was, mind you. “My guiding principle was always: Will Mommy like it?” Says this Stoke-on-Trent son. “That’s why I’ve worked a lot with Nigel Havers.” Havers was one of the (many) stars of that production of Ur-Pugh Art by Yazmina Reza, which he took to the West End with Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, financed by Sean Connery, in 1996. Along with that never-ending, never-ending, refreshing show ( of which he is now planning a Broadway revival), Pugh’s signature hits include a Tony Award-winning Equus with Daniel Radcliffe and Kneehigh’s globe-trotting adaptation of Brief Encounter.

Daniel Radcliffe at David Pugh's 2007 revival of Equus at the Gielgud Theater in London.
Daniel Radcliffe at David Pugh’s 2007 revival of Equus at the Gielgud Theater in London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton / The Guardian

It is with shows like the latter that your heart lies. “I loved working with The Right Size (who did The Play What I Wrote), with Kneehigh and now with Told By An Idiot.” The latter company, one of the jewels of left-wing British theater in the last two decades, is why Pugh and I are in Bath today. His bizarre tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, a seafaring fantasy that imagines two silent film icons crossing the Atlantic 110 years ago, caused a sensation at its 2020 release. Pugh read the Guardian review, he tells me, always charming , and hastened to see her. He is now its producer, reviving it with a new title, Charlie and Stan, for a UK tour.

It’s a gig that (sort of a global pandemic) propels Pugh back into his comfort zone. “I feel like I’m 18 again,” he says, vodka in hand. “I feel like I’m at the Edinburgh Fringe, putting up posters. I’ve gotten my enthusiasm back, which I think might have waned. “It waned, he says, because after decades doing commercial theater,” I got to the point where I could raise 3 million pounds, so I thought: I’ll do a musical. I realized that I’m not very good at producing musicals. ” The Girls, Tim Firth and Gary Barlow’s adaptation of Calendar Girls, and Take That’s musical The Band were critical hits. But “it’s not the same,” says a brooding Pugh.

“The difference is, on Saturday night at Charlie and Stan’s first preview, we can watch the show and think, ‘We have to change that.’ And those changes will be on the program the next day. But if you want to make changes to a musical, it’s like being the captain of a ship: you have to go another five miles before you can turn around. There are so many people and so many expenses involved. “

It’s so much better to be back in the seat-of-your-pants comic world, where Pugh’s end-of-the-dock know-how can be put to use for immediate positive effect. With your input, the role of Stan Laurel (played by Jerone Marsh-Reid) has developed substantially, which could make up for the loss of Amalia Vitale, whose turn as Chaplin lit up the show’s first run. (“But the new girl [Danielle Bird] it’s fantastic too… ”) The show evokes a series of scenes, more or less true, and almost all antics, when Charlie and his subordinate Stan cross the ocean as part of the music company from Fred Karno’s music room, chewing cigars. We go back to Chaplin’s Dickensian childhood and anticipate Oliver Hardy’s death through episodes not fully verifiable, such as the impromptu murder of Stan at sea by Charlie with a huge frying pan.

But will anyone come to see it? Like everyone else in the theater, Pugh has struggled to stay afloat these past 18 months. His total income in 2020, he tells me, was the £ 10,460 he earned from the staging of Raising Rita at the Minack open-air theater in Cornwall: ‘and I gave it all to my investors, just to make sure I still they were there when I needed them ”. Pugh refers to his “188 investors” frequently, and fondly as well, all the more so since his production of Emma Rice’s Malory Towers was canceled when Covid struck. “My investors took a bath,” he says, which means they lost all their money. “I had spent £ 400,000 when we got to the technology [rehearsal]. And it was a cancellation. “

Jerone Marsh-Reid as Stan, Reggie as Scraps, and Danielle Bird as Charlie in Charlie and Stan.
Jerone Marsh-Reid as Stan, Reggie as Scraps, and Danielle Bird as Charlie in Charlie and Stan. Photography: Matt Crockett

So, with Charlie and Stan, he says, “I’ve financed this myself. What you are not supposed to do, and I never did. “And he is worried, because” we can not put people in. It is not the fault of the program: there is no one who comes to other productions either. The public is still not sure. “

That’s why, like his 18-year-old self, Pugh flies off, struggling to even give away tickets. “It will take much longer [to recover from Covid closure] than people think. People are confused and tired of contradictions. My dad always told me: ‘have a backup’. I told him on the phone last week: ‘You didn’t tell me I would need 17 backups!’ We are tired of the lack of leadership. We all work on the basis that ‘the show must go on’, but damn, that’s being tested right now! “

There are other tests. In the run-up to Charlie and Stan, several of their posters around Bath were defaced with racist abuse. Marsh-Reid, who plays Stan Laurel, is a mixed race. “Two people,” says Pugh, “called demanding that the money be returned. It’s shocking. “It really is. That behavior would never be acceptable, but it feels even less so given the show’s clown innocence. Director Paul Hunter, says Pugh,” didn’t mean to. [cast a black Stan Laurel]. He set out to pick the best people. “Part of Pugh’s confidence sets him aside when he speaks out on these issues, but there is no mistaking his sincerity when he says that” the whole thing about diversity is we can’t keep saying it. We need to open up the doors.

“I trained to be a theater teacher, because my mom and dad told me that I had to have something to turn to. He used to be a producer three days a week and a substitute teacher for Hackney four days a week. “He talks about his multi-ethnic classrooms back then, takes them to see Antony Sher at RSC, and revels in the culture shock.” It’s about youth and youth theaters, “he says.” I have a big problem with theater schools and the fees they charge. That’s restrictive. We need more and better youth theaters – I can’t defend them enough. “

It also puts your money where your mouth is, at least in terms of accessibility more broadly. Pugh has a long-standing grunt against exorbitant ticket prices and is refusing to participate.

“I got a notice once in my office at the Wyndham Theater,” he says, bowing, “because I criticized the premium seats,” with regard to “the best seats in the house” sold at sky-high prices. “Cameron Mackintosh was my landlord, and I did an interview where I said ‘premium seats are greed.’ Coincidentally, it was the day before Hamilton went on sale. And they told me they needed my office back. Which, again, “he flashes,” must be a coincidence. “

Pugh is missing an office again today, as his Sloane Square facility has been damaged in flash floods this month. Add that to the rest of your troubles, and you’d forgive this 62-year-old for leaving his production days behind. But that is far from his mind. Instead, he’s courting the beloved independent artists of Sh! T Theater, he tells me, whose satirical and enormously entertaining work he loves. It will also soon announce a West End run of Scottish karaoke hit and Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice * (* sort of). “It’s witty and fun,” he says, “and it’s on my way.”

“Of course,” he says, “still I have to I do all this, because I have no other income. I can’t get money out of a mortgage, even though I have a very small and beautiful apartment in Soho that I rent. But I set things up that way so I always had the momentum. And I do. I’ve been doing this for 40 years, which is an achievement in itself. The biggest achievement is that I still want to do it. And the pandemic has made me want to do it even more ”.

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