Producer Ian Dickens tells Terry Grimley what’s heading to the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton.
You know it’s midsummer when a British player has just failed to win Wimbledon and the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, is putting on a season of thrillers and comedies.
But this year it’s not the time-honoured Charles Vance summer rep season that is pulling the Black Country crowds but a new-look, and slimmed down, package from Ian Dickens Productions, consisting of just three plays.
It was launched last night with Frederick Knott’s thriller Write Me a Murder, and continues next week with Joan Shirley’s comedy The Tart and the Vicar’s Wife, wrapping up the following week with another thriller, Killing Time.
While the Charles Vance seasons replicated old-fashioned summer rep – the same company of unknowns performing and rehearsing their way through half a dozen popular plays – the Dickens formula is different.
“It’s not as Charles was doing it,” says Dickens, who has been producing for nearly 20 years from his home base of Newark in Nottinghamshire and is directing all the plays himself.
“I can’t stress enough what a contribution Charles made to the Grand Theatre, but I think the theatre wants to try something different with a much shorter run.
“We’re bringing a season of plays to the theatre and there’s no through-casting. It’s well-known plays on the whole, or well-known playwrights.
“We look for plays that are classics or should be classics, and the trick is that we find very familiar telly faces. I think our sets and costumes are very good and we tend to do something for all.”
For well-known telly faces you can pretty much read soap stars. So, for instance, Write Me a Murder teams Leslie Grantham with Emmerdale’s Christopher Villiers and Helen Weir and Paul Opacic, likely to be recognised from Bad Girls and The Chase.
As Ian Dickens readily points out, it’s a tried-and-tested formula.
“What we’re doing in Wolverhampton we’ve done for 14 seasons in Swansea, and I’ve just done my tenth in Darlington. We do three a year in Stevenage, and in the past we’ve done them on the Isle of Man.
“Next year will be my 20th year, and we’ve done something like 120 different plays in 20 years. On average we do 12 new productions a year.”
So you would think he would be as well placed as anyone to judge how the recession is affecting business around the country.
“From my side of this I felt it was quite a tough last autumn, but I feel I can see it coming back now. And I must say we’re delighted with what’s happening at the box office in Wolverhampton.”
While the Charles Vance seasons weren’t necessarily top of the league for production values, they unearthed some interesting rarities.
“And without seasons like these a whole strand of popular theatre – in particular the stage thriller, once the staple of touring theatre – might be sliding towards extinction. Write Me a Murder is an absolute time-capsule, a well-made thriller,” says Dickens.
“Frederick Knott only wrote three plays and the other two were Dial M for Murder and Wait Until Dark. This is the least known, but it’s the same formula that you have with the other two, in that he suggests why the crime was done and shows how it was done but it’s not clear who did it.”
Written in 1960, Write Me a Murder was first staged in New York the following year, with a cast including Denholm Elliott and Kim Hunter.
The Tart and the Vicar’s Wife is a souvenir of the early 1980s recession and anticipates two well-known later plays, The Full Monty and Calendar Girls, in its story about genteel women taking up a risque occupation during hard times.
“It’s not a farce, it’s a comedy,” says Ian Dickens. “It’s about these four women who have real reasons for doing what they’re going to do.
“It was written by Joan Shirley who is fairly local, a Shropshire girl, and it toured for many years. I think it’s a very fine piece. It’s a bit like Calendar Girls, it’s got all the elements.
The final play in the trilogy is Killing Time, a two-hander written ten years ago by Richard Stockwell.
“It’s a modernish thriller, a total contrast to Write Me a Murder – very fast-moving with twist upon twist upon twist. It’s set in what we think is a guy’s house. He brings someone he has met in a supermarket to the house.
“You can’t say too much about the plot, but I defy anyone at the interval to predict what’s going to happen at the end.”
* Write Me a Murder runs until Saturday, The Tart and the Vicar’s Wife from Monday to Saturday next week, and Killing Time from July 21-25 at the Grand Theatre Wolverhampton (Box Office: 01902 573300). The Tart and the Vicar’s Wife is also at the Lichfield Garrick from October 6-10.