Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Interview • NEIL McPHERSON & GAVIN McALINDEN • Finborough Theatre • 2004


A sensation has occurred in London theatre, and is to be found in one of its tiniest fringe spaces, Finborough Theatre. Gavin McAlinden’s production of Gates of Gold isn’t just another above average, well received Critics’ Choice of the month: it is a perfect example of contemporary theatrical art. All the disparate elements which make up a production unite in a single combustion. It is a reminder of the powerful mood-altering effects that good theatre should have. Theatre is a more hit-and-miss affair than a piece of music where a series of chords are struck. We are used to being impressed by great acting or a good set, a moving play or an interesting interpretation by a director, but very rarely at the same time in the same production. Frequently, we are grateful for a couple of adroit actors rescuing an evening from disaster.

When I saw Gates of Gold in its opening week, its cohesion suggested that a deliberate, centralized organization rather than just coincidence was at work. Even before the actors spoke, the first chord was struck by quite the best set I’ve seen on small-budget Fringe. Vicki Fifield had transformed the performance half of the old Finborough pub upstairs room into a cream and gilded bedroom and sitting room, divided by a diaphanous curtain, the walls decorated with paintings and golden cherubs, evoking an atmosphere of old Victorian theatres as well as domesticity. For all this appearance of opulence, it was still recognizably the pub room. Though simple and obvious, this created a ghostly effect of crossing the usually indivisible line between reality and theatrical illusion. The next thing that happened was with a jolt: a downstage left figure turned its averted dark bewigged head towards a mirror that was the audience to reveal an old painted face. Very simple, and very, very theatrical, in the pure and not pejorative sense of the adjective. The whole production combines authenticity with romantic theatricality.

The uniformly excellent performances have been praised on this site already in a review.* Intrigued by the extraordinarily effective production values, I sought out the people responsible at the Finborough. 

It is the first production Gavin McAlinden has done for Neil McPherson, Artistic Director of the Finborough since 1999. Usually, McPherson selects a play for a director, but in this case McAlinden approached him with a choice of three Irish plays. Frank McGuiness’s was their favourite, and to their immense gratification, McAlinden was given the rights. There is an obvious mutual respect. As producer, you’d expect McPherson to be understandably preoccupied with ticket sales. He has built up sophisticated marketing strategies for his theatre, and tirelessly promotes its productions. As part of his conception of how the play should be presented, McAlinden insisted that the acting area be enlarged by ripping out the front row of ten seats, which single action obliterated 20% of the tiny theatre’s box office returns. McPherson let him do it. Nothing could more clearly demonstrate the courage and commitment to theatre shared by these two men. On meeting them, it quickly becomes clear that with both of them, the play’s the thing. They are hardly doing it for the money. Gavin McAlinden personally financed Gates of Gold, and instigated special music nights to raise money to pay his actors.

But then, McAlinden is an exceptionally persuasive and determined young director (he is still under 30). He persuaded the agent of William Gaunt, his first and only choice for the central part of Gabriel, to release her client for 8 weeks on the Fringe for virtually no money. Once Gaunt was secured, another established actor, John Bennett, followed, in the part of Conrad. He has a very clear vision of the type of actor he wants for a particular character and chose the two younger actors, the very talented Aoife McMahon and Alan Turkington, from a handful of auditionees for each part. The cast is completed by Josie Kidd. A weak link would have destroyed the illusion of reality at which McAlinden works so hard to achieve.

The truthfulness of all the acting is impressively consistent, even under the pressure of being examined eyeball to eyeball in the intimate space, and to foster this authenticity of performance, McAlinden brought in professional advisers on the various medical and psychological conditions explored in the play, which deals with disease and death. The actors met a bereavement counsellor and a palliative care nurse, so that not a single detail would be unrealistic. He regularly uses a dramaturg for purposes of background research and literary interpretation. It could be argued that a talented director with a cast evidently capable of summoning up powerful emotions from their own experience and imagination, have no need of outside help with their creativity, but there’s no arguing with McAlinden’s dedication to artistic truth. Whatever his methods, he knows how to extract the best from his actors. In the pursuit of integrity, “there is nowhere to hide”, he says.

To achieve sensitive effects and veracity, he admits to “drilling” his actors in rehearsal. It would be wrong to deduce he is an earnest disciplinarian. McAlinden is far too good and complex a director for that. He has an ethos about directing centred round the magical make-believe nature of theatre itself. He knows the best creative conditions for actors are relaxed and happy ones. Acting is a form of game-playing, and to do that well you have to turn to childlike qualities still within you. He wants everyone involved to have a good a time as possible and be proud of their work, so that: “Everybody walks away smiling”.

This is why his company, formed 3 years ago, is called “Charm Offensive”. The name aptly describes his approach to theatre, which confronts an audience with uncompromisingly real topics within a style of presentation which is almost magical in its power to evoke atmosphere and emotion.

McAlinden seems to have identified the essence of theatre. It should be alluring; it has to appeal to our senses. In order to make people believe in an illusion of reality, you have to put them under a kind of charm or enchantment. Gates of Gold with its dominant theme of the power of make-believe is ideally suited to him. When using words like “magic” and “charm” in the context of his work, we’re not talking airy-fairy but of the methods by which great theatre has traditionally been conjured; we are talking of Prospero’s magic.

He believes “directing plays is a complex process of negotiation”. It is a “shifting dialogue” in which to get out other people’s ideas and “utilize other people’s creativity”. He did this with his designer, Vicki Fifield, who realized his ideas about the set for him. To illustrate the duality of the play, he wanted the two halves of the set divided by the curtain, which symbolically falls, in one of his theatrical effects, when the two forces in the play are united. Another of his requirements was a ying and yang shape within the design. He worked in a similarly close way with the composer, James Jones, whom he selected from 60 CD demos, to put the duality of the play into musical terms: Gabriel represented by a cello, Conrad by a piano.

Direction depends on mutual trust between directors and actors. Good directors need a conflicting set of qualities. They need to be inspirational leaders with a practical grasp of technical detail. They need to know when to let go. McAlinden says he never gives notes after the first night.

The reception of Gates of Gold confirms the Finborough’s status as one of the leading small-house theatres in London. This has been achieved by the vision and hard work of one man, Neil McPherson, who has succeeded in transforming its reputation in the last three or four years. His position as Artistic Director combines the roles of producer and dramaturg. He is pre-dominantly, but not exclusively, committed to putting on new plays and to encouraging new writers from the UK and North America. He chooses plays he personally wants to see and carefully matches each play to a suitable director. People who know him and work with him are struck by his decisiveness. He says he is frank with writers. He is constantly aware that the end product of all their endeavours is on stage in front of an audience. There are signs that future seasons will be more obviously commercial, through casting, not through any compromise with material. The Finborough has got some well-known actors in Gates of Gold, and intends using TV names. McPherson is quick to point out that they are proven stage actors.

McPherson’s ambitions for the Finborough and belief in professional values are totally understandable. But there may possibly be collateral damage. One begins to tremble on behalf of talented theatre actors, experienced but not well-known, who have hitherto depended on Fringe for a chance to play leading parts, which they are denied in commercial theatre. McPherson is vastly experienced and wise in theatre himself. He knows that an actor cannot get a good part in the main companies without TV celebrity of some measure. He is frustrated also by the low standards of a lot of Fringe incurred by productions that are no more than vanity projects.

R&V is only too concerned that good, professional actors are treated badly on the tackiest ends of the Fringe and are rarely seen to good advantage in dismal productions. It’s just as worrying that opportunities of getting good work in good Fringe will become increasingly rare. It isn’t just on the Fringe that you see shows containing wildly differing standards of acting, even though there is no shortage of good actors in the country. One would imagine they are needles in a haystack. One of the glories of Gates and Gold is the uniformly good acting, precious because it is so rare. The key is in the casting process. Of course it is simpler and time-efficient for a director to see a small number of actors from an élite group of agents. Nobody wants cattle-markets. What must remain in place are the loopholes in the closed casting and representation system through which good but unknown actors may fall.

McPherson’s mission to raise standards has been helped by the pub’s own refurbishment. Unlike many pub theatres, it’s now a pleasant and not intimidating place to have a drink and/or see a show. The implied choices are culturally significant for local theatre. You don’t have to be a theatre lover to enjoy going to the pub, but the theatre is welcoming to all the community. 

McPherson takes the Finborough’s obligations as a local theatre as seriously as he does its national standards of artistic excellence. He’s fascinated by the local history, both literary and murderous. This year, he specially commissioned a play (Steve Hennessy’s Lullabies of Broadmoor) about the 1922 Finborough Road murders. The 2005 season will include a play he has adapted from the writings of George Borrow, one of many 19th century cultural figures buried in Brompton Cemetery, the gardens of which occupy a strip of land symbolically parallel to the Finborough Road. He has devised a “celebration” of the lives of the most interesting people now lying under the nearby trees and stone.

He comes over as historically conscious, but is firm in his resolution to present no “rediscoveries” before 1850. He is proudly committed to music theatre, and promises to stage more musicals. He controls every aspect of administrative detail and artistic policy. A small Fringe theatre can’t afford to employ administrative staff, so he appears to do it all himself. Formidably hard-working, he’s his own front of house manager. He’s self-aware on the subject of power, and fond of quoting Churchill on the disadvantages of delegating. What distinguishes him as an artistic director, is the discretion with which he uses his power. Everything is in place to serve the play. He listens to visiting directors, even if they want to rip out 20% of the box office.

It’s very encouraging for the future of theatre to find two directors as dedicated as Neil McPherson and Gavin McAlinden. It’s not surprising that they want to collaborate again as director and producer, on a new Irish play, if possible. They share a common aim: to produce high quality theatre, whatever the personal cost.

*Review coming soon on this blog

C J Sheridan © 2004

Originally published on R&V on 11-12-04

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