theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
“What would Henry do if he was given a stage for the evening?” Such is the question posed by Hannah Chissick, director of John Godber’s adaptation of Horrid Henry, a Watershed production soon to begin its tour at Sheffield Lyceum. Apparently, they’ve opted to give the bad-tempered eleven-year-old sole control; “Henry creates everything that happens onstage,” Hannah tells me. “It’s a play within a play.” So there’s lots of shouting, running about and slamming of doors? “Characters appear very quickly in different ways, and doors are opened and closed for them,” she explains. “It required a lot of backstage rehearsal, even early on.”
But then Hannah is no stranger to hard work. She got her first job at straight out of university, on a bursary from Channel 4. Her first major production was John Godber’s The Perfect Pitch(which started something of a trend in her career) and she went on to direct David Hare’s The Blue Room, David Mamet’s Life In The Theatre and two pantomimes. She was also responsible for developing new writing, culminating in a week-long festival, Cold Turkey, which saw 13 world premieres in seven days.
Despite this, her next job came as a surprise. At the tender age of twenty-five, Hannah applied for the post of artistic director at Harrogate Theatre, a job she never thought she’d get. “I think it was startling to everyone,” she says.“I just assumed I wouldn’t get past interview stage, but that maybe they’d give me some useful feedback.” Instead, Hannah was thrust centre stage and had to learn a great deal very quickly. “Running a building is insane, it’s a twenty-four-hours a day, seven days a week job,” she laughs. “I took one week off in four years.”
Throughout her career (which is barely at its mid-way point) Hannah has continued to return to the work of John Godber. Starting with her first show at Derby, she has since directed Bouncers, Teechers and On The Piste respectively. I ask if over the years she has developed a working relationship with the writer. “Apart from getting the rights, not really, but this time he’s been more involved in the process […] It’s been very exciting for me and the cast.” She tells me Godber attended an early rehearsal, but nobody realised who he was: “We knew his work, but we didn’t know what he looked like.” And when they realised? “After that, we got very nervous!”
We talk about Bouncers, which Hannah directed in 2006, and I ask why she chose to stage it (it’s one of the most performed plays of the last thirty years). She considers before replying, “I think that – although it’s a comedy – there’s a darkness to it. One of the critics described his feeling after watching [Bouncers] as akin to having a hangover; knowing that you’ve had a really good night out, but feeling exhausted afterwards.” Does she have a natural proclivity to comedy? “I’ve often been asked that,” she says, “but I don’t think so particularly, although recently I’ve done quite a lot.” Horrid Henry was an especially tempting prospect, because it allowed for lots of visual humour. “It’s very silly,” she says, smiling, “a genuine family show.”
When Henry goes up in late August, Hannah will be saying goodbye to the cast. “I won’t be going on the tour,” she says, slightly sorrowfully, although she plans to keep in close contact throughout. Having spent the bulk of the last ten years in buildings, I wonder if she misses the familiarity. “I do miss knowing my audience […] I used to really enjoy being in the foyer at Harrogate and recognising people – I knew everyone!” Despite being born in Greenwich, she maintains “a real fondness for Yorkshire.” Her next show – a Christmas production of Dick Whittington – plays at Salisbury Theatre, which her grandfather [Reginald Salberg: 1915-2003] used to run. “The studio’s named after him,” she smiles, “it’s where he married my grandma [Noreen Craven], where my mum [Kate Salberg] had her first [stage manager] job, and my dad [Jack Chissick] used to write the pantos.” As it transpires, he played the dame.
As to future projects, it seems unlikely Hannah will have trouble finding work. For someone heading such a major project – and already anticipating her next play – she seems remarkably laid back. It strikes me that there must be something beneath this, some hidden core of ambition and resolve. “I’ve been very lucky,” she tells me, “I’ve never had a dry patch.” So no second jobs, scrounging for rent or stints on the box office? “Nope,” she says, “but I can never get complacent, I’ve just got to hope there’ll be another job around the corner.” I suspect that this is self-effacement; after all, who else would be prepared to work so unrelentingly from such an early age? If Hannah decides to retire at forty, she will have earned it.
Harriet Davis © 2008
Originally published on R&V 19-08-08
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