had brought a ball of string along with me, anticipating that the backstage corridors of the esigned Royal Opera House might be as Minotaur-like a labyrinth as the corridors backstage at the National Theatre. My first surprise is that all the signs are in Russian. I ask the people in the lift the way. They all speak Russian. The Kirov Ballet is in residence for a three-week season.
I am in the Royal Opera House to interview Paul Kenyson. the artistic director of the I laymarket Theatre in Leicester since 1994, during which time the Haymarket has gained a national reputation. We meet on the roof next door to the studio where he is rehearsing the re-staging of his production of On Your Toes, the Rodgers and Hart Broadway classic musical, which won rave reviews at Leicester last year. The clever thing Kerryson has done for his revival is to cast Adam Cooper in the leading role. Cooper. principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, achieved world fame when he danced The Swan in Matthew Bourne's legendary all-male Swan Lake.
Kcrryson has carved himself a niche in the regions as a director of musicals, with successful revivals of such hit shows as Calamity Jane, The King and 1, The Sound of Music and West Side Story. I had never met Kerryson before but I recognise him immediately when I see him standing in the distance at the end of the corridor in his baseball cap. The cap is a sort of trademark; at least. I presume it is, since it has appeared in every photograph I have ever seen of him. He is lively, articulate, friendly, bright-eyed and looks 10 years younger than he is.
I begin by asking him what was the first play or the first musical he ever saw? He looks surprised by my question. "We didn't do theatre. The only theatre I knew was school productions."
He was born in Ireland and educated at a Catholic boarding school. His faith is important to him. "I have," he says, "never missed a Mass in my life." Today, apart from his full-time duties as artistic director, he is also organist at St Gregory's in Bollington, on the edge of the Peak District, and he makes of point of being there every weekend. (Should On Your ibes go to Japan he may have to miss a couple of weekends.) He works with the choir and the youth band. The lathes in the choir are very supportive and see all his shows. The only show they weren't too keen on was Rent, and that was predictable because of its drug-related subject.
Kerryson is particularly associated with Stephen Sondheim, having directed several of his musicals and worked closely with him on the European premier of Merrily We Sing Along. The first Sondheim he saw was A Little Night Music with Jean Simmons and Hermione Gingold, and it was a major turning • point in his career. Ten years later he directed his own production of A Little Night Music.
"I have," he says, "a great respect for his intelligence, humanity and depth. It's a great privilege to work with him."
Kerryson began his working life in a bank and in the evenings he got a job operating the followspots for the lighting on the stage at the Bournemouth Pavilion. He got into theatre professionally when he auditioned for Godspell and spent the next four years in the show on tour, during which time he started going to dance classes.
He joined the Manchester Library Theatre where he directed the musical Chicago and Stephen Berkoff's play East; not so different as they might seem at first, since the latter relies to an exceptional degree on the physicality of the actors. He then went to Oldham as artistic director. An actor, who worked for him there, told me that he had created a wonderful family atmosphere, by involving everybody, actors, office staff and even cleaners at the first read-through. The whole organisation always felt they were working together to a common end. From there he went to Leicester, initially as joint artistic director, arriving when the theatre had a £500,000 deficit, which he gradually cut. Kerryson enjoys being resident director: "I know one is not supposed to, but I actually like attending board meetings."
Though he is best known for his musicals, he has directed plays by Goldsmith. O'Casey, Wilde, Synge, Webster, Shakespeare, Priestley, Coward and most recently Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Innishmoan. He directed Eddie Izzard in Christopher Marlowe's gay play, Edward II. I saw his production of Oscar Wilde's A Woman of No Importance. Of Wilde's three social comedies, it is the most difficult to bring off. Ketryson's choreographed production, handsomely costumed by Paul Farnsworth, was deliberately artificial; opening with a mannered mannequin entrance. The cast, all in white, lined up, faced front and bashed the wit, maxims, paradoxes and epigrams over the footlights and straight at the audience.
His production of Mack and Mabel won the Evening Standard Award for Best Musical. He staged a lavish revival of Divorce Me, Darling! (Sandy Wilson's 1930s sequel to his 1920s The Boy Friend) at Chichester Festival Theatre and it really did hit the deck in the exhilarating finale, "Swing Time Is Here To Stay". Sondheim's Follies, which looks back to the golden age of vaudeville and the glamour of the Ziegfield Follies — and those famously beautiful girls with their long legs, furs, feathers and fantastic headgear — was less successful, lacking the essential legendary star names for the show to work properly.
In May this year the Haymarket announced that because of serious financial difficulties it would have to close at the end of July. Kerryson blames the difficulties on rising costs. Leicestershire County Council had already decided to withdraw all finding, arguing that it was not liable for services in the city area and saying it would not provide any cash towards the replacement of the old theatre. The good news is that the Arts Council has recognised the Haymarket's vital cultural contribution not only to the city but also to the East Midlands and has come up with a recovery programme. The theatre will reopen next year.
The new £31 million performing arts centre, which is destined to open in 2006, has been designed by the New York-based architect Rafael Vmoly, who was one of the numersup in the competition to rebuild the World Trade Centre in New York. Kerryson had just been over to New York to see Vinoly and is tremendously enthusiastic about the new theatre's "challenging space". There will be two auditoriums: a traditional theatre seating 800 and a studio seating 350. Theatre and studio are so designed that they can share the same stage and seat 1,100.
I asked Kenyson what he thought was the main difference between New York and London. 'The Americans are more aware and proud of their theatre than we are. Our government should celebrate it more, but they don't seem to be interested. The city also needs to be cleaned up." He is clearly committed to the Haymarket's future. I have ncs doubt we shall he seeing a lot more of Sondheim's work.
On Your Toes runs at the Royal Festival Hall until September 6. Box Office: 020 7960 4242.