THEATRE Jeeves, Potter and love in the Lakes
A 200-seat Lake District theatre that consistently loses money, The Old Laundry, is celebrating its 25th birthday with a triumphant revival of a musical by some of the people who created it
It’s hard to reconcile the idea, but without Beatrix Potter and Alan Ayckbourn there would be no Jeeves, not at Bowness-in-Windermere anyway. And without the stage designer Roger Glossop and his stage manager wife Charlotte, the old laundry would still be a Windermere pleasure boat store.
It’s a long story which opens a new chapter on October 6 when the West End Lloyd Webber musical hit By Jeeves opens in a 200-seat flexible theatre, directed by the playwright Alan Ayckbourn, to mark the 25th birthday of a dream come true.
Roger Glossop has been a successful theatre set designer for 40 years, but as well as working on West End shows and, almost habitually, on the plays of Alan Ayckbourn, he has been an exhibition designer. It is his wizardry that has brought to life tour-ist attractions like Jorvik in York, the Oxford Story in Oxford and the Canterbury Tales in Canterbury.
“It wasn’t that we were particularly in love with Beatrix Potter” says Glossop “but I’m a practical sort of chap – so it was exhibition = Lake District = Beatrix Potter, a bit obvious”. There was nothing to mark the presence of Potter in Cumbria where she lived and worked for 37 years, it was up to them to provide it.
They chose the delightful town of Bowness, instantly recognisable to fans of Arthur Ransome’s Swa lows and Amazons as “Rio”, and after getting a licence from Potter’s publishers, Penguin – “we were rather worried they wouldn’t approve, but they couldn’t have been more accom- modating” Glossop says. “In fact, when the first building we tried for fell through, they said to keep the licence in case we found another” – set to to create The World of Beatrix Potter with the legendary theatre costumier and prop-maker the late Elaine Garrard with a business plan devised by Charlotte for their company Lake Story.
The proprietor of a flotilla of Lake Windermere pleasure boats wanted to get rid of a near derelict old building in the town, the old laundry, and was happy to sell it to the Glossops. They rebuilt the old laundry and in 1991 The World of Beatrix Potter opened, and it has been a phenomenal success, attracting almost 200,000 visitors a year.
But the laundry is a double building, and there was space to spare for the much older dream the Glossops had had: to have their own theatre. Ayckbourn is based in Scarborough, and Glossop had worked with him at the old Library Theatre there. He was struck by the similarities of that space and his laundry building.
Glossop had enjoyed “a working friendship” with Ayckbourn since they first worked together on Woman in Mind in 1985. “I said to him, ‘If we built a theatre in Bowness, would you bring your work’? He didn’t say anything for a minute, then he swore, then he said ‘Oh well, we’ll be dead soon’, and we’ve had at least one play from him every year” he recalls.
Ayckbourn was not the Glossops’ only influential friend, however, and there was generous support from Victoria Wood, Alan Rickman, and also Griff Rhys Jones.
At first, the Old Laundry Theatre opened for just the autumn months for the Bowness Theatre Festival, Lake Story’s charitable arm, but since last year, another special one, it is on an all-year basis including in-house productions.
2016 was the 150th anniversary of Beatrix Potter’s birth so their rst home-made show was a family mu- sical Where is Peter Rabbit?, which returned this summer by popular demand for 185 performances. The script was to have been written by their friend Victoria Wood – “she said she would open anything for us, a sardine can if we asked” – but her illness before she died last year prevented her. And who could they turn to at the last minute?
Both Wood and Alan Rickman, who also died last year, were board members, and replacing them is the Glossops’s son Sam, a sound designer who, although based in London now, is working on new productions.
The theatre has been upgraded now, with a rotating platform and thrust or proscenium configurations available, making The Old Laundry more adaptable than ever. The theatre has always made a loss, which has been covered by the success of The World of Beatrix Potter, and both classical and folk music concerts have kept the box office ticking.
“We used to have stand-up too, but the fees comics want now have risen so much that we couldn’t possibly raise the ticket price to cover it” Glossop says. Classical music audiences had also declined until the Sheffield-based Music in the Round brought its programme with a three-day Mozart festival in which the audience were invited to take part. It will be repeated.
By Jeeves was originally devised for Ayckbourn’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, created by Lloyd Webber from the Wodehouse stories, designed by Roger Glossop and directed by Alan Ayckbourn. It transferred to the West End, and had a long run in the United States.
As it progressed the set, which had originally been a simple blank tab, for more and more sophisticated, and for the revival Glossop has created a completely new design. It has a cast of ten, led by Ayckbourn’s long-time collaborator Bill Champion and Nadim Naaman who is stepping out of the London cast of Phantom of the and the Corporation. More than Opera into the snazzy suiting of Bertie half of the cultural visitors were Wooster. There is a musical ensemble of six, with music direction by Steven Edius, choreography by Caroline Hughes and lighting by Jason Taylor. The West End comes to the heart of Beatrix Potter country.
And next? “Victoria was such a good friend, I’d really love to do her musical The Day We Sang – if we can get the rights” Glossop says. “But we do what we want, the theatre will never make money, and frankly we’re completely mad, but this kind of enterprise can’t happen very often – if we didn’t do it, nobody would. And we have been incredibly lucky...”
By Jeeves is at the Old Laundry Theatre, Bowness-in-Windermere, from October 6 to November 4.