Interview with Writer and Director Ian McFarlane
In celebration of its 125th Anniversary Blackpool’s Grand Theatre has commissioned Ian McFarlane as its first writer and director. McFarlane has created the musical show based on Jules Verne’s acclaimed novel Around The World in 80 Days, the theatre’s first ever summer show.
The musical tells the story of the fabulously wealthy British gentleman Phileas Fogg, as he accepts a bet for half his fortune to prove it really is possible to travel around the world in eighty days. Fogg and his valet set off on a thrilling race against time – outwitting dastardly villains, escaping perilous locales and finding themselves in hilarious situations in this high-octane comedy musical – all mixed with your favourite chart hits from the 1980s!
Could you give us a short introduction to who you are and what shows you have worked on previously?
I grew up in Preston, just down the road and so The Grand was a theatre I visited throughout my childhood. When I moved to London and started working, I’d talk to my Mum about a theatre and if I described it as beautiful, the question was always ‘Blackpool Grand beautiful, or just regular?’ It’s a bit of dream to be back here as a professional – I’m absolutely thrilled. This is actually my first piece of work anywhere in the north, so to be ‘home’ feels amazing. Originally, I trained as an actor and it was in my final year of drama school that I started to write. I ended up writing a show and scrabbling together enough money (car washing, cake sales you name it) to put it on in a tiny space in London. I can remember wincing as I spent my last tenner on safety pins and elastic but somehow, we got the thing on! We managed to get some people from the industry along to see it, they said some nice things and it became one of those ‘and the rest is history’ type scenarios. The show in question developed into a musical called ‘Betwixt!’ which eventually opened in the West End for a limited season in 2011, that was a pretty incredible experience.
After that, there have been all sorts, although the majority has been comedy – probably my first and greatest love. Some of my favourite work includes, a version of ‘The Three Musketeers’ based around a group of actors trying to put on the full play with half the cast and set missing (think brushes as horses and lots of different hats!) and I just finished a really lovely project, writing and directing a sequel to The Wizard of Oz. I’ve also directed quite a few pantomimes and with some really varied people, my favourite probably being Henry Winkler aka the Fonz, as Captain Hook – an absolute gentleman (Henry, not Hook).
Where did the ideas for Around The World in 80s Days come from, what was the brief for the show and how did you start with the concept?
Well, Ruth the CEO of the Blackpool Grand had been thinking about the theatre producing it’s own summer show for some time. As this is the theatre’s 125th Birthday, it seemed like the right time to do it.
The theatre has a tradition of music shows during the summer period, the idea was to give the audience something extra special. As always, it’s going to be a show that you can expect to know lots of the songs from but we’ve tried to step it up a gear. There is a story but we use the 1980’s music to tell it – sometimes in ways that you might not expect, sometimes in ways that will make you laugh but always in a way in which you are going to have a brilliant night out.
How would you best describe the show in twenty words or less?
A comedy adventure story, with tunes you know, suitable for the whole family.
With classic novel being so iconic, how did you imagine it in a new way, especially the 80s?
The brilliant thing about the novel is that it is absolutely iconic, but it’s only the basic framework that has become famous i.e. ‘man accepts a bet that he can’t get around the world in eighty days and has an adventure’. It has been adapted so many times over the years and the middle of the story, the adventure part is always slightly different. My job was to research all of these different versions – to seek out the common denominators that our audience are going to expect, they are – a speed adventure, some mystery and intrigue, a romantic subplot and of course…a balloon! The 80’s was a musical decade of pure unapologetic fun and that’s what this show is. The mixture of the story and the 80’s music works brilliantly, watching someone in a top hat singing a power ballad is just delightfully silly – it’s just pure joy and escapism.
Author of Around The World in 80 Days, Jules Verne.
Obviously, this show is brand new and a new concept for The Grand in summer, how are you going to give it a Blackpool twist?
Well, music is part of the fabric of Blackpool, all year round there is live music, I don’t know anywhere else like it. And of course, comedy is a giant part of the town’s heritage too. We’ve tried to blend the traditions of Blackpool’s theatre and performance history, our show has taken some influence from music hall, from the pier shows, from variety and woven them together. It’s got lots of gags and it’s filled with songs that people know. This isn’t a stuffy starched collared telling of the story. Our aim is for people to tap their toes, laugh their socks off and just have a brilliant time.
What do you think will be your greatest challenge with the show?
Somebody once said ‘Dying is easy, comedy is hard’. Comedy has a weird science to it that nobody can really explain, it takes much longer to craft than drama. In this show we have a cast playing lots and lots of different characters, there is a lot of switching of costumes, in full view of the audience and running about to take on different personas. That’s not something you can stage with actors carrying a script and feeling their way into the piece, everyone needs to arrive on their A-game, it’s like somebody fires a starting pistol on your first morning and the race doesn’t stop until opening night.
Thankfully, I’m well prepared to write a jukebox style show as I worked on the development of two, over the past decade. I worked alongside SONY creating a show around the life and music of one of the UK’s biggest music legends (don’t hate me, I can’t say!) Unfortunately, it ended up getting lost in the world of ‘development’ and lawyers and all that, and so far hasn’t made it to the stage. However, it gave me a really solid method for approaching this type of show. They say everything happens for a reason, so I think I was in training for this!
Who do you think this show would appeal to?
I think it works on two levels. On one hand, If you love comedy and you like 80’s music, then you are in for a treat. On the other hand, if you don’t know already know the music, you can watch it like any other musical and still have a great time. We’ve tried to make it really inclusive, so it should appeal to people of all ages.