Joyce McMillan: Riding the Carousel at Pitlochry Festival Theatre

As Pitlochry Festival Theatre prepares to launch a summer season of popular classics, its artistic director John Durnin reveals the scale of ambition underpinning the company's work

Rehearsals for Pitlochry Festival Theatre's Carousel
Rehearsals for Pitlochry Festival Theatre's Carousel

It’s the largest employer for miles around, it boasts one of world’s most beautiful settings for a theatre, and by some measures at least, it’s Scotland’s biggest producing theatre company, keeping a company of around 17 actors employed for seven months of the year, and rolling out nine complete in-house productions between May and December.

It’s Pitlochry Festival Theatre, which first opened in a marquee at Knockendarroch 65 years ago this weekend, and is now thriving, and hoping to expand, in its lovely 1981 building on the riverside at Port-na-Craig. The theatre’s 2016 summer season begins next Friday, with a preview of this year’s summer musical, Carousel; and the theatre’s artistic director, John Durnin, has high hopes that this year’s season will help maintain the company’s recent success in earning more than two-thirds of its income from box office, retail and catering, with the rest provided mainly by Perth & Kinross Council and Creative Scotland, which restored Pitlochry to its list of regularly-funded organisations in 2014, awarding it a three-year grant of £425,000 a year.

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“Oh, it really was wonderful to be restored to the family of regularly funded theatres,” says Durnin, “and not just for the money itself. It made us feel that we were a valued part of the Scottish theatre scene again.”

When it comes to creating a season, though, Durnin offers a very different range of work from the main central belt theatres, commissioning no new work, majoring on British theatre classics of the last 100 years, and offering a scale of production – including fine sets and costumes, all created on site – that makes a visit to Pitlochry a thoroughly entertaining experience, if sometimes a slightly nostalgic one. “It’s hard to say exactly what happens, when I come to put together a summer season,” says Durnin. “First, I make a long list of plays or shows I’m interested in doing, and then I look for feedback on that, from our audiences, from company members and so on. And then somehow, I’ll just wake up one morning with the shape of a season in my mind, a series of six plays – or seven, this year – that I think will work together, and that give the audience the right mix of music and comedy and drama.”

The result of the programming process this year is a season of seven shows, opening with Carousel, and then offering a sequence of classic English stage greats, from 1920s farce-maker Ben Travers, through Pitlochry favourite Alan Ayckbourn – represented by his three-part Damsels In Distress trilogy from the early 2000s – to Noel Coward, and Charles Dickens as adapted by Stephen Jeffreys. “It was absolutely time for us to tackle something by Rodgers and Hammerstein,” says Durnin, who is directing Carousel himself. “We had to think, though, about which of the musicals would work most effectively at the scale we can offer. And the Rodgers & Hammerstein estate won’t allow the use of actor-musicians, which has been a feature of all our previous musicals – so for Carousel we have to have a full eight-piece band. But we felt that Carousel, with its strong dramatic story based around a small group of central characters, would suit us particularly well.”

And beyond Carousel, a strong theme emerges from Durnin’s 2016 season, to do with challenging some of the calm outward respectabilities of British middle-class life. Ben Travers’s 1927 farce, Thark – recently adapted by Clive Francis – is a fast-moving and hilarious take-down of middle class attitudes to marriage and property; and when it comes to the Coward play This Happy Breed, also being directed by Durnin himself, he is passionate about rescuing the original 1939 play from the mood of fierce wartime patriotism imposed on it by David Lean’s legendary 1942 film. And finally, there’s Stephen Jeffreys’ stage version of Dickens’ Hard Times, which Durnin sees as the angriest of all Dickens novels, and the only one that directly challenges the human consequences of industrialisation.

“It’s unusual, nowadays, for us not to have any Scottish-authored shows in our summer season,” says Durnin, noting that last year’s production of David Greig’s Pyrenees was the most successful end-of-season show the company has staged since Durnin arrived in 2003, hugely exceeding its box office estimates. “But of course we’re hoping to make up with this year’s Autumn production, which is a revival of John Bett’s lovely version of the Para Handy Tales, first seen at Inverness and on tour a few years ago. And then for Christmas, it’s Leslie Bricusse’s wonderful musical Scrooge. So it’s a big year for Dickens, at Pitlochry, and that’s fine by me.”

As for the theatre’s ambitious Pitlochry 2021 plan to greatly expand its operations at Port-na-Craig, creating a new fly tower and studio theatre, and developing the theatre’s shopping and catering facilities, Durnin says that it’s proceeding well, although slowly.

“We recently succeeded in winning some Scottish government money to help finalise our business plan and fundraising strategy, and once that’s done, we can move on to the full architectural design. It’s not an easy funding environment out there, that’s for sure. But although it would have been lovely to have this project completed for our 70th anniversary in 2021, we’re confident we can get it done within two or three years of that date, and that should help guarantee the future of the theatre, far into the 21st century.”

And off John Durnin goes, into the rehearsal room; one of those rare artistic directors who’s equally passionate about the plays he programmes and directs, and about the sheer administrative hard graft that’s necessary, to give a theatre like Pitlochry the future that its founders dreamed of, and that its loyal audiences deserve.

• The Pitlochry summer season runs from 27 May until 15 October,