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Tonight at 8.30 - Interview with Blanche McIntyre

Approved by ATG's PR & Communications Officer, David Bradbury

What can you tell us about Tonight at 8.30?

After Design for Living and a misbegotten sweary, crime passionnel play, Noel Coward wrote these nine tiny one-act gems, all set in totally different places, all written in totally different styles and all requiring totally different modes of acting. One’s practically an opera. One’s a music hall pastiche. Another’s a brutally upsetting play about a psychiatrist obsessed with his wife’s friend. It was Coward’s attempt, I think, to revitalise the one-act play and to celebrate what actors could do. He starred in them all himself in 1936.

How did you come across it?

I’d read one or two when I was at drama school, but only realised the full scope a few years later. It’s more like the Ring Cycle than, say, Look After Lulu. They work much better as a nine-act play than as nine individual shorts. Two themes run through them: about grabbing every scrap of happiness you can and about the chaos that love can cause. I’ve been trying to get them on for about a decade, but everyone always it was too big, too epic, too expensive. Finally, to my complete delight, Sam Hodges at the Nuffield and English Touring Theatre said they’d be up for co-producing it.

Have you directed any Coward before?

Only the middle act of Private Lives, when I was at drama school. I was only allowed two professional actors, so we couldn’t do the whole thing. The actress who was playing Amanda got so carried away that she slapped Elyot so hard, she burst his eardrum.

You say Noel Coward and people immediately think of clipped consonants and cocktails. Will these plays change our idea of him?

I love Coward, but there are quite set assumptions about his work: back-footed, detached and cool. In the last few years, several productions, including the Private Lives with Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens, have stripped that back and got rid of the Coward façade, but it’s still people’s go-to idea. These plays are quite raw. They’re very front-footed, very passionate. A few are quite messy and ragged. They come from the gut.

In auditions, loads of people came in and did the Coward voice. As soon as they stopped, they’d realise what the scene was about: a break-up scene at 6am, after she’s waited all night for him to come home. Suddenly that becomes incredibly exciting to play. I hope people can detach Coward from the idea of Coward.

Do you think Tonight at 8.30 shows he was ahead of his time?

A couple of the plays still feel very experimental. In one, you go inside a woman’s head as she’s drifting in and out of sleep, so her marriage and its break-up start swirling into the play she say that night. Halfway through she bursts into song. Formally speaking, it’s incredibly experimental: well ahead of the sixties and still quite strange even now.

Am I right in saying there’s a tenth play that you’re not doing?

Yes, I’m keeping quiet about that. They were originally performed as trios, with one swapped out each time. Like Coward, we’ve dropped Star Chamber, which was a send up of actors. It doesn’t say anything interesting about theatre or people, whereas the others are all incredibly insightful. I can see why he binned it.

What are the benefits of working with a rep company?

Coward and Gertie Lawrence took all the leads in 1936, but I’ve intentionally chopped it up. With a kaleidoscope of plays, it’s important to have a company feel. An audience then would have been about watching The Master and admiring his versatility. Now it’s about watching nine actors transform themselves.

The joy of doing all nine plays – especially on those ‘nine play days’ – is that the audience get to know the actors. Maybe it’s just me, but when I watch a show, I want to get close to the people performing. The idea is that the audience experience becomes as crucial as the plays themselves.

Tonight at 8.30 hasn’t been seen in full since 1936. You’ve dusted off a few forgotten classics, like Accolade and The Seven Year Itch. What’s the appeal?

They have the element of surprise, but they’re also removed in a way that can make their points more potent. One expects a piece of new writing to deal with an issue head on, but when a classic does it, it kicks your legs out from under you. In a funny way, you can be more acute about a situation by moving an audience slightly away from it.

You’ve won a lot of critical acclaim in recent years and been talked of as an artistic director in the making. Can you see yourself running a theatre?

I’d love to, but in a few years time. It requires a very different skill-set. You’ve got to see theatre in a much wider way, in the stream of everything else, both theatre and the world beyond. You’ve got to spot what audiences might want in two, five, even ten years time. For now, I’m just looking to go from play to play – and, for the moment, I still want a personal life.

How important is it that ambitious work like Tonight at 8.30 gets around the country on tour?

I think it’s incredibly important. One effect of the funding squeeze is that you see more co-productions, the upside of which is that there’s more of a common dialogue. If a show tours – or if it screens on NT Live – people all around the country can see the same thing, have the same experience and start a dialogue about it. That’s a very exciting thing.


**** 'McIntyre and her team show off the range of Coward's writing...with verve and aplomb.'
Financial Times

**** 'What better way to celebrate Noel Coward than with these rarely seen short plays? Each one brings their own flavour to a cocktail of theatrical delights, supported by a top notch cast. A treat.' 
What's On Stage 

**** 'Unexpectedly nourishing...ingeneously designed by Robert Innes Hopkins.' 
The Guardian

'A major theatrical feast.' 
Daily Telegraph

'McIntyre brings out the underlying sense of yearning...the thrill of desire…'
The Stage