Director Simon Phillips in rehearsals for Pennsylvania Avenue. Image by Pam Kleeman.

From the Reading Room | Return of the native

Former MTC Artistic Director Simon Phillips has been back at the company preparing for Joanna Murray-Smith’s new play Pennsylvania Avenue, and felling very much like the former tenant returning to his old house – a little disassociated. So much is as he left it, yet so much has changed, and he’s been feeling self-conscious in his new status as guest.

‘Yes, surprising that it didn’t feel quite like coming home,’ he says. ‘Some of the old faces have stuck around, I note, which is a comfort, but there’s a lot of new ones. It felt strange, but still, I’m very happy to be back.’

It is three years since Simon left MTC after his sell-out swansong production of The Importance of Being Earnest. He always planned to have a break from the Company, ‘to let the new regime get one with it and settle in.’ He also had more than enough to keep him busy. Since 2011, he directed A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Geoffrey Rush, the Dame Edna and Barry Humphries’ Final Farewell Tour and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at STC. He has also been developing new shows for commercial managements, especially musicals.

‘They’ve hired me for the particular skillset I was forced to cultivate over the dozen years at MTC of being able to guide a particularly strong idea through the script and development stage, bringing all the elements together into a show.’

Pennsylvania Avenue is another show he is raising from concept to production. It is the follow-up to MTC’s 2010 hit Song for Nobodies, a showcase for the extraordinary vocal impressions of Bernadette Robinson. The original show was made up of five chapters, each an encounter between an ordinary person and an extraordinary singer from the past – Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline, Maria Callas, Judy Garland and Edith Piaf. In creating this latest show the last thing anyone wanted was to repeat the format, present a sort of More Songs for More Nobodies.

‘We had the classic problem of following a huge success, the problem of the sequel,’ says Simon. ‘We were aware that no Hollywood film with ‘II’ at the end of the title was ever as good as the original. Bernadette had been touring Nobodies to great acclaim absolutely everywhere, but was coming to the end of that particular cycle. So we had to come up fairly quickly with what the next show might be, a framing idea as strong as the first but obviously not the same.’

It was Joanna Murray-Smith who suggested setting the story in the White House over forty years. There’s a long tradition of concerts in the East Room of the White House and successive Presidents have hosted countless great singers. Joanna was drawn to how the choice of invitees reflected the taste and politics of the incumbent but also, strongly, the changing world outside.

‘We begin with Kennedy and go up to George W,’ says Simon. ‘These were extraordinary times, so the historical aspect creates an arc. But the main change from the first show is that rather than five ‘nobodies’, the idea was to have just one, one staffer at the White House telling her life story with the singers coming in over the years. Her story provides the show with an emotional spine.’

Before the writing got underway, Joanna compiled a list of female White House singers and she, Simon and Bernadette picked out possibilities.

‘Bernadette was itching to do some that were not on the list, but we had to be fairly strict and not break the format too much. There were also singers that she had never thought of impersonating – didn’t know if she could impersonate – but which we thought would be good for the show. So there was an element of me pushing her into uncomfortable areas to see what she could do. There’s not much value in a show that doesn’t stretch everyone.’

Pennsylvania Avenue by Joanna Murray-Smith is playing at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner from 8 November to 20 December.

Published on 27 October 2014