Her Aching Heart: An interview with artistic director Matthew Parker
Matthew Parker is an award-nominated director and the artistic director of the Hope Theatre in Islington. He is directing the revival of Bryony Lavery’s historical romance musical Her Aching Heart – celebrating its 25th anniversary – which is playing at the theatre from 29th November until 23rd December. We spoke to Matthew about the show he’s wanted to stage for 20 years, directing his first musical and his advice to those starting out in the industry today.
Hi Matthew, thanks for chatting with us about your upcoming production of Her Aching Heart. Could you tell us a bit about the play itself.
It’s a fast-paced, funny, sexy, comedy musical about two heartbroken women who both start reading the same trashy historical romantic novel (think Poldark meets 50 Shades!), and as they read they become the characters in the book riding horses, fighting off suitors and falling in love with each other. Think heaving bosoms and red ruby lips, along with songs and sauciness. And it’s really funny. So funny. Well, that’s the plan anyway!
It’s been 25 years since Her Aching Heart was first performed at the Ovalhouse in Brixton, another off-West End theatre. Why did you want to put it on at the Hope in 2016?
I’ve wanted to direct this play since I saw it at uni 20 years ago (showing my age!). It combines all the things I love about theatre: comedy, heartfelt emotion, music, actors switching rapidly between roles in front of your eyes. Plus there’s the added bonus of puppetry, dancing and a massive, swashbuckling sword fight. It’s fast, funny, fruity and fabulous.
Lavery’s play is a pastiche of the historical Mills and Boon romance tale. Is putting a new spin on traditional stories something you like to explore as a director?
Oh, absolutely. My professional debut as a director was a four-handed, physical theatre version of a Chekhov short story Ward No.6, which was nominated for a Stage award and critic’s choice in Time Out. I set up a theatre company, DogOrange, on the back of this success: a company specialising in the imaginative retellings of classic stories and flights of fancy. I revisited some lost 19th and 20th century classics, reimagining them for a 21st century audience, including JM Barrie’s Mary Rose, an actor-musician version of The Cherry Orchard, Dario Fo and Franca Rame’s A Woman Alone and a revival of James Saunders’s 60’s classic A Scent of Flowers.
This is the first musical you’ve directed at the Hope Theatre. How have you found the rehearsal process different to that of a “straight play”?
It is my first musical, but luckily I have directed shows with a large musical content before. The key with this show is finding out why the two main characters start singing. There are seven songs in total, a mix of solos and duets, and they come from a dark and heartbroken place for the two female protagonists, so the initial songs are bluesy and piano-bar in tone. As the story unfolds and their hearts heal, they venture into exploring and allowing love once more and at this point the songs become more joyous, sexy and, well. musical theatre-y! There’s glitter! So throughout the rehearsal process we’ve ensured we have explored the lyrics as monologues, spoken out loud, to ensure total character connection. Ian Brandon has composed stunning music and has ensured the emphasis remains on storytelling rather than just singing for the sake of singing.
The ensembles of your in-house plays this year have been relatively small. Do you enjoy working with smaller casts?
Her Aching Heart is a two-hander and it’s only the second time I’ve ever worked with such a small cast. Steel Magnolias was six, which was such fun. But with two it seems to be much easier to let our collective imaginations feed the process and allows more collaboration as there are fewer voices in the room. Thankfully, my two actresses are bloody lovely and we get on really well. It’d be hell wouldn’t it if one of them hated me?! Ha.
What’s been your personal highlight since you took on the role of artistic director just over two years ago?
It’s meeting and working with so many different creatives and companies. Our industry is all about meeting new people and being inspired by them. Many of our team at the Hope are people who first came here as part of a visiting company and we got on so brilliantly and have just carried on collaborating.
Who were your role models when you were starting out as an director?
Matthew Warchus. Always. First saw a show of his when I was 17 – a very long time ago – and his combination of clear storytelling with a heightened and fun sense of theatricality running through all of his work has been a massive inspiration. Rufus Norris’s work never fails to completely bowl me over. Theatre should affect your breath – take it away or turn it to laughs or sobs. Rufus Norris’s work always does that for me.
What are your plans for 2017 at the Hope Theatre?
Oh, wait and see. I’m currently reading various scripts and am hoping to produce at least two in-house shows.
And finally, what would your advice be for aspiring theatre directors today trying to break into the industry?
See as much as you can and meet as many people as you can. I am literally only as strong as those I collaborate with. I’m so lucky with the creatives I’ve met and worked with over the past few years – especially since starting at the Hope. Collaborating with brilliantly talented, honest and hard working people makes me the best director I can be and therefore the work the best it can be.
Production photo: Roy Tan
Her Aching Heart is at the Hope Theatre from 29th November until 23rd December, for further information or to book visit here.
Check back here for our review.