Tuesday, June 18

Elizabeth Newman talks about Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s 2024 Summer season

Under Artistic Director Elizabeth Newman’s astute leadership Pitlochry Festival Theatre has not only undergone a massive refurbishment but delivered a range of challenging and popular pieces of work for their loyal Perthshire audience.

This year’s summer season in their Main Auditorium includes a revival of the 80s classic Footloose, and their version of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. There’s also a world première of Frances Poet’s new stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and the welcome return of the theatre’s award-winning production of Shirley Valentine that really pulled in the crowds last time they staged it.

In The Studio space there are premières of Harry Mould’s new play The Brenda Line, and a production of Nan Shepherd: Naked and Unashamed. Outside in the Theatre’s unique Amphitheatre there’s the return of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s much loved The Secret Garden, which sold out last time, and the theatre will unite with the Scots Opera Project to produce a Gaelic and Scots Language version of Purcell’s baroque masterpiece, Dido and Aeneas.

Our Features Editor Paul Clarke caught up with Elizabeth Newman as she prepared for the summer season’s launch.

So why bring back Footloose?

It is its 40th anniversary this year, it’s one of those musicals made famous by that brilliant film with Kevin Bacon, it really has extraordinary music, extraordinary dancing and theatricality, but also incredible politics within it. I think audiences have the best night out, but they also have experienced and watched the characters on stage grappling with some big topics around freedom of choice, freedom of movement literally, what it means to be a community, how women are treated and how young people are treated.

Last year you deployed an ensemble of actors for the whole summer season so is that the case in 2024?

We have an ensemble every year and we have some returning people from previous ensembles, but a lot of new faces as well. Every year Pitlochry has an ensemble that produces all the different plays in rep.

You’re staging Beautiful: The Carole King Musical so what’s different about this version?

It’s the first production to be made in Scotland, previously in the different versions that people have seen will have been touring productions. Kirsty Findlay who is utterly breathtaking, and one of our greatest Scottish talents, is playing Carol.

Aside from the obvious classic tunes, what was it that attracted you to a show that had already been a hit on Broadway and in the West End?

I’m a huge fan of biopics for want of a better word, I really enjoy understanding the artist behind the art. It’s quite clear it’s a period of her life that’s being covered in the musical, her marriage to Gerry Goffin, but I also like pieces that explore art in a less obvious way. With regards to Beautiful, obviously Carole King’s music is utterly extraordinary, and I still feel like people don’t understand the things that woman achieved. Before the age of 30 she had written huge numbers of hit classic tunes that are played today, made covers of today, used in films, adverts, TV shows and used in other theatre productions. People love her music and often will go, I didn’t realise that was a Carole King. So it felt brilliant to celebrate an amazing, strong female artist who has, and continues to in lots of ways, changed the landscape of popular music.

You’re also bringing back Willy Russell’s timeless masterpiece Shirley Valentine with Sally Reid returning as the frustrated housewife who makes a life changing decision.

We originally produced it in the Autumn of 2022 and audiences loved it. Our autumn audience is different again to our summer audience, so it felt like a real wasted opportunity to not share it again with our summer audience. It was an extraordinary success with audiences, but also critically. Sally won the Outstanding Performance award in Scotland from the Critics’ Awards for her performances as Shirley. It just felt like the right moment, and when we programmed it we were then approached by the Lyceum in Edinburgh to also share it with their audiences because they felt like it was a story that would really speak to the people that visit the Lyceum as well, which I agree with. I think Shirley Valentine speaks to many people in lots of different ways, and it’s an utterly brilliant play, and Sally gives an astonishing performance.

I always think Shirley is one of the toughest gigs as it’s one woman essentially doing a very long monologue, which in the wrong hands can go badly wrong.

When you watch someone do it, you almost forget what they’re doing, which is they are talking to you for two hours on their own, transforming and changing as they talk to you as well. That’s why it’s extraordinary, it’s so well written that Shirley is still working things out and making sense of things as she talks to us, which is why it’s so compelling.

And you’re going in time to stage your version of Sense and Sensibility.

Frances Poet the playwright who is adapting it for us is brilliant, and it’s a new adaptation. Its collaboration with Ovo in St Albans, directed by their artistic director Adam, and it is a beautiful adaptation of one of Austen’s finest novels. You can expect to encounter Elinor and Marianne if you enjoyed the novel, all of your favourite bits are in there. What Francis has managed to do is just turn it into a really compelling play.

I see you’re bringing back The Secret Garden after a successful summer run last season – is this going to be an annual event at Pitlochry?

Who knows? We’re in the process of programming 2025 at the moment, but it was hugely successful last year, it sold out. We could have kept selling it and audiences just loved it. It seemed like an obvious, but good, choice to revive it again and for audiences to enjoy spending time with those characters outside in our beautiful garden and amphitheatre.

Tickets and further information are available from the Pitlochry Festival Theatre Box Office on 01796 484626 or online at www.pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com