Faced with saturated media coverage of Harry and Meghan’s nuptials, the theatre could seem like a good place to escape all talk of royal weddings for an hour or two, but not so at London’s Union Theatre, where the new satirical musical HR Haitch has just opened. The show’s director, Daniel Winder, took time off to chat with The Reviews Hub’s Stephen Bates at the base of his Iris Theatre Company, St Paul’s Church which is in the heart of Covent Garden.
Daniel founded Iris Theatre in 2007 and has been its Artistic Director ever since; “I trained as an actor at Drama Centre, but had a previous career as a theoretical physicist”, he says, smiling at this unusual change of vocation and adding “I was all-purpose understudy for the first three or four years but I’ve not been on for four years now and let’s hope it never happens again”. St Paul’s is still a fully-functioning church, known as ‘the actors’ church and Iris Theatre stages site-specific productions there for two-and-a-half months every Summer.
HR Haitch marks a breakthrough for the company; “It’s the first time that we’ve done a full length run with another theatre and it’s the sort of start of an ongoing process because we’re doing a four-and-a-half week run of Arabian Nights [at Hoxton Hall] in September”. Daniel explains; “[St Paul’s] is still the centre of what we do … but opportunities for growth exist outside this building rather than inside”.
Daniel has been involved closely with the development of HR Haitch since its inception: “About 5 years ago now, we started a process of doing new musical one-nighters and we also run a Christmas songwriting competition called Xmas Factor… Maz [Evans] and Luke [Bateman], who wrote HR Haitch, first met at one of these and we put them together…they then won two of the competitions and we commissioned them to write a full musical…in 2015 they came to me with the idea of a mixed-race person entering into the royal family and we did workshops”. So this was a case of fiction becoming fact? “Yes, when the news about Harry and Meghan broke…literally in January or February…and it’s all been turned round in a few weeks…it all came together very quickly”.
After almost 11 years working as a director, this is Daniel’s first full musical. “I’ve done a few one-nighters here, but I’m not Thom Southerland, I’ve not done 100 musicals…in the past, the majority of my work has been Shakespeare or family shows like Treasure Island”. So what attracted him to this project? “We are satirising both high and low, it’s a classic, very English comedy ploy… you have someone low class and their family clashes into the Royal family”. Touches of Shaw’s Pygmalion perhaps, but Daniel adds, “within that, there’s a large satire of the Royal family and there’s also a satire of Millennial youth culture…the girl is Essex…there is also satire of the current political environment in terms of referendums and there is a referendum [about the Royal family] in the story…we call it “Rexit” and that always gets a laugh”.
It becomes clear that Daniel takes a great interest in the future development of musical theatre as a whole. “My general feeling is that I see a lot of new musicals come through this building…there’s one big risk with them, it seems to me that there’s a lot of sub-Jason Robert Brown kind of 20-something middle-class kids’ emotional problems, song cycle type of stuff and, for me, if they didn’t have the songs in them, would they stand up as plays?” He advocates strongly that, even in musicals, the play’s the thing, adding “Maz, Luke and I wanted to create this piece with a strong narrative arc, something that is unashamedly and unapologetically popular in form, songs that you can hum. There are a lot of people who want to be Sondheim and, unless you’re Sondheim, you’re always going to come across as a poor comparison. I think we should all want to be Lionel Bart. For me, what is important is that the book should stand alone as a play”.
HR Haitch runs until 2 June at the Union Theatre, but does Daniel hope to take it further? “I would love to. I was always trying to create something that could have a future…we’re not looking at vast expense, just a cast of six and a single piano, that’s built into the narrative…it was never meant to be a West End Show and it’s never going to be a West End show…my dream would be somewhere like Menier Chocolate Factory”.
A musical theatre novice Daniel may be, but, while he does not try to hide his enthusiasm for the form, he tempers it with touches of realism. “But it’s hard” he shrugs, “there’s a whole world of economics that doesn’t work… there’s still a step missing (for low-budget musicals) where you can have a 100-200 seater and take some risks and have a chance of recovering your money”.
For the immediate future, Daniel’s schedule is busy. “I go into rehearsals for The Tempest next week and then we’ve got Three Musketeers and Arabian Nights”. The Tempest will be the twelfth Shakespeare play that he has directed professionally, but, having dipped his toes into musical theatre, are there any classic shows that he would like to work on? He responds instantly – “Man of La Mancha”. Let’s hope that this does not prove to be an impossible dream.
HR Haitch runs at the Union Theatre, London until 2 June 2018 – See our review here.
Stephen Bates | Image: Contributed