Ian Talbot

Published April 17, 2008

For 20 years Ian Talbot was Artistic Director of the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, concerned with money, casting, programming and the well being of everybody who worked at the venue. After leaving his position last year he is now free from such worries and responsibilities, and married to a man dressed as a woman. Matthew Amer caught up with the multi-talented performer/director to talk about his new show, Hairspray.

It is hard to believe that Ian Talbot, at 65, is of retirement age, that his contemporaries fill their days with rounds of golf – “I can’t think of anything worse” – while he is performing in one of the West End’s biggest musical hits, Hairspray. Sitting in his intimate dressing room at the Shaftesbury theatre, the hustle and bustle of London life drifting through an open window, the upbeat Talbot is full of enthusiasm for his working life.

“If anyone is in a show like this and they don’t enjoy it,” he says of the 1960s Baltimore-set musical comedy, “then quite honestly they shouldn’t do it, because this is like gold dust.”

Indeed, the tale of big-haired, big-hearted Tracy Turnblad and her quest to become a television dance show star has just made London theatre history, collecting more Laurence Olivier Award nominations – a total of 11 – than any other show ever.

Talbot is not among the nominees – he is a recent addition to the cast, replacing original Wilbur, Mel Smith – but he, like the rest of the company, was “thrilled” by the recognition, and points to director Jack O’Brien as one of the reasons that Hairspray has won both critical and popular acclaim: “He hasn’t done loads of musicals, he’s done mostly plays. He brought a sort of gravitas to it. It could just be a very camp, loud evening, and it isn’t that… though it has lots of that. I think, also, the last 20 minutes are possibly the best finale I’ve ever seen of any musical.”

This is high praise indeed from a man who has directed a few of his own musical hits over the years at the Open Air – High Society and The Boy Friend spring swiftly to mind – and was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Director for his production of The Pirates Of Penzance. Surprisingly, this is Talbot’s West End debut in a piece of musical theatre, so it must be both a comfort and rather daunting to be playing the husband of Michael Ball in drag.

“You never think of it as a man dressed as a woman,” Talbot earnestly explains, “and he’s great because he doesn’t do it like a pantomime dame. You forget that it’s Michael really until he opens his mouth and this wonderful voice comes out.”

"It could just be a very camp, loud evening, and it isn’t that… though it has lots of that"

Talbot had only two weeks of rehearsals before he was thrust onto the Shaftesbury stage in front of a paying audience, the majority of which he spent in a small, lonely studio. A “car crash” of a dress rehearsal preceded his first night in the show, but since then performing in Hairspray has given him a new lease of life, rather than making him feel like an OAP.

Talbot is, though, the oldest member of a young, vibrant company packed with new talent, and he is careful not to become the veteran performer regaling young whippersnappers with tales of actors, actresses and directors they have never even heard of. That is not to say he will not give out the odd piece of sage advice if asked, but, “they have to approach me; I’m not going to them. Can you imagine me swanning round saying ‘I played the Fool opposite Michael Gambon’? It would be awful.”

Talbot is not one to sing his own praises. He is genuinely surprised by the recognition he receives from those within the industry for his work at the Open Air. He plays down his OBE as a medal you put in a draw, but is quietly chuffed that “It showed that what I’d done at the park had been appreciated.” Sitting in his comfortable armchair in an understated dark green t-shirt, he is quite a contrast to the bright, brash striking costumes hanging just behind him, which demand to be noticed.

Possibly, it is only after many years in the business that a performer can truly appreciate a special production. For Talbot and Ball, performers who have both experienced differing levels of success, it is clear that Hairspray is one such production. But Talbot, in his paternal way, worries about some of the newcomers. “It’s quite hard for the people who it’s their first job,” he frowns, “because I don’t think they quite realise that they’ve struck gold so early and it’ll be a hard act to follow. I mean Leanne, who plays Tracy, is absolutely stupendous, but I think her next job will be difficult because unless it’s something fantastic it’s going to be a let down.”

This paternal instinct and a sense of family are central to Talbot’s life. He is the proud father of a three year old, which means, unlike his young co-stars who sleep in until midday, he is up and about by 7:30 each morning. He also refers to his team at the Open Air theatre as a family, though having spent 20 eventful years working at the venue it is easy to see why such a relationship would develop.

“I never thought I’d stay for 20 years,” explains Talbot, who was offered the post of Artistic Director having spent a decade working at Regent’s Park as a jobbing actor. His initial contract was for three years. This evolved into a rolling yearly contract which could have been terminated by either party. “I’ve always believed, in this business, if you’re too secure you lose a certain amount of adrenalin,” say Talbot in explanation of why he negotiated such a short term agreement.

Though the agreement could have imploded annually, both sides found security in it, which Talbot leant on when supporting his first wife Liz through a 17-year-long struggle with cancer. The regular salary helped pay for dieticians and faith healers. “She wanted to take control of it herself,” Talbot says of his late wife. “I’m slightly cynical about all of that, but I didn’t go through it and if it helped her…” he tapers off.

“After Liz died we got the lottery grant,” he adds, perking up, “and I was buggered if I was going to leave and let somebody else take the benefit of all the work we’d done on the theatre.”

When Talbot was installed at Regent’s Park in 1987, the golden break even figure was £90,000 for a season. When he left, it had grown to over £2million. Inflation obviously plays its part, but much of this is down to Talbot pushing the theatre forward artistically, as a venue and technically. “When we cut two holes in the control box [for movable spotlights],” Talbot laughs, “we thought we’d joined Cameron Mackintosh with hi-tech!”

“Maybe I should have left earlier,” he muses, “although I think I left the park at exactly the right time. It seemed right in my brain.” Indeed, with so many anniversaries falling last year – Talbot’s 65th birthday, the Open Air Theatre’s 75th birthday and Talbot’s 20th anniversary of Artistic Directorship – it looks as though the stars may have aligned to signal the correct time to move on.

Through gritted teeth Talbot laughs about the two well-meaning letters he received among the many of congratulations, wishing him a happy retirement. Having a young family has given him impetus to keep going, though I find it hard to believe he would have stopped in any case. “I feel life’s starting again,” he smiles. “It’s like a whole new chapter, so I’m extremely lucky.”

"You can go on until you drop if you can remember the lines"

He may be living a new life, but the old one and 20 years of association cannot end overnight. It is extremely fortunate, he says, that he is appearing in such a large West End hit and that his summer nights will be booked up, as otherwise “it would have been a very difficult summer. If I went [to the Open Air] and it was better than I’d done it, I’d be upset; if it was worse than I’d done it, I’d be upset. I also didn’t want to be standing at the bar with people mumbling and saying ‘He used to run the Open Air theatre.’”

Talbot, ever the gentleman, graciously stops short of criticising new incumbent Tim Sheader, though it is clear that he questions some of his replacement’s choices. By the end of the summer he will know whether they were the right changes or not. Even if they are not, Talbot “applauds him for doing it” and putting his own stamp on the venue.

While Sheader can replace Talbot behind the scenes, he is not a performer and therefore cannot step into his predecessor’s stage-walking shoes. His appearances on stage, Talbot says, were part of what made him a good leader at Regent’s Park: “If I was in [a production] and it was a filthy night, and I was out there doing it, they [the company] couldn’t accuse me of going home to have a large whiskey and watch telly. I was out there getting soaked with the rest of them.”

Not this year though. This year it will be a theatre with a roof, sheltered from the elements, all the way until October when his contract with Hairspray runs out. Then it is back to the director’s seat as he presides over a panto at Christmas before embarking on an exciting project, directing a new Cole Porter musical in the new year.

Talbot, it seems, is in high demand, both as a performer and as a director. While to many professionals of his age the grass might seem greener on the golf courses, Talbot is staying comfortably on his side of the bridge of retirement for a good while yet. “You can go on until you drop if you can remember the lines,” he says. He seems so happy with life at the moment, that I think he might do just that.

To see if Hairspray turns its Laurence Olivier Award nominations into wins, check Official London Theatre on the evening of Sunday 9 March, for live coverage of the 2008 Laurence Olivier Awards ceremony. em>MA