How classic Norfolk tale of forbidden love has taken to West End Stage

Gemma Sutton, William Thompson and Michael Crawford in the West End production of The Go-Between. Ph

Gemma Sutton, William Thompson and Michael Crawford in the West End production of The Go-Between. Photo: Johan Persson - Credit: Archant

That classic Norfolk-set tale of forbidden love, The Go-Between, has been turned into a West End musical starring Michael Crawford. And for the musical's producer Joseph Smith, it's a return to his county roots. Wayne Savage finds out more.

The Go-Between's producer Joseph Smith, from Norfolk.

The Go-Between's producer Joseph Smith, from Norfolk. - Credit: Archant

The theatre was Joseph Smith's playground growing up. His mum, an actress, set up and ran The Angles Theatre in Wisbech, for many years. For the last two decades she's served as producer and co-runner of The Westacre Theatre near Swaffham.

He and his two brothers appeared in productions when they were really small. While they went on to become teachers, Smith took after his mum; curious about how shows actually made it to the stage.

'I just seemed to get the bug for it. Obviously when your mum helps run a theatre you have access to everything and I wanted to breathe it all,' he recalls.

Getting involved in the lighting, sound, etc, when it came to university he didn't want to train as an actor; lacking, in his words, the dedication. Being a technician didn't interest him either.

A publicity still for the Norfolk-set film version of The Go-Between, starring Alan Bates and Julie

A publicity still for the Norfolk-set film version of The Go-Between, starring Alan Bates and Julie Christie. - Credit: Archant

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'What I'm really interested in is being an administrator, which at the time wasn't a very sexy thing to do,' he laughs.

Leaving university with a degree in theatre management he was lucky enough to get a job with The National Theatre, staying there for 10 years. After four years working in New York, he's spent the last 11 in London's West End.

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Smith's involvement with The Go-Between, based on LP Hartley's classic novel and adapted by David Wood, began when he fell completely in love with a regional production of it at Northampton's Royal and Derngate Theatre in 2011.

As a commercial producer I thought 'this should be seen by a wider audience'. I approached the writers and their representatives and said we really wanted to option the work. It's taken nearly four years to get to a place from when I first saw that show to actually now realising it. It's the first time it's been done in London or the West End.'

A coming of age story, multi Olivier and Tony-award winning Michael Crawford - in his first major musical role for more than a decade - plays Leo Colston, a man still haunted by one hot summer at Norfolk's Brandham Hall 50 years before.

Spending three weeks at the country home of his school friend Marcus in 1900, he vividly recalls his unwitting role acting as a go-between for the beautiful upper-class Marian and tenant-farmer Ted.

The illicit love affair, carried out against the wishes of her formidable mother and behind the back of Viscount Trimingham drags 12-year-old Leo into an adult world of passion and intrigue where he discovers feelings he's never experienced before.

Adapted for film twice - the first boasting a screenplay by Harold Pinter and starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates as the lovers - and also as a lavish full-length BBC adaptation, it's not just about the loss of innocence. It's also about becoming a grown-up and understanding the adult world.

'What Michael does as the older version of Leo by looking back at the events that played out that summer, that's what resonates a lot with people either through the novel, the films or the play. That sense of drama in the ability of a 12-year-old boy and Michael to hold the stage and deliver this massively passionate and intriguing story, very ahead of its time in what it was saying.'

Having seen the show just that once, when he started his research Smith was fascinated by how deeply Hartley's story was rooted in his home county.

'It's very specific, he changed the name slightly to Brandham Hall but it's absolutely based on him spending the summer at Bradenham Hall which is between Swaffham and Dereham - literally a stone's throw from where my parents and I call home now,' he laughs.

'All these kind of coincidences came to light after I started to look more into the show from a historical perspective. The source material - the book Richard [Taylor who wrote the score] and David have created this musical from has existed as a story for 60 or 70 years so it's an interesting one. Hartley visited the hall originally in 1909 for that summer so it's a very personal story to him and, in a very different way, very personal for me as well being from that part of the world and having my mum run a theatre there.'

Smith - who describes Taylor's score as sitting brilliantly between the spirit and lushness of Andrew Lloyd Webber to the intricacy and characterisation of Stephen Sondheim, really helping to tell the story - hopes to tour the show once the London run ends.

'It's a musical that has one set, 11 actors and it's certainly of a scale that it would look beautiful if we did. We have to see what happens. We have all our fingers crossed that it's going to be received really well by all the critics. I would love it to come to Norfolk.'

• The Go-Between runs at The Apollo Theatre, in London's Shaftsbury Avenue, until October 15.

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