Tonight sees performances commence of one of the most anticipated productions of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in recent times. At the southernmost tip of the Bakerloo Line, the Southwark Playhouse in Elephant and Castle is to stage the play with a cast that includes former Dr Who and Withnail & I star Paul McGann and a creative team with as impressive credentials. The adaptation is by celebrated wunderkind, Anya Reiss, Russell Bolam directs and the production is co-produced by Danielle Tarento, who in recent years has established a world class reputation for her Off West End productions. Midway through rehearsals, I met with this talented producer to understand a little more of her remarkable Midas touch that delivers consistent excellence to her shows.
Tarento had wanted to be an actor from the age of four but speaks warmly of how that desire set her at odds with her academically high-achieving family's expectations. Fabulous A Level grades (natch) failed to secure her a university place to study Drama and English, a knock back she describes as "serendipitous" and she then took a gap year before being admitted to Guildhall to train as an actor. Alongside Daniel Evans (they were the youngest in their year) she loved the training and was steered towards a career on screen. Tarento looks back on having appeared in most of the 1990's TV sitcoms, often in a state of undress(!), as well as having made it to the last three in the castings for Baz Luhrmann's Romeo And Juliet. But it was to be after a decently paid but nonetheless un-satisfying stretch on Sky's Dream Team and the inevitable re-evaluation of life that happens as one approaches 30, that she took the brave call to decide that TV bit-parts were not how she wanted her career to develop.
Another gap year beckoned, during which she worked and saved. With a family background in the hospitality industry, (her parents had owned wine bars) she was then to meet aspiring producer David Babani and within three weeks of the two of them meeting, they had signed a lease for the site of the old Menier Chocolate Factory. Their impact upon the venue’s facilities of restaurant, theatre and rehearsal space was astonishing. The combined acumen of Tarento and Babani saw the Chocolate Factory becoming a leading venue in the capital's Of West End theatre scene with Tarento adding that her three years spent in Southwark were immensely rewarding. Perhaps their largest production at the Chocolate Factory was Sunday In The Park With George that received critical acclaim before enjoying a West End transfer. She is no fool though and whilst the show was an outstanding first revival of the show since its premiere at the National, she is the first to admit that it's tough to make money out of Sondheim in the West End. Her fondest memory of the Chocolate Factory remains its production of Tick, Tick, Boom, that remarkably included Neil Patrick Harris who was even then a Broadway star, notwithstanding his current elevated status.
In many ways Tarento's career has been blessed with a sequence of fortuitous developments. A spell working with a casting director friend was meant to last a few months but ran to a year and a half and in the process she was to learn much about the contractual complexities that underpin any professional production. Tarento also learned that ultimately what she really wanted to do is to run her own space. With a provocative glint in her eye, she suggests to me that such a development is indeed on the cards (she's far too shrewd to spill any beans at this early stage) but until then she just wants to continue freelancing her skills, producing the right work in the right place.
She has had a string of successes, predominantly (though not always) drawn from musical theatre and often hiring director Thom Southerland to helm. Their outstanding takes on Jason Robert Brown's Parade and Jerry Herman's Mack & Mabel proved to be an ingenious use of the tunnel space at the (old) Southwark Playhouse. (Though it was with Christopher Renshaw that she was to deliver a spellbinding re-working of the Boy George musical Taboo.)
The symbiosis that has existed between her and Southerland is quite rare. She speaks of the director "taking her out for a burger" as he pitches his next idea. Frequently, she accedes to his request and invariably the result is a hit, with their most recent collaboration, 2013's multi-award winning version of Maury Yeston's Titanic, shortly to set sail from the (new) Southwark Playhouse, first to Toronto before a run on Broadway. Her pride at Titanic's success is evident and Tarento believes that Southerland will one day be spoken of as a future Daldry or Grandage.
London and to be fair, the nation's, fringe theatre industry has long drawn comment and brickbats within the creative community for being an environment of low pay or often no pay for its actors. It's a tough paradox against which Tarento actually presents herself as an honest broker of a producer. She budgets her shows with realistic ambition, on record as saying that £90,000 is an approximate production spend with some musicals costing more (as in Titanic) and plays, often less (ergo Three Sisters). She prides herself on (with only one exception), never having lost an investor money (speaking warmly and very appreciatively of her loyal band of angels) and of running a scrupulously open book of accounts that is presented to her cast when the run is over. Her investors know that a fixed tranche of profit will always be paid to the actors first, yet Tarento admits that anything remotely approaching a commercial profit or wage for the cast is always going to be challenging when, notwithstanding excellent ticket sales, her shows only play to a maximum house of around 230 souls and then at a maximum ticket price of around £22. She wryly comments that for the price of a West End show, often staged with a lesser calibre company, one could see three of her productions!
And so to Three Sisters. The idea for the production was sparked whilst The Seagull (also adapted by Reiss) was on at the Southwark Playhouse at the same time as Tarento was staging hers' and Southerland's Victor/Victoria. The respective companies shared numerous evenings in the bar ("all night, every night") and one creative thing led to another. Bolam was also directing The Seagull and Tarento has nothing but praise not only for the director, but for Reiss and her "extraordinary talent". Breaking The Seagull down to two 40 minute acts, she is in awe at how Reiss' prose manages to combine moments of utterly modern relevance with sequences that are just so Chekovian she suggests that the young playwright's words could almost have been written by the legendary Russian.
On her casting, whilst she acknowledges the Whovian force field that McGann can exert at the box office, she is at pains to emphasise that whilst a sexy celebrity can undoubtedly help ticket sales, she abhors "stunt casting" insisting on only the right actor for any role. The combined firepower of the production's creatives was enough to lure McGann to the role, though Tarento also muses that a relatively short run with no obligation to tour, is also an attraction in drawing a big name to appear in a fringe show. Whilst she is sanguine enough to know that productions of Three Sisters are frequent, (another two are slated for this year alone), for other more eclectic productions such as Mack & Mabel, Titanic or Victor/Victoria, she suggests that these roles come along so rarely that often the actors she wants to hire are only too keen to be cast, knowing that opportunities to play those roles may not come knocking again in their careers.
As this feature is released, Three Sisters' previews are sold out, with very encouraging pre-press night ticket sales for the remainder of the run. Hardworking and realistic, but undeniably fuelled by ambition, Tarento speaks respectfully of The Seagull, which at the time of its opening had the highest advance for a play in the Southwark Playhouse’s history. That target has already been smashed by Three Sisters and Tarento’s parting shot is “I want to break every record, obviously!". Based on her form, it would be a fool who'd bet against that.
Three Sisters runs at Southwark Playhouse from 3rd April to 3rd May 2014