Wednesday, 19 December 2018

West End’s youngest ever producer

A FORMER pupil of the Oratory School who grew up in Henley has become the youngest theatre producer in West End history

A FORMER pupil of the Oratory School who grew up in Henley has become the youngest theatre producer in West End history.

Jack Maple, whose parents Janey and Philip live in Gravel Hill, is just 20 years old.

But on Monday last week he saw the revival of the hit Broadway musical Show Boat with which he is associated open at the New London Theatre to five-star reviews across the board.

“Glorious”, “unmissable”, “thrilling” and “superb” were among the drama critics’ verdicts, while Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard urged readers “Don’t miss this boat.”

So how did someone who left school little more than two years ago come to be involved in such a roaring success? As you would expect, Jack has his own story to tell.

“I was at the Oratory until I was 18. And the Oratory tried to push me in the direction of university, but I applied for drama school to study technical theatre — and didn’t get in.

“I applied for so many different drama schools — interviews and auditions and all sorts — and I just didn’t get in. So I started working, doing lots of internships up in London.

“I moved to London. I got my first job working on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the musical, which was phenomenal and I absolutely loved it. It’s such a big show, great to be a part of it.

“I was assistant company manager, so I was looking after the cast and crew on a nightly basis. Huge amount of responsibility for an 18-year-old — I was probably way out of my depth — but I loved it. And then ever since then I’ve kind of gone from job to job to job. It’s a lot of internships in there.

“But then I got a phone call from a previous boss of mine in January, who asked — he knows I want to be a producer — and he said ‘Look, we’re bringing Show Boat to town, do you want to be a part of it?’ and I said ‘Of course I do.’ And I quit my job there and then because they wouldn’t allow me to do both — there’s a conflict of interest with doing another production.

“So I quit my job — gave my parents heart palpitations at the very thought of it — but after seven weeks I raised the amount of money that the producers wanted and we opened on Monday last week.”

Jack’s parents’ concerns were surely understandable, given that his previous job was working for super-producer Bill Kenwright, whose company runs the Theatre Royal, Windsor, among other venues.

“Bill Kenwright is a fantastic producer,” says Jack. “He does more shows than anyone else does in the country. I’ve had my fair share of office internships all over the place, but like I say I wouldn’t have have been able to do that as well as producing Show Boat, so I picked Show Boat over that and it’s definitely been worthwhile.”

As with any business proposition, being a West End producer involves the usual calculations of risk and reward, as Jack readily acknowledges.

“Without divulging figures, the show costs a certain amount to put on and that figure is split — I think there are eight of us — it’s split between the eight of us. We’ve got one of the oldest producers [in the West End] and I am the youngest producer.

“It’s a real broad spectrum of where the producers come from and their backgrounds and their history, which is great.

“David Ian is our lead producer. He heads up the show. He’s got a fantastic level of experience. He’s done so many shows. Unbelievable.”

It must all seem a far cry from his days studying A-level drama at the Oratory — an experience Jack says helped him establish that the acting side of theatre wasn’t for him.

Not being into rugby, which the Oratory is very well known for, he recalls that he and a group of friends made the most of the opportunities available to put on plays at the school’s performing arts centre.

“We’d just had a new theatre built while I was there, and it was fantastic. There was a really close group of us, six upper-sixth boys who all got on really well, and we were the ones who were putting on the plays and, you know, doing A-level drama and all that kind of stuff.

“It was just a really great atmosphere. Everyone was so supportive of drama. And yes, I think without my time there I probably wouldn’t have got into theatre — I’d have been at university somewhere, which was never right for me at all.”

Naturally enough, Jack’s old school has been delighted to learn of his recent success.

“They’re thrilled. They’re organising a trip to bring a couple of hundred boys up to see the show, so I’m really excited for that. And like I say, they’ve been so supportive. Everyone at the school. It’s just very exciting to be the West End’s youngest ever producer — a record that was previously held by someone who was 23.”

Dating from 1927, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics and book by Oscar Hammerstein II, the Broadway premiere of Show Boat is regarded as a watershed moment in the history of musical theatre.

Featuring such classic songs as Ol’ Man River, Make Believe and Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, the show follows the lives of the performers, stagehands and dock workers on Mississippi show boat the Cotton Blossom over a 40-year period.

Marrying spectacle and seriousness, its themes of racial prejudice and tragic, enduring love have lost none of their power down the years, with previous revivals of the show having won Tony and Olivier awards. Show Boat was staged at the Royal Albert Hall in 2006, but you have to go back to 1998 to find the last full-scale London revival.

With five-star reviews abounding for the current production, which previously enjoyed a sellout six-week run at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, Jack is full of praise for the talents of those involved in bringing the musical back to the stage.

“The show speaks for itself, you know? It is defined as the mother of all musicals — it’s one of the first real musicals where people realised you could do serious stuff on stage.

“It was also the first time black and white actors had ever been on stage together, which is huge. There’s a fantastic story that even when they were performing on stage, after the show they still had to leave by different entrances and exits and I found that, you know, incredible.”

In one of Show Boat’s landmark scenes, the Cotton Blossom’s white performers and black staff all dance together.

“It’s so fantastically done, that scene, in our show. Our fantastic choreographer, Alistair David, has really worked wonders with it.

“There’s a good story about him. He was in the original ensemble for Cats when it opened at the New London Theatre in 1981 and now he’s back as the choreographer. It’s very exciting for him.

“And credit due to our cast. We have a fantastic cast, most of whom did the show in Sheffield. But what’s really great for us, especially given the reviews, is that none of them are TV stars, none of them are, you know, they’re not from reality TV. They’re not film stars.

Funny Girl has just opened in the West End starring Sheridan Smith. We don’t have Sheridan Smith. Our star is the show and our fantastically talented cast, all of whom have trained and worked for years and years and they’re finally getting a shot at being a West End leading performer. And they’re all just magnificent. I couldn’t be prouder. I’m probably gushing now, sorry about that, but I’m very glad to be involved in this one.”

Show Boat is at the New London Theatre in Drury Lane until January 7 for a “strictly limited season” — though one that could be extended if the show does well enough.

The original production of Cats ran for 21 years at the same venue, and more recently the theatre was home to War Horse.

“Yes, War Horse was there for seven years, I think, so hopefully we can recreate that kind of success. That’s certainly our plan.”

While Jack will continue to be involved in Show Boat, he is already thinking about his next move.

“Now that it’s opened and running, I obviously come in for meetings and such and ensure that the show’s well maintained and hopefully returns my investors some money — that’s the most important thing for me.

“But looking forward, I’m now trying to make it as an independent producer, so I’ve got a number of my own projects. While I adore Show Boat, it’s not my show, if that makes any sense?

“The next couple of projects will just be ‘Jack Maple Presents’ — that’s certainly the dream. There’s about another three this year and hopefully two or three big ones next year as well, which is kind of what I want to be doing myself now.”

Anything he can tell us about?

“There’s a few irons in the fire, a number of shows that I’d love, really love to do, but I couldn’t possibly tell you now,” he laughs.

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