Steven Pimlott A Celebration

Olivier Theatre, 17 May 2007


account/review by Emma Shane

(c) May 2007


And what a celebration. Sadness mingled with joy and laughter. – Especially when Philip Bartle, Nicholas Hytner and Declan Donnellan were reminiscing. Steven Pimlott had an extraordinary range as a director; and sometimes producer and actor; something made abundantly clear, with a good deal of hilarity by this afternoons celebration.


The event started someone later than it was meant to (shades of the time The Chichester Festival Theatre attempted an Around The World With Cole Porter lunchtime concert immediately after something else in the Minerva Theatre – that was during The Triumvirate’s reign). A band of musicians (Helen Keen on flute, Mark Lacey on clarinet, Megan Pound on violin, Penny Cliff on cello, and, Steve McManus on double base) take their seats on the stage (to the back stage right) in front of them is the grand piano, and near it, at the side of the stage are two chairs where the pianists Jason Carr (in a smart light cream coloured suit) and Michael Haslam sit throughout (whenever not actually performing). The event starts off with some home video footage of Steven Pimlott’s of a Roller-Coaster Ride; it sets the scene for a hilarious celebration.

Followed on a more serious note by Helen Cooper reading So Many Different Lengths Of Time by Pablo Nerunda and Brian Pattern. A narrator’s stand (with microphone) has been positioned to the side front stage left. Though not everyone uses it.

One thing the printed sheet given out by The National Theatre’s ushers made clear. was that Steven Pimlott loved live music, so next up was a splendid performance of Mozart’s Gran Partita Serenade (Adagio) on bassoons, clarinets and one French Horn from The Puffin Ensemble.

Steven Pimlott was perhaps best known as a director of plays. These are well represented this afternoon, starting with Samuel West introducing and then performing a speech from Richard II. (Pimlott’s fabled “stripped down” RSC one). He may be a big name actor, and a very talented one, but he also comes across as a pleasant person (is that typical of the kind of people who regularly worked with Mr Pimlott?)

Before departing the stage, Samuel West introduced Steven Pimlott’s daughter Phoebe Pimlott to play Why by Pam Wedgewood on the piano. It must’ve taken some nerve for her to perform in such a situation, so well done there.

On to another strand of Steven Pimlott’s directing career, Opera, with Maria Ewing singing from Bizet’s Carmen (I think she was singing the fabled Habanera) - I have to say it is probably the second best version of this lovely piece that I’ve ever heard . At this point Jason Carr, the composer of the incidental music for the a for mentioned Richard II, takes his place at the piano to accompany; and accomplished pianist that he is he does it well, ending the last phrase with a typically Carr’ian flourish.

Tom Cairns takes the narrators stand, and has some difficulty being almost overcome with emotion several times, while talking about an artistic director who had hired Steven Pimlott to work at The Nottingham Playhouse, which for some strange reason involved debates that went on into the early hours of the morning.

On to something which Steven Pimlott directed, produced, and sometimes appeared in a good deal of (and funnily enough something Mike Leigh once made a film about), Gilbert And Sullivan. A medley in fact from Patience, HMS Pinafore (Never Mind The Why Or Wherefore) and The Gondoliers (Dance A Carruchia), sung well but with a good deal of hilarity by Fiona Dunn, Sophie Louise Dann, Nuala Willis, and, Christopher Blades. Just the way I like G&S, Fun fun fun, as opposed to being staid and boring. The whole lot being accompanied on the piano by Jason Carr, himself a great British composer/lyricist whose own work Steven Pimlott produced at Chichester (once in the main house during the same season as The Gondoliers).

The G&S medley is followed by a trio of Steven Pimlott’s friends, from school and Cambridge. This was one of the highlights of the afternoon, not least because it was just so hilariously funny. The first of these was Philip Bartle. I think it was he who recounted a good deal of his early memories of Steven Pimlott, they knew each other at school, and not to be merely content with school drama, also appeared in Manchester Youth Theatre, where on one occasion they were directed by Mike Leigh, then just starting out, but already with his own very definite ideas about drama and acting. Ideas very different from Steven Pimlott’s; in fact the narrator says that he thinks “that’s when Steven decided to become a director”.  This piece prompts a good deal of laughter from various members of the audience (perhaps some of them don’t exactly see eye to eye with Mike Leigh’s methods either). Next up The National Theatre’s current Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner, who knew Mr Pimlott at both school, and Cambridge. He mentions several of his usual stories, including the one about Maggie Smith’s performance in Oh What A Lovely War not being as good as Pimlott’s. He is followed by another Cambridge friend, Declan Donnellan, who then proceeds to recount an occasion in a college show when he and Nicholas, well mostly Nicholas, decided to try and make Steven corpse. By substituting the word “Hedgehog” instead of “Sweet heart”. Nicholas takes up the story about how they totally failed and ended up corpsing themselves.

This trio couldn’t really be followed, but they had to be, and one of Steven Pimlott’s Chichester protégé’s, the playwright and director Edward Kemp is next up, with his own poems about Steven. It is nice to see poetry finding it’s place in this tribute. And particularly appropriate coming from Edward Kemp because of all their work together at Chichester. It is perhaps particularly notable that Edward Kemp is the man who, when given the opportunity, by Pimlott, of writing the book for an original musical, remarked to his collaborator, composer  Jason Carr, “Why are we wasting our time trying to create a fictional character?” – hence how they ended up writing, and The Chichester Triumvirate producing a musical about Lee Miller.

Edward Kemp is one of Pimlott’s regular team, and he is followed by another regular, Jeremy Sams. Here we get one of the afternoon’s many unique moments. The multitalented Jeremy Sams explains that he had never thought of himself as a composer, until Steven Pimlott asked him to compose music for the play Ring Around The Moon. Taking his place at the piano he then proceeds to play his own Waltz from that play. What an unusual and interesting addition to the event, a real treat.

A hard act to follow but Meera Syal rose to the occasion as a narrator; describing with great hilarity Steven’s passion for swearing. Never at someone, not too often either; but usually unexpected.

Ms Syal had been in Bombay Dreams there follows an excerpt from that performed by Rahman Hughes and Raza Jaffrey, with Chris Nightingale on the piano. Although the number was not really to my taste, both gentlemen sang it well, one of them (probably Raza Jaffrey – seeing as he’s BOV trained) acted it rather well too, the other just sang.

We came to what really has to be the highlight of the afternoon, a piece of pure class, Maria Friedman and Philip Quast singing Move On from Sunday In The Park With George, a Sondheim classic they had actually been in at The National (under Steven Pimlott’s direction some years ago). As an added treat this afternoon’s performance also had the whole of the on-stage band, enthusiastically conducted by no less a person than the “superlative” (to quote Sondheim) orchestrator of the more recent Menier Chocolate Factory production of that show, Jason Carr. It’s only the second time I’ve seen Jason conduct, the first was at Steven Pimlott’s production of the play The Master And Margarita (when Mr Carr ended up filling in for an absent MD/accordionist). This time unencumbered he jumps about a fair amount, not perhaps as much as say Hans Weisler Moist, but still pretty lively. This could have been rather a distraction from the singers, except for the fact that nothing, absolutely nothing could possibly distract from such brilliant singing-actors as Maria Friedman and Philip Quast.

That tour de force couldn’t really be followed. But followed it must be, and thankfully with something completely different, namely Ruth Mackenzie, amusing reminiscences about the three years when she and Martin Duncan, and, Steven were The Triumvirate in charge of Chichester. During this she recalls how Steven could take on the roles of the other two, and would and be himself all at the same time.

Continuing with the Chichester team, next one of the theatre’s Associate Artistes from those three years, namely the Associate Composer Jason Carr takes centre stage (actually he sticks mainly to stage right, close to the piano). Of course they didn’t just work together at Chichester, in all they worked on some “seventeen” shows together (well that’s what Jason said). Importantly, besides directing plays, Steven Pimlott also played a major role in getting Jason Carr commissions for a couple of new musicals, The Water Babies (which was actually Mr Pimlott’s idea), and, Six Pictures Of Lee Miller. So it is only right and proper that one of the brightest composers currently working in theatre, should get to play something of his own this afternoon. Of the plays that Steven directed, Jason highlights Vieux Carre as one he particularly enjoyed. He asks if Jonathan Cullen is present, and on realising that he is apologises for reading out two of his lines from that play. He also adds that “the music should speak for itself”, and takes his place at the piano to play an excerpt of his own score for it, accompanied by Mark Lacy on clarinet.

From one great British theatre composer to another, Jason Carr is still seated at the piano, when Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber enters stage left and takes the narrators stand to make a little speech about working with Steven Pimlott on The Palladium revival of Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

ALW exits, and that versatile actor Nicolas Colicos enters, for some strange reason sporting a cowboy hat –goodness only knows why, to sing Lloyd-Webber’s One More Angel In Heaven from Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. He brings to this all is tremendous experiences as an actor (at Chichester alone that ranges from playing a guy who wants to be a Rhinocerous to the King God Jupiter; while in the West End his credits include getting tangled up with both Louise Plowright and Lesley Nicol in Mamma Mia, amongst lots of other things). Jason Carr plays the accompaniment, and between them they somehow contrive to make the song sound more like an Adam Guttel piece than Lloyd-Webber! Someone (I would very much like to know who) had cleverly tinkered with the lyrics, to make them specifically reflect Steven Pimlott! Altogether quite an interesting piece.

Another change of scene, with the projection screen brought back into use to show ‘Steven Pimlott A Life In Pictures’, while the various photographs are flashed up, with have the background music of Poulenc’s Oboe Sonata played by Richard Hewitt, with Jason Carr providing piano accompaniment. Listening to this one cancan really hear how Poulenc has influenced Mr Carr’s own work.

This is followed by another piece of film ‘Steven Pimlott In His Own Words’, towards the very end of his life, talking to Penny Cliff, filmed by Stephen White. It is interesting to see how humorous and philosophical he remained, with no bitterness.

Next up, Daniela Bechly (who naturally had to contribute to the tribute) sang Schubert’s Suleika accompanied by Christiane Behn.

They exit stage right, and Michael Feast enters stage left and proceeds to perform an excerpt from one of the Chichester plays, Nathan The Wise. It’s amazing to watch how even without proper costumes, good actors can just go straight into character.

Finally Jason Carr takes centre stage to explain they are going to finish with You’ll Never Walk Alone from Carousel. A number of notable actors make their way onto the stage to form a chorus - Jason says he won’t name them, because they’re all too famous – instead he gets on with explaining to the audience what is required. The song’s chorus will be played twice through, on the first run, don’t do anything, on the second join in. He also reads out the lyrics, and then with Michael Haslem at the piano, it falls to Jason Carr to conduct the finale.


All in all a fitting tribute, a sort of cross between a memorial service and a gala. There were many notable people in the audience (although some of the actors among them had to leave a little early, because of Thursday matinees). But the event was also open to all. This made it wonderfully inclusive and unpretentious. The highlight has to be Maria Friedman and Philip Quast’s contribution. However, perhaps the most fittingly special moments (for this public event) were those fine British musicians, Jeremy Sams, and, Jason Carr, so often employed by Steven Pimlott as part of his team, playing excerpts of their own work for Pimlott’s plays. Pieces which without Steven Pimlott to commission them, they would never have written. What great taste he had. Though a sad occasion at the same time it was also unusual, and fitting, which actually made for a surprisingly amusing and positive celebration.




Off Site Links:

Steven Pimlott’s Official RNT Tribute Site:


The PQG’s page for the gala (compiled by Eli Nava and friends):





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