STEVEN PIMLOTT ; Director Whose Career Ranged from Musicals and Opera to the National, Chichester and Stratford

By Strachan, Alan | The Independent (London, England), February 16, 2007 | Go to article overview
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STEVEN PIMLOTT ; Director Whose Career Ranged from Musicals and Opera to the National, Chichester and Stratford


Strachan, Alan, The Independent (London, England)


Steven Pimlott was one of the brightest and most versatile directors of his generation. His career began in opera, which continued vitally to involve him throughout his working lifetime, but ranged too from Shakespeare to the camp'n'glitz of such popular musicals as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (in its 1991 gaudy Palladium revival) and had latterly concentrated more on new work. He was vital to the shaping of On the Third Day (New Ambassadors, 2006), the winning play from the fervidly overheated Channel 4 television series The Play's the Thing, in the hothouse world of which his calm savvy was decidedly welcome.

Passionate about music from early years - he was a keen oboist - and active in Manchester Grammar School's musical and dramatic circles, Pimlott became set on a career in opera and theatre while reading English at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he was a leading light in the university's Operatic Society.

His Cambridge productions made him a natural choice for English National Opera as a Staff Director (1976-78) at the Coliseum, an invaluable training ground. Before long he was in demand for productions with such companies as Opera North (1978-80 - a captivating La Boheme, strongly stressing the character's youth, a tremulously passionate Werther scrupulously faithful to Massenet's tone and contrastingly, a powerful brooding Nabucco), Scottish Opera (a surprisingly pallid Don Giovanni, not his finest hour), and Australian Opera, before returning to St Martin's Lane to give ENO a popular favourite in another Boheme, again emphasising the youthful high spirits of the piece before its tragic development, beautifully charted.

Some of the most adventurous regional theatres had noticed Pimlott's work, stamped from the first by his striking visual sense and bravura staging ability with casts large or small. As Associate Director at the Sheffield Crucible (1997-98) his noteworthy productions included an exuberant Carmen Jones and an especially memorable Twelfth Night.

His productions often used music, original or familiar, to potent effect; in Twelfth Night he opened the play with Orsino raptly listening to the entire " Liebestod" from Tristan and Isolde before, finally, uttering: "If music be the food of love, play on."

It was his Sheffield staging - a scrupulous and eloquent scrutiny - of Botho Strauss's The Park (1988), a challenging undertaking for a regional house, which marked Pimlott out as a major-league director. Subsequently, he worked with the two national companies and became Associate Director with the Royal Shakespeare Company for a crucial period (1996-2002) in his career.

A first major metropolitan musical production was his British premiere of the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine Sunday in the Park with George (National Theatre, 1990), a demanding piece for which expectations ran unusually high and one guaranteed to divide the somewhat hysterical hardcore Sondheimites.

In the event, Pimlott scored heavily in the first act with its enchanting recreation of Seurat's world of La Grande Jatte but, not least in the eyes of its composer-lyricist, he was less sure in the modern day second half where his staging, involving a complex art- installation, was markedly less in command. His other South Bank outing, Moliere's The Miser (1991), was similarly uneasy; normally brilliant in his sense of space, Pimlott seemed uncertain on the Olivier Theatre's wide open reaches and his comedic rhythm here was less than light-footed.

Altogether happier was his RSC work - a spare, flinty reappraisal of T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral (1993), a dark, sardonic Richard III (1995) and a controversial Antony and Cleopatra (1999), complete with graphic opening scene of oral sex (cut when the play moved from Stratford to London), with Alan Bates and Frances de la Tour in strong form.

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