Next Door’s Baby at the Tabard – Interview with director Keith Strachan

Image above: Keith Strachan

For a man who has just reached the end of a busy rehearsal period and is preparing himself and his team for the opening night of his new show, director Keith Strachan is remarkably bouncy.  I met him backstage at the Tabard Theatre, a few hours before Next Door’s Baby is due to open.

I asked him how he got started in the theatre business; surprisingly it seems to have been almost accidental.

“I was never trained as a musician, I was never trained in theatre.  I used to play piano in a youth club band and really enjoyed that… I was in groups in the early ’60’s and late ’50’s.  I went to university and I became a school teacher.  It was just a job that I sort of fell into… I rather enjoyed it, I taught for about ten years but I was always dabbling in music.”

One of the bands he was in landed a record deal and he stopped teaching.

“It was for about two years and we toured round Europe, lost money… but we had great fun.”

So it was back to teaching, although he kept playing piano at weekends in a pub in order to make some extra money.

“Of course, it was the music that I loved and that led on to other things and eventually somebody asked me to be involved in a fringe production.  I got asked to be the MD of this little musical, I didn’t even know what MD meant,  I thought it meant managing director.”

Eventually someone enlightened him and told him he was the Musical Director.  He asked what he had to do and was told: “You have to teach the people the songs and play the piano….

“I got the bass player that had worked with me in the pub and we did this show and lo and behold it transferred into the West End.”

Wisely he had not at that point given up the day job because the transfer only lasted about five weeks and, in his words, “It all fell to bits.”  But, he had well and truly caught the bug.  It would be another six months before he gave up teaching for good when he was offered MD on a musical about Elvis and that, as he says “was the start of it.”

“After that, I worked mostly in music and theatre as an MD. Something (I worked on) drifted into being a television series, so I got a bit of work in television. Years later my work in television developed into writing bits of music here and there. I drifted into directing in theatre and in television I drifted into being a composer, so I had two entirely different jobs.”

The television work was mostly in light entertainment, in particular game shows. One of his connections created Who Wants to be a Millionaire and so: “I ended up writing the music for that.”

Image above: Jeremy Clarkson in Who Wants to be a Millionaire; photograph ITV

More success followed: with others, he wrote a musical, The Little Match Girl which featured a number he called Mistletoe and Wine. Somehow that song found its way to Cliff Richard and it became a famous Christmas number 1 hit.

He allows himself a wry smile as he reflects on a long career for which he is remembered for two things: Mistletoe and Wine, which took half an hour to write and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, the music for which he wrote with his son, Matthew over three weeks. Their success has allowed him to pick and choose his projects and it is clear that his heart is very much in his current project at the Tabard.

“I love it here… it’s quite different to working in a big proscenium arch theatre… the immediacy, you can almost touch the audience, its such a delight. I love working in small spaces, you’ve got to be really inventive to make your story work.”

Image above: Miriam with baby in church; Sam Woodhams (Priest) and Shaylyn Gibson (Miriam, with baby)

Which brings us to Next Door’s Baby, what can we expect?

Set in 1950’s Dublin, the starting point of writer Bernie Gaughan’s story was “the shame of bringing up a baby that’s illegitimate in a household where the grandmother takes over parenthood of the child.”

Bernie was married to Matthew Strachan, who was busy writing songs and music for television, and they decided to work together and create a play with music which duly premiered at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond in 2008.

Despite a successful run and “expectations that it would go on from there”, in the way of things that was not to be at the time. Recently, Strachan read the play and listened to the music again and decided it was too good to allow it to remain just a memory; this would be his next project.

It’s clearly unfinished business for him and an enterprise that is very close to his heart.  He has a twinkle in his eye when he talks about the show, he is obviously excited and can’t wait for an audience to watch and listen.  I asked him to sum it up.

“It has a redemptive quality… it’s very moving… It’s a great show, the writer has Ireland in her blood, it’s very touching,” and with that, he was off, last minute tweaks and words of encouragement to his company before their opening night.

Next Door’s Baby opened on 4 May and is running now at the Theatre at the Tabard.

Simon Thomsett