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The beautiful game... AND A TALE OF TWO COUNTRIES

When the World Cup opens on June 11th another but very different soccer experience will be running at Joburg Theatre – the Andrew Lloyd Webber/ Ben Elton musical ‘The Boys in the Photograph.’ Colin Chinery talks to its Executive Producer and Theatre CEO Bernard Jay.


Joburg Theatre FEATURE


t was the morning the Glittering Prize came within reach. One Hundred Days to the opening of the World Cup, the biggest sporting tournament on the planet, and host city Johannesburg is on countdown and partying. In his office at Joburg Theatre, CEO Bernard Jay savours the prospect, the noise and the excitement – “Everyone’s hoping the World Cup will bring not only glory and fun but also an economic revival.” Jay is having his own numbers game: 80 days to go before opening night on May 23 in

the complex’s Mandela Theatre, and already 9,000 tickets sold for ‘The Boys in the Photograph.’ This is the re-titled Andrew Lloyd Webber/ Ben Elton musical he is producing, and which he saw as an exact fit for The Greatest Show on Earth back in 2004 when South Africa was voted host for the World Cup Originally “The Beautiful Game”, it’s the story of a Belfast soccer team in the 1970s, and an attempt to overcome the religious intolerance and bloodshed engulfing the community.


Joburg Theatre FEATURE

The ‘Boys’ are Catholic and Protestant youths, and the musical chronicles lives and relationships changed and overwhelmed in political and religious violence. The parallels with South Africa are plain, and says Jay, an early selling point in the tenmonth negotiations. “Andrew and Ben had been holding back on the rights for years, and when I pointed out the synergies between the Northern Ireland of the time and the South Africa of now I think they identified with that and loved it. “We have a country one generation beyond apartheid but sadly not yet the great Rainbow Country we had all hoped for and envisaged. There are still a lot of Black parents who won’t let their kids play football with White kids and vice versa.

“So I think this story – which basically says youngsters should be allowed to live and love and play football with who ever they choose - has a huge relevance to this country.” Jay, 63, is indifferent to the charms of the Beautiful Game. Born in Huddersfield, he grew up in Leigh-on-Sea on the Thames estuary and was educated at the local grammar school, an experience he hated. “I needed to find an extra curricular activity to keep me interested, and I didn’t like sport.” So he began going to the local repertory theatre - “every Monday night a new play and up in the gods for sixpence. I watched enthralled. “By the time I was 14 I knew I wanted this to be my life, yet realising I had no performing talent whatsoever.” But Bernard had seen the title “Theatre Manager” on the programmes.

What is happening now is that the new, emerging and rapidly building middle class Black community in South Africa is going to the theatre and loving it


“I thought, well he has a very nice billing so he must have a very nice job. Aged 16, and to the horror of my parents and head master, I decided I was going to be a theatre manager.” And so the beginning of a career that has taken him to the West End, Broadway, Moscow, and for the past 17 years, residency in South Africa. As well as management roles, Jay has produced more than 200 stage productions in Britain, Europe, the USA, Canada, and Australasia. He was the first non-Soviet member of Leningrad’s Theatre for Young Spectators in the Cold War early ‘seventies, and was recently awarded South Africa’s Arts and Culture Trust Arts Management Award. Jay was only 24 when he went to manage the Mermaid Theatre, the first to be built in the City of London since Shakespeare’s time, and single-minded conception of the actor Bernard Miles. “To have this vision of building a new theatre there at that time, to have the guts and the ability, was quite extraordinary. But Bernard Miles was a very difficult man with a huge ego. I’m not saying he didn’t deserve the

success. But for years he hadn’t had a theatre manager working with him and by the time I got there I was in my early 20s It was very tough. But in the end I learnt a lot from him, good and bad.” For 11 years in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Jay lived in New York where as well as producing major shows, he formed his own personal management and theatre production company, whose most conspicuous client was the cult drag artist ‘Divine’. “A great guy and a huge challenge. It was a very strange set of circumstances. He desperately needed a manager who took him seriously - when I met him people thought he was just a fat drag queen and movie gimmick - and I needed an income in New York. “So for eleven years that’s really the way we worked together, and it was very time consuming. There were moments when I could have killed him and I’m certain there were times when he could have killed me. But I look back now and like to think it was a very successful partnership.” Following Divine’s sudden death aged 42 and looking to move on with his career, Jay

There’s a huge development of talent going on here in South Africa. And that’s rewarding and exciting


Joburg Theatre FEATURE

met Percy Tucker, the South African theatre entrepreneur and founder of Computicket, the world’s first fully operative computerized, centralized ticket-booking system. Impressed, Tucker asked Jay to relocate to South Africa for one year to take over the management of his company. “This was 1993, and what an exciting time to come to South Africa, so who would have resisted that? “Either it was going to blow itself up into a civil war or it was going to be one of the greatest times and events in history. Fortunately it was the latter. So I came here on a one year contract, and I’ve been here 17 years.” Joburg Theatre specialises in middle of the road commercial-type shows. It draws the crowds, but for South Africa’s straight theatre the past years have been hard. “There’s no appetite for serious theatre in Johannesburg any more,” lamented one veteran producer. Jay sympathises but is cautiously hopeful. “When democracy came here in 1994 the government had huge challenges as to where it was it going to focus its money – education, basic hygiene. Understandably to me, one of its cost centres that suffered a lot was the subsidising of the arts. “Under the White government the arts had been subsidised hugely. But now there were far more important priorities and suddenly the big performing arts companies were not given the money. They started disbanding, and with it the habit of theatre-going also started disbanding. “Between 1994 and 2000 theatres were dying here. It was a hell of a challenge – there just wasn’t a theatre-going audience. “We’ve had to build one pretty well from scratch. Theatre going, wherever you are in the world, is not a cheap life-style habit. “What is happening now is that the new, emerging and rapidly building middle class Black community in South Africa is going to the theatre and loving it. “But the huge number trapped with a very low income cannot afford to come to the theatre, and I understand that I am not yet going to attract them.” For a younger

Black generation and with subsidised school trips, “there’s a chance when they grow up that they might put theatre into their life style.” On stage, South African theatre is flourishing. Fifteen years ago, unable to cast Les Misérables in South Africa, Cameron Mackintosh was compelled to bring in an Australian company. “Since then the few of us producing here have been determined to cast major musicals in South Africa,” says Jay. “And now I honestly believe we are as competitive as any country in the world. One proof of this is that a lot of the productions touring the East are now starting out here and taking South African casts with them. “I go often to the West End and to Broadway. And I really believe the quality of our musical performers here is as good as anywhere I go in the world. There’s a huge development of talent going on here in South Africa. And that’s rewarding and exciting.”END

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