Preview: The
Family Way

Elizabeth Newman, the new artistic director of Bolton's Octagan Theatre, talks to Femke Colborne about family and community

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Elizabeth Newman had never visited Bolton before she became associate director at the Octagon Theatre in 2009. But when she stepped off the train, she was filled with a strange sense of déja vu. The 29 year old, who grew up in Croydon, says: “My first thought was, I’m in Croydon, the people just have a different accent. Bolton is such a similar town, with an evolving community and a lot of economic challenges but absolutely amazing people.”

Six years later, Newman is still living in Bolton – and it looks as though she’s here to stay. In March, she was announced as the new permanent artistic director of the Octagon, replacing David Thacker. Her first production in the new role is The Family Way by Bill Naughton, who spent most of his childhood in Bolton. It’s a gritty comedy-drama set in 1960s Bolton, following the trials and tribulations faced by two newlyweds as they struggle to adapt to the demands of married life.

Newman, who has previously been artistic director of the Shared Property Theatre Company and directed work at the Southwark Playhouse, has always had a soft spot for family drama. “It’s about the important moments in life,” she says. “People sometimes imagine that the most important moments are about dragons and swords, but they’re not. They’re about someone in your family telling you something. There is so much richness in exploring family.”

She’s also a self-confessed soap addict. “Soaps are about exploring and validating our own lives. They help communities to make sense of the world. When I was growing up, I learned so much from the soaps. Mark Fowler in EastEnders was my introduction to HIV and the story of Alma having cervical cancer in Corrie educated so many people. We can learn from that in the theatre. We should not forget that people love stories, and that you have to be in the world you are making art for – the best artists do not work in isolation.”

Towards the end of The Family Way, Ezra, the father of the groom, starts to get emotional while reflecting on the fact that his son is growing up and moving on. When his other son, Geoffrey, asks why he is crying, he says: “I can cry if I want, can’t I? It’s life, lad, life. It might make you laugh at your age, but one day it’ll make you bloody cry.” Newman says this line sums up why she fell in love with the play. “In life’s greatest moments, everything is all tangled up. It’s not neatly packaged and woven into one emotion.”

Newman has big plans for the Octagon in the longer term. She wants to see an increased focus on connecting with people in hard-to-reach communities, and ideas in the pipeline include a site-specific performance in a fish and chip shop. “I want to build on all the great successes of the past 47 years,” she says. “We want to be an artistic hub and create access to art for everyone, enrich the community and fundamentally change people’s lives, whether that is through community projects or as audience members. The Octagon is in service to the community – we are here because they want us to be, so we want the whole community to be involved.”

The Family Way runs until 3 October, Octagon Theatre, Bolton

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Family Way

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