Willy Russell (photo: Dave Evans)

Willy Russell (photo: Dave Evans)

MULTI-TALENTED playwright Willy Russell has found time to start new hobbies amidst preparing for one of his biggest projects to date.

Whilst re-working a new musical version of his popular 1970s television programme Our Day Out, which opens in Royal Court Liverpool tomorrow night, he’s followed up on his passion for drawing and painting.

“I’m still at the novice student stage,” admits the Olivier-award winning dramatist. “I am able to find time now to do other things and drawing and painting is something I would never have done before.”

How Russell has found time to take up any new interests as he prepares for the launch of the new Our Day Out musical is quite an achievement, considering he began discussing the new project at the start of last year. “It was on, then off, then on, then off, and eventually on,” he adds.

For the past nine months he’s worked alongside director Bob Eaton, musical director Howard Gray and choreographer Beverley Norris-Edmunds on the large-scale production.

Russell said: “We needed to heavily workshop it to make it work. For a musical to evolve it takes months, more than the usual four-week rehearsal period, and we needed to try different ideas.”

Our Day Out – a funny and heartwarming story of a class of underprivileged Liverpool schoolchildren on a day trip to Wales – includes Liverpool-born actors Michael Starke, Andrew Schofield, Gillian Hardie, Warrington-born Holly Quin-Ankrah and Grease Is The Word finalist Bradley Clarkson, who grew up in Knebworth, amongst the cast.

Four young professionals and 27 schoolchildren were also successful at auditions, who all sing, dance and act in the show.

“Through the fantastic work of Beverley, I’ve been flawed by the dance sequences shown by the kids, who all have no fear at dancing,” Russell enthuses.

The 62-year-old playwright also has a touring production of his world-wide hit Blood Brothers visiting the Manchester Opera House in October.

And it was whilst working on Blood Brothers Russell was first asked if Our Day Out could be adapted into a musical.

He explains: “Our Day Out was first performed in 1983 at the Liverpool Everyman as a musical when I was working on Blood Brothers. Bob Eaton, at that point, was the director of the Everyman and wanted to do a musical in conjunction with the youth theatre as a workshop and they put together a great show.

“It wasn’t a big show, but it worked out ok, so, I got together with Bob and Glen Walford in Coventry a bit later, when Bob was the director of the Belgrade Theatre, but we didn’t take it as far as we could in Coventry.

“Despite having a great cast of young actors from the Coventry area, the local accent lost the authentic idiom of the play I suppose. I mentioned doing it again to Bob, who was now working at the Royal Court Liverpool, and now I’m thinking, ‘Why did I open my big mouth!’ It’s been a lot of hard work.”

Russell and Eaton have joined forces to write new songs into the new musical, using the plot of the original 1976 television programme, and have released three of the songs for the charity Liverpool Unites.

Musical director Howard Gray completed the musical arrangement on the songs, which include ‘I’m in Love With Sir’, ‘To The Zoo’ and ‘No One Can Take This Time Away’, and the CD is available to buy from the Royal Court Liverpool box office.

“The songs in Our Day Out – The Musical have all been forged from the language and culture of Liverpool and so it’s especially pleasing to know that some of those songs may now go on to support such a vital and important charity as Liverpool Unites,” said Russell.

Intentionally or not, Our Day Out will be opening when many young teenagers will have returned to school and Russell said during his own academic days he was far from being top of class.

He adds: “I’d always wanted to be a writer really; it was the only thing I wanted to do. Being a spectacular failure at school, I always thought you had to be academically good and had to gain qualifications in Oxfordshire, wear tweed, and smoke rather long cigarettes.”

Russell’s journey has seen him work in a bottle factory, as a hairdresser, and – ironically – he became a school teacher.

Since then, of course, he’s gone on to become one of the most recognised voices in literature and theatre.

Who knows, he might go on to become a recognisable figure in the art world, and who wouldn’t bet against him?

Our Day Out – The Musical will appear at the Royal Court Liverpool until Saturday 17 October 2009. Visit the Royal Court Liverpool website for details

Blood Brothers will appear at the Manchester Opera House from Monday, October 12 until Saturday 24 October 2009.