THE MAN at the helm for the 60th anniversary tour of Agatha Christie’s world-famous play The Mousetrap has come a long way from standing nervously on a girder at Firth Brown toolworks.
Sheffielder Ian Watt Smith is directing the longest-running show in the history of British theatre for the fifth time in his career.
He recalled working in his school holidays for the family firm, Watt Smith Interiors, a long-running company based on West Street. His dad worked on the industrial side of the firm, which was how Ian found himself 40ft above the factory floor, paintbrush in hand.
“I was petrified but I tried to show that I wasn’t,” he said. As a schoolboy at High Storrs in the 1950s, he remembers cycling across the tops to school from Whirlow and looking down.
“You couldn’t see the city,” he said. “That was before the smoke abatement. It was just like being in an aeroplane looking down on the clouds.”
His sister, Mandy Reichwald, still lives on a farm in Whirlow and Ian is looking forward to visiting her when the tour comes to the Lyceum next week.
He is very enthusiastic about the play, which has had more than 25,000 performances, and its current cast, which he says is fantastic.
It features Steven France from EastEnders as Christopher Wren, Karl Howman (Brush Strokes) as Mr Paravicni, Bruno Langley (Coronation Street) as Giles, Elizabeth Power (EastEnders) as Mrs Boyle, Graham Seed (The Archers) as Major Metcalf, Jemma Walker (EastEnders) as Mollie and Clare Wilkie (EastEnders) who plays Miss Casewell. Bob Saul will reprise his West End role as Sgt Trotter.
Ian said: “They’re up for it. They’re keen to make it work like proper theatre – they’re not just going through the motions, which is easy to do with some of these potboilers.
”Because they value it as what it is they perform it very well and give it all they’ve got. When I have been out to see it I have been surprised that it’s not just old fogeys, it’s a really mixed audience. We need those bits of national treasures and it clearly really works well.”
Ian first directed The Mousetrap in its 38th year in the West End, returning for the 41st, 58th and 59th year. He has also directed the show in Stockholm and Shanghai. “Agatha Christie is huge in China,” he added.
It was High Storrs School that first gave Ian a taste for the theatre. He said: “The school was terrific. It had a good sporting side and a very good artistic side as well.
“My teacher Sidney Hoffman used to direct the school play every year. He did some very tricky productions. He was an inspiration.”
Ian left High Storrs, where he became head boy, to study English at Cambridge University.
In his holidays his dad fixed him up with another job, working at the old Playhouse Theatre in the city centre when Geofferey Ost was in charge.
He said: “Going to see shows at the Playhouse was fantastically important for me. It was very formative.”
He helped with the lighting for the pantomime Aladdin, which starred comedian Jimmy Clitheroe as Wishee Washee and Alfred Burden as the Dame. He said of Clitheroe: “He was an oddball and didn’t really mix very much with anyone else. He was there with his mother. She was a bit of a harridan and she protected him.”
Ian has since worked all over the world as a freelance director, mainly in musical theatre, and has also run theatres. He recently stepped down after 12 years as director of the School of Music Theatre in London, part of the Arts Educational School.
He still keeps an eye on what is happening in his home city and is excited to see both the Crucible and Lyceum doing so well.
He added: “I’ve always got a soft spot for Sheffield.”
The Mousetrap is at the Lyceum from next Monday (March 4) to Saturday.