Faces of West Wirral: Gemma Bodinetz, artistic director of Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse

Gemma Bodinetz
Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp

Coming home to Hoylake feels almost like going on holiday for Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse artistic director Gemma Bodinetz.

The talented theatre director works punishingly long hours, by day and night, at the two iconic city theatres, and revels in the change of pace that her seaside home can offer.

“We completely love Hoylake,” she says. “If Sunday is my only day off, which it usually is, Hoylake becomes a little holiday destination and I can really switch off from the job. I love the city centre but it is nice to be somewhere that is completely different, and we’ve made some lovely friends here, too.”

Gemma was a freelance director living in Twickenham with her husband and 10 years-old son Oscar when she was chosen for her high profile Liverpool job in 2003. The first few months were tough, as she threw herself with enthusiasm into her new role, living in temporary digs while she and her husband house-hunted and arranged for the permanent move to Merseyside.

Alan Stocks (Fabian) at Liverpool Everyman
Alan Stocks (Fabian), Adam Keast (Andrew Aguecheek) and Matthew Kelly (Toby Belch) in Twelfth Night, the first show at the brand new Everyman, directed by Gemma Bodinetz in 2014. Picture by Stephen Vaughan

But why did they choose Hoylake?

“The first thing was the very practical step of finding a school for Oscar and we had so little time to make such a big decision,” she recalls. “My husband had to give up his job in London and we scouted around schools. A lot of schools in the city centre were full, but there was a place available at Holy Trinity School in Market Street.

“It was perfect because at that time they only had one form per year.

“I thought this is quite a big change for him coming up and I wanted him in a small friendly school that could look after him. He was only going to be there for the final year and it’s a big transition.

“They were great at Holy Trinity so it was a combination of ‘Oh my goodness, we can have a beach!’, which we could never have in London, and a lovely friendly school that happened to have a place ready for him.”

Some in Liverpool raised eyebrows at the journey to work Gemma would face from Hoylake, but coming from London, commuting was just something she took in her stride.

Everyman Theatre
Everyman Theatre

West Kirby Today caught up with Gemma in mid-December, with the two biggest shows of the year up and running, in the shape of Rapunzel, this year’s incarnation of the Everyman’s legendary annual rock n’roll panto, and the Christmas chiller “The House on Haunted Hill” at the Playhouse.

“Christmas is the craziest of times because we produce two shows simultaneously which are also our biggest shows, so you are burning the candle at all ends at this time of the year,” she explains.

“The job has just constantly surprised and delighted and sometimes it’s been my life. I wish I could spend more time in Hoylake but the job is so all-encompassing.

“Last week I didn’t get home until 1am having come in at 9 every morning, and that included Sunday. It isn’t like that 52 weeks of the year, but one of the challenges for anybody working in a producing theatre is that during the day you make it and then at night you deliver it.

“For someone like me delivering it means watching it, giving notes, taking it through the technical process. Then during the day I will have to have meetings about what we are doing next season.

“I might be casting, choosing, reading plays, meeting writers, going to senior management meetings, doing all the things that you do in a normal office environment.

“Any European directives about what a normal working week should be just go out of the window in theatre because it is day time and night time!”

This January Gemma is in rehearsals for her latest play as a director, an ambitious, thought-provoking and comical new take on Madame Bovary, with the theatre company Peepolykus.

Madam Bovary, directed by Gemma Bodinetz, coming soon to the Liverpool Everyman
Madam Bovary, directed by Gemma Bodinetz, coming soon to the Liverpool Everyman

“Directing is the part I consider myself to be professionally trained to do,” she smiles. “At the rest I feel like I’m a very keen amateur…well, after 12 years I’d like to think I’m not an amateur but certainly at the beginning you think this is a kind of crazy system we have.

“And it’s true of all theatres. You get a reputation as a good director and someone says would you like to run a building, and suddenly you are meant to know about HR and funding and all sorts of things that as a freelance director in a room with actors you never had to bother with.”

There is no doubt that Gemma, along with her formidable partner, the theatres’  executive director Deborah Aydon, were dropped in at the deep end when they took on their Liverpool mission. Like most of us, Gemma remembers vividly the moment in 2003 when she heard that Liverpool was to be European Capital of Culture five years later.

“When I was interviewed for this job it was mooted that it might happen but at the time everyone thought it was going to be Newcastle. I remember having just got the job and then within a week or so leaping up and down on my bed and going ‘Oh my God, here we go!’”

David Morrisey and Julia Ford in Macbeth, directed by Gemma Bodinetz, the final play at the old Everyman Theatre before its demolition in 2011.
David Morrisey and Julia Ford in Macbeth, directed by Gemma Bodinetz, the final play at the old Everyman Theatre before its demolition in 2011.

And then there was the small matter of working on the creation of a brand new Everyman Theatre, to replace the crumbling and hopelessly inadequate old building that was such a cherished part of Liverpool’s cultural DNA.

“I didn’t ever envisage standing on a stage and winning the Stirling Prize for the Everyman,” she says, as we sit in the trendy streetside coffee bar at the breathtaking new building’s front entrance.

“Rebuilding the Everyman and preparing for Capital of Culture are not in a normal artistic director’s brief.

“There were these two massive, fantastic challenges, but they were jobs in themselves that had to run alongside learning how to do the job and programming shows in the normal way artistic directors do and sometimes directing.

“So the years have whizzed by in a whirl of challenges and excitement and stress and all of those things.”

The house the family found in Hoylake remains their home 12 years on, and son Oscar has grown up there, going on to Calday Grammar School, and then to Bristol University.

“When we moved here I worried if he would get made fun of because of his accent. As it turns out he’s a great footballer and that currency just plays itself out wherever you are in the country so he was fine.

A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Gemma Bodinetz at Liverpool Playhouse Theatre in 2012
A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Gemma Bodinetz at Liverpool Playhouse Theatre in 2012

“He is more of a northerner than a southerner now, he would say. It’s really interesting watching his accent change and his sense of where he comes from.

“He has now crossed the half way mark in terms of having spent more of his life up north than down south. He laughs at my accent, and my long A’s!”

Gemma’s affection for Hoylake is clear, along with a genuine sense of regret that she can’t spend more of her time there. She lists Pepper Sauce Thai restaurant as a favourite haunt, along with the local health food shop, grocer, fishmonger, and even the economy store where she can buy plugs and household accessories at bargain prices.

“Market Street is just fantastic,” she says. “More or less all that I need is there.

Favourite haunt: The Pepper Sauce restaurant in Market Street, Hoylake
Favourite haunt: The Pepper Sauce restaurant in Market Street, Hoylake

“I’m always amazed that people think Hoylake is posh. I’ ve never found that is its personality. There’ s a nice mix of people there, and I’ve found it very friendly.

“You get the best of everything. You have a regular train service, and beautiful countryside all around you. I sometimes go into North Wales.

“You are close to so many fantastic places, and you’ve got the city centre a 25 minute train commute away. I just think it’s heaven. I love Hoylake.

“I love West Kirby too, and it’s lovely having that so close at hand. I often walk to West Kirby and it’s lovely to walk up the shore to Red Rocks.”

In an interview just before moving to Liverpool, Gemma said she saw herself as being a long-term artistic director.

Favourite walk - view of the Red Rocks
Favourite walk – view of the Red Rocks

Reminded of this, she laughs and says: “I think I’ve proved that, don’t you?

“I know everybody says it in an interview like this, but I really love Liverpool. The challenge of providing work, both that I direct and that other people direct, that is exciting and different but also speaks to this city is a constant challenge and constantly excites me and sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t quite, but it is never dull.

“Actors who come here always say my God, you’ve got the best audiences in the country. They are so alive and bright and it is a very visceral experience.”

And for the future?

“A kindly friend might have to tap me on the shoulder one day and say do you know what, the Everyman and Playhouse need a fresh artistic director.

“But until someone does I’ll stick it out, because I’m very happy here.”

From our Twitter page