Theatre director

Born: January 7, 1960;

Died: February 16, 2020.

JOHN Durnin, who has died after a short illness aged 60, was a theatre director of quality and distinction, who helped reinvigorate Pitlochry Festival Theatre, the Perthshire ‘theatre in the hills’ where he was artistic director for fifteen years. During that period, he boosted the theatre’s reputation using a creative sleight-of-hand that utilised a commercial savvy to usher in more quietly radical work.

This was evident in his programming for the 2017 season, which saw the likes of High Society and Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy, Absurd Person Singular, programmed alongside Peter Barnes’ neglected contemporary classic, The Ruling Class, and a revival of David Greig’s play, Europe.

Bringing his experience of running the Northcott Theatre, Exeter, and the Surrey-based Gatton Community Theatre to Pitlochry, Durnin expanded the range and length of PFT’s programme. One of his big moves was to open each season with a large-scale musical, allowing the large ensemble company to bond while effectively being introduced to the audience. The move proved to be a hit, with his production of High Society breaking box-office records.

Durnin also established a strand of contemporary Scottish work into the PFT programme, with new productions of works by such playwrights as Greig, Liz Lochhead and Stephen Greenhorn programmed in a way that would have been unthinkable a few years before.

The introduction of a winter programme saw new work commissioned, including Peter Arnott’s adaptation of The Monarch of the Glen. A Christmas strand featured such productions as The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Lesley Bricusse’s musical, Scrooge! Durnin also established the Winter Words festival of high-class literary readings.

By the time he left Pitlochry in 2017, Durnin had managed to retain the all-embracing spirit of the theatre that had, in 1951, been set up in a tent, while moving it forward into the 21st century in a way that those who followed him could build on.

John Charles Durnin was born in Kew, Surrey, the fifth of seven children to John Charles (senior) and Joan Durnin. He attended St Paul’s School, London, between 1973 and 1977, and was awarded BA Honours in English at New College, Oxford. He became a stage manager then trainee assistant director at Manchester’s Library Theatre. There he also met actress Jacqueline Dutoit: for the next 36 years they were inseparable.

In 1987, Durnin was appointed associate director at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, where he spent two years prior to working at the Belgrade, Coventry, at Chichester Festival Theatre, and the Albany Theatre, London, as well as various drama schools. From 1991, he spent seven years as artistic director of Exeter's Northcott, where he directed more than 40 productions.

As a portent of things to come, development was at the forefront of his tenure. He established an annual pantomime, as well as the outdoor Shakespeare in the Gardens summer events. The latter took place in the grounds of Rougemont Castle, and within three years had become the largest open-air Shakespeare festival outside London.

Durnin’s interest in community and site-specific work saw him head up Theatre Venture in London before becoming the first artistic director of Gatton Community Theatre, set up to stage a passion play to celebrate the new millennium. As well as directing The Passion, he wrote and directed a new piece, Nativity, which was staged in a tent. The company continued to use the script for future productions.

Durnin’s appointment at Pitlochry Festival Theatre in 2003 was a surprise choice, but his visionary sweep navigated both commercial and artistic fare. On the one hand, he oversaw such productions as Hello Dolly!, My Fair Lady and High Society; on the other, he directed revivals of Greig’s Europe and Simon Donald’s The Life of Stuff . Conversely, White Christmas and Miracle on 34th Street were only normally seen on large-scale commercial tours, but at Pitlochry were rendered with an intimacy that grabbed the audience’s attention.

There were downtimes, too. Durnin’s hopes of producing outdoor work in the grounds of PFT were never developed beyond a first-season collaboration with Stellar Quines on Judith Adams’ play, Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden. Funding cuts also bit hard, with the then Scottish Arts Council axing the theatre’s annual grant entirely. This forced the company to survive largely from box-office returns, a situation that continues today.

While a private figure, Durnin was charm personified, and possessed a huge sense of fun. He departed Pitlochry following his final production of Singin’ in the Rain.

In 2019, he and Dutoit were married at Ninewells Hospital, Dundee, while he was a patient there. They passed away within two weeks of each other [Dutoit obituary tomorrow]. The legacy of both remains in Pitlochry.

“Having gone on this incredible journey and seen these various ambitions ticked off off one by one,” Durnin said in an interview with the Herald prior to his departure, “with Pitlochry Festival Theatre now much better regarded in Scotland, the UK and abroad than it was before, it feels very much like mission accomplished.”

Durnin is survived by his six siblings.