Twelve years ago, Joyce Branagh sat in Grosvenor Park and like the audience around her, she was transported by the summer Shakespeare in the open air.
“It was Much Ado About Nothing, and I loved it. I’m a big Shakespeare fan,” she says. “I knew a few people who knew (then artistic director) Alex Clifton and they said: ‘I think you’ll get on’.”
A meeting was arranged, and over the next decade the conversations continued – but despite Joyce being keen to work in Chester, and Storyhouse being keen to work with her, diaries never successfully aligned.
Until now that is, with the 51-year-old in the director’s seat for the world premiere of writer Tim Firth’s enchanting new musical comedy Now Is Good.
“When I read it, I giggled, and it brought a tear to my eye, and that combination is a good thing – of comedy that also moves you,” she explains of what drew her to the story.
“It’s just got so much heart.
“It’s a subject close to Tim’s heart, and I think that combination, with his flair for comedy, is just brilliant. I always like to do things like this, but it feels like something that you go in, you have a laugh, it touches your heart and then you come out uplifted is absolutely what we need at the moment.”
She adds: “It’s weird – it’s about sad things, it’s about loneliness and getting older, and the difficulties of that. But it also has this enormous optimism and a sort of lovely naïve quality of ‘do you know, actually if we’re all just a little bit more aware of each other and just a bit nicer to each other, we can solve this’.”
Joyce herself radiates optimism and a sense of fun which has been honed through a career which has embraced everything from Shakespeare – both as a director and actor – to pantomime.
Such is her love for panto that she’s even co-written a book on the peculiarly British theatrical form as well as directing annual festive shows at home in West Yorkshire and further afield. She was nominated for best direction in this year’s UK Panto Awards for her production of Cinderella at Harrogate.
It means not only has she experience of creating work for children, but also working with them – invaluable for Now Is Good whose cast includes a ‘class’ of youngsters.
She smiles: “We’ve had young people in all the pantomimes I’ve done. And because of my love of comedy, I’d always pick kids who were perkier, good actors who were fun and got the humour of it.
“The young people we’re going to work with (in Now is Good) are all very lively and perky and silly and lovely and random. They’re a lovely bunch of kids and hopefully we’ll make it fun for them.”
Performing was never something that was part of her own childhood – despite the presence of an actor (and director) in the family in the form of Joyce’s big brother Ken.
It wasn’t until she got to university at Hull, where she studied English and joined the drama society, that she began to explore the possibilities of both acting and particularly directing.
She reveals: “A group of us who were part of the drama society got together and said: ‘oh we should do a thing’ and then someone said: ‘really we should have someone in charge’. And we all looked at each other and I said: ‘oh OK, I’ll…do that’.
“I got a huge buzz out of it.
“I know with Ken, and the fact I suppose I’ve got an RP accent, people think we’re from a theatrical family, and we’re really, really not. I’m from a working-class Belfast background.
“So, when I realised at university that I’d quite like to do this directing lark, my parents were: ‘you know that Ken has been very lucky and it’s not a thing to get into and don’t think it’s easy’. And I kept doing a bit and then getting a proper job, and then doing a bit then getting a proper job.”
‘Proper’ jobs included acting as a runner on her brother’s early films Peter’s Friends and Much Ado About Nothing, several office jobs, and a stint as a floor runner at the BBC.
“My family were very lovely, but they would be much happier when I got an office job because they understood that was good, indoor work, no heavy lifting,” she laughs.
“When I walked away from the BBC I thought they’d have a heart attack. But you’ve just got to work out what you want to do really.”
Joyce went on to train at the Orange Tree Theatre’s directors’ scheme and at the Bristol Old Vic before going on to become associate director at Watford Palace Theatre.
She moved to West Yorkshire more than a decade ago, and has forged a varied career as a director, actor and writer.
One of her most recent projects, wearing both writer and actor hats, was Ladies That Bus, a co-commission between The Dukes in Lancaster, Theatre By The Lake and the Brewery in Kendal which was centred around chats with women who travel on the 555 – a bus route which links all three venues.
“It was an all-female cast, a female director and a female designer,” she says. “When I can I try and do work that gives work to women. Because chaps are lovely! But just to redress the balance a bit really, especially comedy because women are hilarious.”
Joyce is now hoping to follow that with a new show, Ladies That Dig, which involves interviews with women including gardeners, metal detectorists and a forensic archaeologist.
In the meantime, there’s the music infused Now Is Good to bring to the Storyhouse stage.
Joyce describes it as a ‘comedy play with music in there’, adding: “I remember Tim saying, ‘if you feel like you’re singing we’re doing it wrong.’
“It flows and carries you away…it’s almost got that filmic quality. You don’t notice the music, you just know you’re feeling happier, or that it’s a sad moment. It’s all very clever.”