Vivid Direction  

Matthew Parker is a theatre director. His recent Henry V in the Roman Amphitheatre for Maltings Theatre, St Albans wowed Susan Elkin, herself a Henry V veteran, so she met him to find out more.

I fell in love with theatre when I was four years old – and it was for life”, Matthew tells me, as we sit, distanced, in the quiet office he uses at Theatre Delicatessen near Liverpool Street Station. It’s a heart-warming story.

Stockport-born Matthew, blown away by Ken Dodd and the Diddy Men in pantomime in the late 70s, told his parents, pointing to the stage: “I want to be up there doing that”. Well, it wasn’t quite the norm for a working-class boy in Stockport where his mother was a dinner lady and his father a bus driver. But his mother consulted the Yellow Pages, found Bates Stage Academy and enrolled him – initially for one class a week.

“Actually, it was much more of a dance school so in effect I ended up training as a dancer”, says Matthew, who gradually did more and more classes each week including Saturday mornings. He learned ballet, tap, modern, contemporary and jazz dance and loved what he was doing, which included a panto every Christmas. From about age 10 he had an agent and got a bit of acting and modelling work. “To this day my work is rooted in telling stories through movement”, he says.

At school he and his friend Helen were allowed to direct their own Wizard of Oz when he was about eight. “She’s still a best mate, 40 years later” he says. He also devised shows for his siblings and cousins for the family to watch and street shows for the neighbours… “Pretentious little sod that I was!” he chuckles.

Not that any of it was easy. Matthew was living through his own version of Billy Elliot. “My mum had to get extra work to pay for the classes. My dad struggled with the whole concept of a son who danced and I was very badly bullied at school” he says, telling me that he was named for Matt Busby because his Manchester United-supporting family was totally focused on football. “But I wasn’t interested at all”.

The bullying gradually got better as he progressed through secondary school. “I was also bright and academic – and funny” he recalls. “It meant that I gradually got a bit of respect from the ‘cool’ Alpha students in my own classes once they realised that I could help them. And they defended me from abuse from their counterparts in other groups. 

And there was always his paternal grandmother who was his greatest “cheerleader”. She made his costumes and supported him in everything he did so her death when he was still in his teens was a great blow. And for his mother, one of her proudest moments ever was when her Matthew played Fagin in the school production of Oliver! at age 16. By then he’d moved on from Bates and joined a youth theatre.

“To this day my work is rooted in telling stories through movement”

“And I began to think I’d like to be a director, but I had no idea how do achieve such a thing. I was a working-class Stockport boy, after all. Directors seemed to come from a very different world. Besides my mum was utterly determined that, because I was able, I should go to university and get a degree.”

In the end, after A levels in Theatre Studies, English Literature and Art: Painting and History, he went to Bretton Hall, near Leeds which, at that time, was one of only five establishments which offered a degree in theatre arts: acting. “My mum was happy because it was a degree course, and I got a full grant”.

Matthew speaks very warmly of Bretton Hall. “I arrived there thinking that theatre was just panto and musicals because I had no other experience” he says. “I learned a huge amount about the breadth of theatre. Suddenly I was discovering absurdism, Brecht and all the rest of it. What an eye opener!”. Before graduating with a first-class degree, Matthew played Emcee in Cabaret at Bretton Hall – arguably one of the best parts in theatre. “Yes, a real privilege” he says.

After college Matthew did “bits of jobs” for a few months in order to save up enough money to move to London, which he finally achieved in 1998 at age 22. “I came for an acting job – a David Mamet play directed by an older friend who had trained on Drama Studio London’s one year directing course.” 

He continues “Then I did some temping pretending I could type, which I couldn’t, but soon I was PA to the Chief Executive in a Housing Association. I did that for several years learning about lots of things which turned out to be very useful later – event management, board meetings, writing minutes and the like.”

It wasn’t long before Matthew was missing his old creative life, so he turned to amateur theatre in his mid twenties. “The Hampstead Players gave me the opportunity to play lots of fabulous roles that I’d never have got near in the professional theatre – Puck, Malvolio and Septimus in Arcadia for instance.” He chortles too about having played Jesus in the Mystery Plays. “A gay atheist like me was obviously an ideal choice” he grins. He also directed Carol Ann Duffy’s version of Grimms’ Tales doing it in his own Brechtian style, “I love multi-roles, physicality and letting the audience see it all happen” he says.  

Fifteen years ago, Matthew and the actor Bryan Pilkington (trained at Bristol Old Vic) got together and they are now married. “Bryan also has another job as Deputy Graduate Admissions Manager at London School of Economics, so I have done occasional stints of work there. It was Bryan and one or two influential friends who finally persuaded Matthew that directing was what he really ought to be doing and that meant training. “I knew straightaway where I wanted to go and finally enrolled at Drama Studio London in 2008. They took only one or two people each year and the only other person there with me was Kate McGregor, who has also gone on to success.” 

Unfortunately, that course is no longer running but it was clearly a major life changer for Matthew who had to do nine projects in the year and learned a huge amount. At the end of it he adapted Ward No 6 by Chekhov and took it to Edinburgh where it was nominated for a Stage award. Then it was back to London to work, wherever and whenever he could on the Fringe.

“A gay atheist like me was obviously an ideal choice”

That has meant a lot of work at the Brockley Jack Theatre, among other venues, and from 2014-19 Matthew was Artistic Director at The Hope Theatre in Islington, gaining very useful experience in running a building. One of his successes there was Love Song of the Electric Bear, a play about Alan Turing which got 5* reviews and won Best Sound Designer and Best Supporting Actor in the Offies and transferred to the Arts Theatre in Covent Garden. “During those years at The Hope we experimented with all sorts of ideas and working methods. I’ve decided that 20th century classics are my ‘thing’”, says Matthew who has been nominated as Best Director six times in the Offies – driven by a hatred of blackouts and still using ideas he gained from Bretton Hall.

The work at The Maltings in summer 2020 was a big deal for Matthew. The decision to use the Amphitheatre as a way of accommodating Covid 19 rules meant he had some of his largest audiences yet – and his resoundingly enjoyable Henry V transferred indoors for a short autumn run. It was reviewed in several national dailies and got four and five star reviews. He is directing a two-hander play, Trestle, which has now moved to 25-30 January ( and there are three more plays planned at The Maltings for next year, although he can’t yet discuss what they are. Before that, Matthew is excited to be appearing in The Maltings production of J. M. Barrie’s PETER PAN from 11 Dec to 3 Jan. Tickets from:

I have a feeling we shall be seeing a lot more of Matthew’s work as things inch back to some sort of normal. He’s come a long way from that theatre-smitten little boy, over 40 years ago.