Director tells Stuart Macbeth why he is excited about his return to Lady Margaret Hall

Theatre director Tom Littler has directed about 40 professional productions since graduating in English from Oxford University in 2006.

He is also artistic director of Primavera Productions, the company he founded in his gap year to revive rare and forgotten plays.

This month the 31-year-old returns to his old college, Lady Margaret Hall, to direct As You Like It for Creation Theatre.

“I wasn’t the most college-bound student,” he laughs. “I was usually in town directing a play, but I loved the college’s secluded position. It was always such a beautiful respite from whatever was going on.”

Tom moved to Oxford from his home town of Exeter where his interest in theatre had been kindled as a schoolboy.

“I was lucky to have wonderful drama teachers who let me direct school plays. I never wanted to be an actor. I used to sit at the back at rehearsals and watch every minute.”

At Oxford, Tom plunged into directing student productions, taking on Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie at the Burton Taylor Theatre in his first year.

He reflects of his student days: “I used to drink in The King’s Arms and in the obligatory theatre pub, Far From the Madding Crowd.

“In my second year I lived out of college, in a tumbledown house in Ship Street. The house had been repossessed and on one memorable occasion I remember the kitchen ceiling collapsing in the middle of dinner!”

Another early influence was RSC founder and National Theatre director Sir Peter Hall, whose productions he used to watch as a teenager while visiting the Theatre Royal in Bath.

On leaving university Tom’s first move was to write Sir Peter a letter, offering his services.

“After a few months I was surprised to get an interview and I ended up working for Sir Peter on and off for three years. It was an amazing stroke of luck and a great gesture of confidence on his part in not worrying about my lack of experience at the time.”

Tom worked as Sir Peter’s assistant and later became his associate director on productions including Anton Chekhov’s Swan Song and Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version.

“Peter’s watchwords were clarity and storytelling and he taught me to trust my actors and creative colleagues. I’ve been lucky to assist many brilliant directors, among them Sir Trevor Nunn, Peter Gill, and Alan Strachan. I learned a lot from all of them. But Peter was my mentor.”

Tom transferred his experience to work as theatre director, both freelance and for his own company, with Primavera Productions.

“Primavera presents new plays and revivals, mostly of plays which aren’t particularly commercial,” he enthuses.

“They tend to be slightly ‘arthouse’ choices. It might be a musical, a new play, or a rediscovered Victorian drama, but it will always be something which I think is brilliant writing.

“I originally founded Primavera to revive the rare, four-act version of The Importance of Being Earnest. I’ve been running the company ever since, from student theatre right through its last decade making professional productions.”

Tom’s revival with Primavera of Steven Sondheim’s The Passion was the Scotsman’s Critics’ Choice at the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He has won subsequent accolades for revivals of Graham Greene’s The Living Room, Jean-Jacques Bernard’s Martine and Sondheim’s Saturday Night, which was transferred to the Arts Theatre in the West End in 2009.

“In 2010, I directed a production of Murder in the Cathedral for Oxford Playhouse in Christ Church Cathedral. We had a huge cast, orchestra, organ music — the full works. Working in the cathedral was a really unforgettable experience.

“I’ve also directed a Hungarian-language production of A Little Night Music in Budapest, which ran for three years and only closed last year. Directing actors in another language was an amazing challenge and made me a much better director.”

But it was Tom’s work as freelance director of As You Like It for the Guildford Shakespeare Company that caught the attention of Creation Theatre’s chief executive Lucy Askew.

“I used to go and see Creation’s shows when I was a student. I loved watching theatre outdoors and was always delighted by the ingenuity of the productions. I had a chat with Lucy about Creation’s plans, and As You Like It seemed an ideal collaboration.

“If you’ve never seen the play, you’re in for a treat. It’s perhaps my favourite Shakespeare comedy because of its humanity and its magic. You’ll see wrestling, girls dressed as boys, a magical forest, plenty of slapstick and two rival clowns. It’s frequently very silly indeed!

“The play is set in France so we’ve set the production in the period of the French Resistance. The Resistance gives a good reason for a whole lot of varied people to end up living in a forest together, avoiding life in the court.

“We rehearsed for three weeks indoors and then spent a fortnight in the gardens, adding all the other elements — costume, lighting, sound.”

Tom’s wife, Rhiannon Sommers, plays the role of Rosalind. So how does that work out?

“We really enjoy working together,” he smiles. “Rhiannon has played three or four roles for me over the years. We trust each other to do our different jobs in the rehearsal room. For her to create a character and me to tell her how it looks from the outside. We don’t talk about it at home, though.”

The couple live in Jericho, where they relocated from London, and where Tom feels very much at home.

“I plan to direct many more productions in Oxfordshire in the next few years,” he said.

“Directing theatre is the best job I could imagine. I get to work with incredibly creative people all day long — writers, designers, and actors.”

* As You Like It runs at Lady Margaret Hall from July 28 to September 12. Box office: 01865 766266.