Blackpool’s Richard is the local boy made good

Richard Darbourne, with one of the puppets from the hit musical Avenue Q, which is coming to Blackpool
Richard Darbourne, with one of the puppets from the hit musical Avenue Q, which is coming to Blackpool
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They say you can take the lad out of Blackpool but you can’t take Blackpool out of the lad.

And refreshingly, in Richard Darbourne’s case, it appears to be true.

Despite a manic last few years, which have included wandering around London holding Olympic gold medals and staging a critically-acclaimed West End and Broadway play, he has only one worry on his mind.

“I’ve married a London girl and that’s where we live,” he said. “It means any children I may have will be Southerners. I’m not sure I like the thought of that.”

Spoken like a true Lancastrian.

Richard is the definition of local boy made good.

He went to Baines School in Poulton, where his dad was head of Maths.

Thanks to some fine support at local drama school, Whittakers, he made it to Oxford University and then, via a brief foray into business management, on to make his living in the world of theatre.

Now aged 32, he has his own production company in London (he shares the same office as the producers of Mamma Mia!), and is about to take Broadway hit musical Avenue Q on a national tour, starting later this month and including a week in Blackpool.

The very mention of that B-word (Blackpool, not Broadway) is enough to make him smile for he reckons he owes everything to the town.

“I am hugely proud to come from Blackpool. It is really important to me for everybody to remember where they are from,” he said.

“A lot of people I went to school with have, for various reasons, moved to bigger cities but all of us, without fail, are really proud of the fact that we came from a brilliant community and that we grew up in an area where we had a lot of fun and a lot of laughter.

“I started performing at the age of eight with the Chaddeans in Poulton. My first show was The King And I and we’d have trips to see Les Mis in Manchester.

“I was a member of Poulton Drama for a long time and Whittakers Dance and Drama Centre had a really huge influence on me and still does.

“That’s all linked in, it’s all about where I came from. And though I might live in London now, Blackpool will always be the place I hold most dear.”

Richard was a good actor before moving into producing.

After eight plays in five years, he took a sabbatical in 2012 when he landed a dream job – one of 25 producers hand-picked to run the medal ceremonies at the Olympics.

“More than 1,000 people applied so I was delighted to be selected,” he said.

“Of the 25 chosen, there were people who had experience in TV, others who had worked on live events like The Brit Awards, and a few people from the theatre world – because the skills required are quite similar.

“Medal ceremonies are little shows that need to be done at a certain time and last a certain amount of time.”

Cast your mind back to all those moments when misty-eyed medal winner stood on the podium, national anthem blaring as the flags rose in the background.

Quite relaxing for us watching on our TVs. Not so for Richard.

“There was a lot of pressure and a lot of long days,” he said.

“I remember one day I was in charge of volleyball ceremony. They have 12 players on each team so I was walking around with 36 gold, silver and bronze medals for the men, and another 36 for the women.

“These things are so important and valuable they were stored at the Tower of London and delivered to each site by armed courier.

“So once they are handed over to you they aren’t the sort of thing you want to be responsible for losing.”

Olympics and Paralympics done, Richard decided to set up his own production company and struck gold, if you’ll excuse the lame pun, with his very first venture.

“I heard about a project in London that was to be directed by Trevor Nunn in a 70-seat venue and because of my connections with the theatre, I was brought on board to produce it,” he said.

A quirky radio play by Samuel Beckett called All That Fall, it proved a big success and the show moved to the West End, with legendary actors Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins in the lead roles. Five-star reviews followed and Gambon suggested they take it to New York.

“The only thing I’d ever done previously in New York was a small festival,” Richard explained.

“So I got in touch with the organiser of that festival and sounded them out. Eleven months later, four days after I got married, we opened the show just off Broadway and smashed the box office record in that theatre, which was just tremendous and really exciting.”

Hang on a minute. Married? What happened to the honeymoon then?

“Postponed, though she did come to the opening night in New York,” said Richard, referring to wife, Lizzie, a sailor who competed in the 2008 Olympics.

“Unfortunately it wasn’t a very romantic break because I was so tired from getting the show up and running that when I wasn’t in the theatre, I just slept the whole time. But we’ve been to Tanzania since for a proper honeymoon, on safari, so that made up for it.”

And now comes Richard’s next project – the musical Avenue Q, which comes to Blackpool in the first week of July.

“I want to keep my company moving forward so I have picked a show that is very different to my last project, but a lot of fun and a show that has done really well on Broadway and in the West End,” he said.

“It’s a big tour. It lasts four months and goes to 25 towns and cities and I am hugely excited about coming to Blackpool.”

Not least because it gives him a chance to spend time with his parents, Andrew and mum Diane, who was also a teacher, a lecturer in Business Studies at Blackpool and The Fylde College.

“They are coming to see the show and I will tell them to bring as many friends as they can, even though it’s a bit rude!” he said.

Not quite as rude is Richard’s next project, a national tour of Pride and Prejudice in September, which “might come to Blackpool ... if I can sort it”. He is also about to become a producer on a major musical, though he can’t announce exactly what until the terms of the contract are finalised.

The lad has done well for himself. Very well.

But no matter how high he climbs in the world of theatre, it’s clear he won’t forget where it all began.