Preview:
Another Aspect

Best known for plays, Willy Russell has taken up painting. He’s exhibiting at a small gallery in Kirkby, which is aimed at both residents and visitors to the town

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Although best known for his theatrical work – with globally successful plays Blood Brothers, Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita – Liverpool-born Willy Russell has many other strings to his bow. Screenwriter, lyricist, singer, author, composer and, somewhat incongruously, hairdresser also register on his impressive CV. Around a decade ago, in his late fifties, he rediscovered a latent love for painting.

“Hockney’s fond of the saying painting is an old man’s game and now I’m an old man,” laughs Russell. “I’ve recently given myself more freedom to explore other arts without the sense of guilt I previously attached to doing just that. I’m not not writing films and plays anymore but the painting really, really suits me at the moment.”

Currently showing at the recently renovated Kirkby Centre on Merseyside, Russell’s debut solo exhibition is appropriately titled Another Aspect. Featuring a selection of his bold paintings – generally impressionist in style, occasionally rather abstract and, for the most part, landscapes – the bright, open gallery is ideally suited to the work. With a well-appointed library, café, meeting rooms and a host of council advice services sharing the building there is every chance Kirkby residents will discover Russell’s work while using the community facilities. Gallery manager Tina Ball believes it will bring tourism too. “It’s as good as you could see in Leeds or Liverpool but instead here in the centre of our town,” she says.

The exhibition’s opening night was attended by upward of 250 critics, fellow artists, friends and family. First night nerves are, according to Russell, common to both the theatrical and artistic worlds. “I was definitely a nervous soul beforehand. But if something matters to you, you’ve got to be, and it was a terrific night with a real buzz in the place.”

He claims to be beyond the remit of what he refers to as “serious” art critics. “They have ignored me, so far, but I’ve always been aware that the art world is even worse than the theatre world for talking absolute bollocks,” he laughs. The Merseyside polymath is fully aware people may view his painting as little more than a hobby. “I realise I may be pilloried for straying into another art form just because I’ve earned a certain regard for another. And though it’s not uncommon for writers to also paint there can be a ‘don’t give up your day job’ aspect to it which, if it ever comes, I can’t get upset with.

“I really love painting though and one of the things I discovered is you leave behind that left side of your brain which controls speech, language, etc and move into right brain, which brings about a strange restfulness. You start to allow the painting to tell you that it knows best about what’s happening and where it’s going.

“But ultimately all art is the same: you’ve just got to find a way to fill that blank canvas, that blank page, which is personally satisfying.”

Willy Russell: Another Aspect, The Kirkby Centre until 2 Sept. Visit the Centre Stage section of bigissuenorth.com to read our preview of Shirley Valentine, starring Jodie Prenger, which visits Salford this month and Blackpool in September

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