N-ice work if you can get it

Sleeping Beauty on Ice features many gold-medal winning ice skaters.

Sleeping Beauty on Ice features many gold-medal winning ice skaters.

If you've been to a major theatre show in New Zealand in the last 10 years, chances are high that you have British theatre producer James Cundall to thank for the experience.

As the CEO of Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, this year Cundall will oversee multiple top shows playing in 22 countries, filling around "700,000 seats" around the world.

"Oh I just love New Zealand," he says as we sit together in the empty auditorium of the Isaac Theatre Royal.

"Last night I was on Seven Sharp," he adds, pulling a bit of a face and running his hand through his hair. "For years I've been thinking about flying a helicopter around the coastline of New Zealand. Someone at the TV got wind of it and had me in a chopper for Seven Sharp so I guess I'm actually going to have to do it now. Maybe I'll make it into a documentary."

Later someone will tell me Cundall is a multi-millionaire. But, if so, he is a down to Earth one, dressed in faded blue jeans and shiny black pointy boots.

The son of a Yorkshire farmer likes our scenery and is a "passionate" All Blacks supporter who still remembers seeing Andy Hayden play in 1972, but mostly he loves New Zealanders' approach to life.

"I come here as often as I can. It's a long way away from the rubbish that is cluttering the rest of the world. There's a kindness here that is lost and long since gone in other parts of the world, certainly it's gone in England."

The 58-year-old describes himself as an "impresario".

"It's a quaint word and one that is, perhaps, going out of fashion as there are not many of us in the world."

James Cundall, CEO of Lunchbox Theatrical Productions.

James Cundall, CEO of Lunchbox Theatrical Productions.

He trained as a chartered surveyor for the family business and then the farmer's son gave it up and "moved to the city", London. Then he moved to Hong Kong where he ran two global funds management companies - Global Asset Management and later, the Asian/Japanese business of Rothschild Asset Management.

"In 1989 I came to New Zealand to do lectures and talks on global finance. That's where my love of New Zealand started."

Everyone asks how he made the leap from fund management to entertainment but he argues that there are similarities: "Risk management, product and marketing."

As a child he charged his parents to watch him play in his toy fort on the farm.

Then he fell for a girl who was at drama school in London.

"She had to get her equity card, her union card, and the only way I could see her at weekends was to get my equity card too. We did a cabaret show together and I was a good singer, but a lousy actor," he recalls.

"She gave me the push and as she gave me the push she said of her father, who was a bit of a movie star, she said 'Daddy and I think you're a lousy actor, but you've got a great voice. We think you should be a producer'."

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I remark that it seems like a very British comment to make during a break-up.

"She left me for her elder buddhist teacher which I didn't think was very buddhist of her," he adds.

Six businessmen set up the Lunchbox company in Hong Kong in 1989.

'It was my idea. It was a group of us who all met at lunchtime, hence the name. We lost money on the first and second shows, the third was Les Miserables and the fourth was Cirque du Soleil.

"I did that concurrently with being a funds manager until I fell out with the Rothschilds and had to decide what to do."

How does one fall out with the Rothschilds?

"I don't know, I think they got bored of me. I think we were bored of each other," he says. He smiles but it doesn't quite reach his eyes.

"So that's me, very boring."

Hardly. At the least it is fair to say that Cundall knows more about ice than the average person.

"I always say that our show, Imperial Ice Stars, is a New Zealand product. The idea to do it was conceived on the grey beaches on Auckland's west coast with my artistic director Tony Mercer. We were walking up and down the beach trying to design a show with the surf in our faces."

The idea was to create an ice skating company and tour the world doing high quality ice skating, set to beautiful scenery and to make a different artform.

"It's not Disney on Ice," he says emphatically of their upcoming show, Sleeping Beauty On Ice. "It's completely different. Nor are we like the Russian company coming here - we don't do ballet. Yes we use the same music but we do ice dance and the difference between ballet and ice dance is what we do is freer. It's fast, dangerous and terrifying."

Skaters are all medal winners of some description. Most have been skating since they were toddlers.

"A lot of them skate better than they can walk."

The show is celebrating the Imperial Ice Stars' 10th anniversary with a world tour which visits New Zealand in June and culminates with a performance at the Royal Albert Hall at Christmas.

To transform the Isaac Theatre Royal stage into an ice rink, he explains that his team will create a big paddling pool.

"You put lots of pond liners, you lay on that about half a mile of piping. You connect that to two chillers, put glycel through it at minus 16, you put five tonnes of crushed ice on it and when that has settled two lovely people stay up all night squirting it with water and eventually you get an ice rink."

The tough part is, he says, that the athletic ice skaters have to work in the tiny space.

"There aren't just one or two skaters in that tiny box, there's a dozen. The skaters get thrown from one person to another, it's incredibly hard and quick, 35km an hour. Some skaters just can't get it."

There was one "dear German girl" he speaks of who was a brilliant skater. She even held a world record. It didn't work out.

"She used to complain like mad that she 'could not skate on ze ice cube'."

He has a plane to catch. In parting conversation he talks about another show he's staging in New Zealand, Singing in the Rain, which cost around $5 million to bring here.

"I would have loved to have brought that show to Christchurch," he says, looking around the moodily lit empty theatre. "Still, we've got some other great shows coming up."

We shake hands and he departs, on to the next show.


Sleeping Beauty on Ice is at the Isaac Theatre Royal from June 16-21 and at Wellington's St James Theatre from July 1-5. See www.ticketek.co.nz.

 - The Press


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