Below is a syndicated interview with Tracy-Ann Oberman for The Merchant of Venice 1936, which is performing at the New Theatre Cardiff from 31 October – 4 November. More information on the show and how to book tickets here.
“The women in my family were as tough as nails.”
Tracy-Ann Oberman is herself no stranger to tough cookies – she’s a formidable actor on stage and screen. But here she is speaking about her great-grandmother and aunts, women with nicknames like Machine-Gun Molly and Sarah Portugal. They came to London from antisemitic eastern Europe at the turn of the last century, and despite all odds managed to build a life and make a living.
Oberman’s family history helped unlock Shakespeare’s enduringly controversial play, The Merchant of Venice. Her relatives survived the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 – a little-known event in London’s East End, when the Jewish community was targeted by the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosely. Mosley’s blackshirts marched through the area, only to be confounded when the non-Jewish community stood by their Jewish neighbours.
In The Merchant of Venice 1936, Shakespeare’s harsh plot snaps brilliantly into place against this backdrop. Shylock, its anti-hero, is a Jewish moneylender who becomes entangled in the affairs of wealthy non-Jews and suffers terribly for it. In this new version, Oswald Mosely inspires Antonio, the merchant who takes a loan from Shylock and offers a seemingly fanciful penalty for defaulting: a pound of flesh. The heiress Portia becomes “a beautiful glacial Mitford type, awful” – her famous courtroom speech about “the quality of mercy” emerges as an act of hypocrisy rather than humanity. And Shylock changes sex, played by Oberman as a single mother, fiercely committed to her independence and her daughter. “I have one daughter,” she says – “it’s an intense relationship!”
Oberman is an impressively versatile actor – diamond sharp on stage at the RSC and National Theatre, in comedies like Friday Night Dinner and Toast of London, and as Dirty Den’s nemesis Chrissie Watts in EastEnders. Yet playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice was never on her radar – growing up, she says, “the play always fascinated and repulsed me.”
Reclaiming the play from a Jewish perspective has proved a transformative experience. It is directed by Brigid Larmour, who recently stepped down as artistic director of Watford Palace Theatre: the pair of them have become, says Oberman, “walking encyclopaedias of this world.” They assembled a strong company of actors – “We call ourselves the Cable Street Collective!” says Oberman. Ray Coulthard’s sneering Antonio and Hannah Morrish’s icy Portia are chilly foils to this ardent Shylock. The result is painfully funny, genuinely upsetting – and unexpectedly moving as the events of the play meld with the heightened drama of the Battle of Cable Street.
Having sold out in Watford and Manchester, the production now embarks on an extended tour. “We’ve had lots of people crying and we get standing ovations,” says Oberman, reflecting on why the show has struck such a chord with spectators. “Whilst they might not have liked my Shylock, they certainly understood why she wants that pound of flesh. She stands in the courtroom with her handbag, with everything stacked against her. A lot of people know that feeling – believing the law is on their side, but discovering it’s only on the side of people that have power.”
This production sat in Oberman’s head for years, as she researched and planned and waited for lockdowns to pass. But now that it has met an audience, what has surprised her? “The thing that surprised me most was the court case,” she considers. “Just how powerful it was to see this woman backed into a corner by all these men, with the palpable hatred and misogyny. It was electric – you could cut the atmosphere in the auditorium with a knife. That was a revelation.”
Playing Shylock as a woman, she insists, isn’t about softening the character – “I didn’t want to make her a victim or change her role in the story” – but, she adds, “maybe I underestimated the impact of a female Shylock. There are a couple of very shocking moments that really upset audiences. In an early scene Antonio comes to borrow money, and Shylock describes him spitting on her and kicking her like a dog – when that behaviour is directed at a woman, it heightens the antisemitism. I think people also see a woman with her rage and anger. She loses her daughter, her money – she loses everything. And when you tell somebody that they’re a monster for long enough, they become that monster.”
The production vividly summons a febrile moment in British history. “My dream is that the battle of Cable Street will be taught as part of the British civil rights movement,” Oberman says. “Mosley had been sending his blackshirts down into Cable Street smashing doors, breaking windows, attacking synagogues and people on the streets, putting up the most horrific leaflets straight out of Hitler’s playbook. But my great grandmother always reminded me that their neighbours – their Irish neighbours, the Afro-Caribbean community, the dockers, the working classes – all stood together. That was a beautiful moment.”
It is clearly immersed in history – but does this also feel like a show about the present? Absolutely, Oberman says. “At a time when we are looking at Britain’s involvement in colonialism and the slave trade, I think we also have to look at Britain’s flirtation with fascism. Oswald Mosley and King Edward VIII, both great friends of Hitler, came close to power – we dodged a bullet. The great message of the play is about the pulling together of all communities – we’re better together, we’re stronger together, especially at times of huge financial and political insecurity. The past shows us what happens when we look inwards: we become very nationalistic and try to pit minorities against each other. We have to be vigilant.”
Oberman doesn’t hide how much this project is personal to her – but it seems she’s not alone. “What has been very moving is how many people want to stay and talk at the end,” she says. That kind of conversations does the play provoke? “A lot of people talk about their own family’s immigrant experience. Young political people want to talk about the Battle of Cable Street, and people who’d never seen a Shakespeare about why they’d found it so accessible. One man came in with about 20 fascist newspapers from the 1930s that he’d found in his father’s loft, which we’ve used as part of our graphics.
There were big conversations: is the play antisemitic? Was Shakespeare? Lots of really interesting conversations.” Part of the impetus behind The Merchant of Venice 1936 was teachers telling Oberman they felt anxious about discussing this contentious play in their classrooms. So the production is accompanied by a prolific strand of education work, alongside the activist group Stand Up to Racism. The team have been into schools and created a pack to support teachers. “We’ve also created an online world which people can look at before or after seeing the play. It’s an incredible resource talking about the play, the 1930s, the history of antisemitism and racism, Oswald Mosley, everything you could want.”
It’s still rare to see a woman standing dead centre in a Shakespeare production – though Oberman tells me, “I can honestly say that when I went into this, it was never with an ego about playing Shylock, it was about wanting to tell the story. I just put my soul into it.” And has it been the experience she hoped? “Every single bit of it has been a complete joy. It’s been more than a piece of theatre – for me, it’s been a mission. And it lived up to all my expectations.”
The days are getting shorter and the nights are drawing in and that means one thing: the New Theatre’s annual Christmas pantomime is coming, and this year’s is gonna be alriiiiiiiii. Jac and the Beanstalk is the New’s latest festive shindig to sprinkle a little Welsh magic over the Very British artform that is the panto, and Get the Chance’s Barbara Hughes-Moore sat down with the actor bringing the titular adventurer to life: Adam Bailey, fresh from London’s West End who’s starred in the likes of Jersey Boys and The Book of Mormon.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Thank you for speaking with me today, Adam. Tell us a little bit about Jac and the Beanstalk
What a brilliant panto – I can’t wait to get started. I grew up in Cardiff and it’s going to be a really special thing to be able to come back to the New Theatre.
Could you share some of your memories of the New Theatre?
I’ve been doing shows here since I was a teenager! I did 4 or 5 amateur productions here, so it’s lovely to come back as a professional: it’s a real full circle moment!
And to be playing the titular character, too! Tell me about Jac: what makes him tick?
Well, I’m not sure because we don’t have a script yet! We start rehearsals end of November and that’s when we’ll start to explore all of that. It’s going to be such a fun light show. Panto is a total romp, so I can’t wait!
How did you get involved?
Just like any actor you audition, you sing and you act, and then you get the call.
There are some quite big names on the poster behind you, like Lesley Joseph and Mike Doyle. Have you met either of them yet?
I don’t think I have… although I’m terrible with names and faces!
Well, Mike is a master of disguise, so you could have met him and not known it!
What are your first memories of panto?
Although it wasn’t a family tradition, I’ve been to panto at the New Theatre as a child. My first proper memories were the first times I did panto when I was in training, during my econd and third year. it’s so much fun, and so important to the fibre of theatre in this country. It’s so many people’s first foray into theatre, so it’s a really wonderful thing.
You’ve performed both in pantomimes like Aladdin, and musical theatre like Jersey Boys in the West End. What are the differences between the two – or is it the same process?
It’s all theatre at the end of the day. It’s essentially your office job! But all the shows you do are slightly different and it’s the people who make it. There is something special about panto and how stylised it is, because there’s nothing else like it. It’s such a British staple and such a unique tradition.
What’s the secret to a good pantomime?
Good people. As long as you’ve got good people, then it’s gonna be brilliant and I’m excited to meet the cast.
Will it get Cardiff audiences on their feet?
Yes! Panto is a party at the end of the day and we want to get everyone up on their feet and feel good. We want to send everyone on their way singing.
How does the show incorporate Welsh references into Jac and the Beanstalk?
The clue is right here in the title: we’ve taken the ‘k’ out of ‘Jack’ for a start!
Will there be room to improv?
With certain characters, yes. Mike Doyle for example has done this over and over and there will be improv… but within reason! This isn’t a seven-hour-long panto: we’ve got to do two a day!
What about the costumes?
They’re nice and bright and colourful! What other shows let you get away with wearing things like this?
Do we have any special effects to look forward to?
I hear there’s a special effect with the giant, but it isn’t common knowledge so I can’t give anything away. You’ll just have to wait and see…
Anything else you can tease about the show?
The pantos here are always brilliant. So come along, enjoy yourself, sing along, have a dance: it’s gonna be great.
As Sherlock Holmes: The Valley of Fear comes to Cardiff this week in the last stop of its acclaimed UK Tour, Community Critic Barbara Hughes-Moore spoke with stars Luke Barton and Joseph Derrington (aka Holmes and Watson). Adapted and directed by Nick Lane, The Valley of Fear follows two cases across two sides of the Atlantic and finds Holmes and Watson at a crossroads in their friendship.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
So Luke, you and Joseph first played Holmes and Watson in Blackeyed Theatre’s The Sign of Four a few years ago. You’re now reprising your roles in the UK Tour of The Valley of Fear, Arthur Conan Doyle’s final novel. Where do we find Holmes and Watson when the play starts?
Luke Barton (LB): Things have changed for Holmes and Watson, because at the end of The Sign of Four, Watson gets married to Mary Morstan! In the short stories that occur between [this book] and The Valley of Fear, we learn that Watson has moved out of Bakers Street. He’s set up his own doctors’ practice, and lives with Mary – but he does always seem to return to Baker Street. There’s something about the mysteries they go on that just keeps attracting Watson back to Holmes and Baker Street. So we find Holmes and Watson on New Year’s Day 1895: Watson has come home for Christmas –
Joseph Derrington (JD): And he’s not gone back!
LB: He’s chosen to stay with Holmes instead! Then a mysterious coded message arrives in the post warning them of some harm about to happen to a country squire down in Sussex. From there, they embark on this mystery, and very quickly they go back to what they know best: being a crime-fighting, mystery-solving duo.
I guess a coded mystery message is the best present you could get Holmes and Watson!
LB: Holmes loves it! I imagine Christmas is very boring and sentimental for him but a mystery is like [a gift].
JD: Better than socks!
Joseph, these are two of the most iconic characters in literature. How do you go about crafting that sort of relationship, especially given that you’ve both played the characters before?
JD: I found it quite an easy process. When we first started rehearsals for The Sign of Four back in 2018, there was a lot of discussion about how the relationship between Holmes and Watson should be. Watson was a lot of the time portrayed as a buffoonish character. He’s obviously not as intelligent as Holmes but he’s still intelligent: he’s a medical man, a doctor. We wanted to try and push this relationship where one person is incredibly intelligent but needs one person to channel it. Watson is that person. And when The Valley of Fear came along, we just slipped back into it. What works quite well is that we still speak to each other when we’re not performing in shows! It helps that we like each other.
Do you draw anything from any particular adaptations, or do you leave that behind when focusing on this? How do they play into your process?
JD: I obviously draw off the looks of Jude Law (!) I’d never actually seen a lot of Holmes adaptations, which is probably quite bad! I focused on the discussions I had with Nick [Lane, the writer-director]. I tried to lead in more from the text than from how the character had been played before.
LB: I think for me and a lot of people our age, I was very excited by the BBC adaptation. It was after that version that I went on to read the stories. I think our performance and our production is very much rooted in the original stories and the world of Conan Doyle, and [like] the BBC adaption is done with great reverence to the books. The Victorian world that Conan Doyle creates is quite key to our production, and that was my inspiration as well. There’s something so quintessentially Victorian about Holmes: he is both very much a part of that world but also completely strange within it; he’s very un-Victorian in lots of ways.
Is it important to you to you make him ‘sympathetic’?
LB: Holmes doesn’t care what other people think. But in the job he’s doing, I think he finds [that] emotions and feelings just aren’t helpful, and that’s why he’s described as this unemotional machine. But he is a human being: he just has an incredible capacity to filter stuff out, and that’s intriguing because most of us care what other people think. As actors, we spend every night standing in front of people getting judged by them. You’re always under the spotlight. It’s really refreshing to have a character that can switch that off.
Why is this story so suited to the stage?
LB: There’s something about the larger than life events of these stories, particularly The Valley of Fear, that lend themselves to the theatre. Audiences expect more: we have to go on a bigger imaginative leap. The uniqueness of theatre is that as actors, we sit down with an audience and say: ‘we’re going to pretend we’re these people and you’re going to pretend we are as well’. When you throw in these big characters, like the gangsters and murderers we get in The Valley of Fear, it’s really exciting for an audience. It just allows the imagination to run wild.
JD: I think it also adds to the murder mystery, too: it’s more claustrophobic when you’ve got a mystery and there’s hundreds of people watching you and [anticipating] what’s going to happen in the next hour and a half. Some of the venues we’ve been to in the past, you can see the audience in the front row. We had a floor rolled out and when they’re on the edge of the stage, it does add to the pressure of trying to solve a mystery. No matter how many times we do it, it’s still exciting.
LB: They’re trying to solve it with us: Holmes and Watson are solving the mystery at the same time as the audience. That’s what makes it exciting: you have to figure it out as we do.
Do you find different audiences react in different ways?
LB: That’s the great thing about touring! Like Joe said, we’ve done over 160 shows now, and every night the audience is different: every town, every city, connects and responds to different things. They even root for different characters! And that’s one of the joys of theatre, especially of touring theatre: you go to so many different places, and each one has a different energy.
JD: And while it’s not a comedy, there are funny bits! Nick has tried to keep it very true to the story itself, and it’s nice to see proper Sherlock Holmesians – is there a word for them?
JD: Like Beliebers?
JD: So these Sherlockians are enjoying it even if they know how it ends, because it stays true to the book. It was nerve-wracking to start, [wondering] how Holmes fans would respond. It’s always tricky trying to please everyone – but I think we’ve done it! I’m pleased with it.
The Sherlockians take it really seriously, then?
LB: You’ll not see me in a Deer stalker in this production, but you will see people in the audience wearing one! Plus the full cape, the magnifying glass…
JD: And a lot of moustaches! I’ve seen a fair few – maybe they’re back in…
LB: You know, in the Victorian era, the bushier your beard, the manlier you were.
JD: So I’m semi-masculine, then?
LB: You’ll get there.
Watson is Insta-ready.
LB: You should see him tending that face.
JD: I can’t wait to try and twiddle it.
Only when you’re solving a mystery or being nefarious.
JD: It’s my thinking moustache…
Do you feel you’ve been able to relax into the roles this time around? Or is there something about bringing it back – the moustache, and everything else – that surprised or challenged you?
LB: I did relax a lot more this time around! Like Joe was saying, that feeling the first time around of stepping into the shoes of such brilliant actors, and bringing to life characters people really love, was overwhelming. This time it wasn’t quite as bad. I think what’s been interesting is that Nick really wanted to explore the limits of their friendship: how tricky it must be for Watson to be friends with [Holmes] and what that must be like. What happens if their friendship is tested? That’s been interesting to explore.
JD: For me, the only thing I found tricky was fitting back into the costume after lockdown!
LB: We all did!
I wonder how Holmes and Watson would have coped in lockdown.
JD: Would Holmes have gone into a Baker Street bubble, or a Mary Morstan bubble?
LB: Definitely Baker Street.
JD: Yeah. That’s awkward!
Why do you feel that Holmes and Watson are still so close to our hearts?
LB: They’re basically the first superheroes! You’ve got a dynamic duo with individual ‘powers’ that complement each other, and they use those powers to serve good: they’re superheroes that are also best friends. But there’s just something about their relationship [that] is so interesting. They understand each other even though they’re complete opposites and shouldn’t like each other. We all have that person we can’t be without – and that’s who they are to each other. The intrigue is the cherry on top.
JD: It’s human nature, isn’t it, to build connections with people? To ask for help when you need it; to communicate, and Holmes and Watson do communicate even when it’s one-sided. It’s the humanistic aspect we come back to.
Have you performed in Cardiff before?
LB: We didn’t take the The Sign of Four to Cardiff, though we did perform it in Llandudno – we’re really excited to come to Cardiff! After 8 months, we’re concluding our tour here so Cardiff is getting our last few performances: as of Friday we’re done.
JD: I’ve been brushing up on my Welsh.
JD: Bless you.
We can’t wait to welcome you to Cardiff. The game is afoot!
What was your original inspiration behind the Rocky Horror Show?
Someone asked me to entertain the Christmas staff party at the EMI Film Studios and so I wrote a song (Science Fiction Double Feature) and with the help of some jokes, performed to much laughter and applause.
In the New Year I wondered whether it might serve as as prologue to the germ of an idea that I had for a musical. I shared that thought with Jim Sharman who had directed Jesus Christ Superstar. Jim liked the concept and away we went.
Why do you think it is still successful today, half a century later?
It is simply a Musical Comedy and as long as it rocks, and the audience are laughing what more could you wish for?
It’s very inclusive, it’s very easy to watch. It’s not rocket science as far as narrative is concerned – Brad and Janet are a couple that we kind of recognise as Adam and Eve or Romeo and Juliet, like a stereotypical couple – we can all relate to them.
It is also a fairy tale which allows us to feel comfortable with its rites of passage storyline. A retelling of Hansel and Gretel if you like, with Frankfurter standing in for the wicked witch.
The Rocky Horror Show creates an atmosphere that is different from other theatre shows.What about the show do you believe makes audiences feel comfortable joining in?
The innocent rather naughty fun of it draws not only a ‘theatre’ crowd but also people who want a fun evening and a guaranteed return on the investment of their ticket price.
What was happening in your life at the time you wrote The Rocky Horror Show?
I was a recent father of my first child and out of work when I wrote the show. 1972-73 was a moment of change. Glamrock and overt sexuality was around, gay people were coming out and there was a ‘buzz’ in the air. There are certain parts of the world where we are a little bit more free to be ourselves. London is certainly one of them. Back in the Seventies you had gay bars, but now you don’t need to because if you walk into most bars in London there will be a gay man behind the bar. That is rather nice.
How do you believe the show supports those who are questioning their identity or sexuality?
The support for the LBGT community was unintended but it is a very welcome addition to the laughter and toe tapping.
Has the show supported your own journey surrounding your identity?
It must have been, to some extent, cathartic but I have always gone my own way and played the cards that I was dealt at birth the best way that I can.
Do you have a favourite character?
I would have loved to have played Rocky, that would have been cool, wouldn’t it? But one thing is essential, you have to be rather handsome, and you know, muscular, and that ain’t going to work. I could have played Janet. They’re all so stupidly wonderful these characters, they’re iconographic.
How do you think the live shows compare to the film?
The live show has an energy that the movie doesn’t have – it wasn’t intentional, but the film was very slow. Once some fans came up to me and said, “did you leave the gaps between the lines so that we the audience could say our lines?”. I said, “Well, ok yes”. But no we didn’t. The movie is a very surreal, almost dreamlike journey, the live show is far more rock and roll.
What’s your favourite part of the show?
The noise at the end of Rocky is wonderful – it is empowering and exhilarating at the same time it is quite joyous. Rocky never fails to deliver. Each performance lifts the heart and the nightly laughter and roars of approval leave the whole cast with a sense of wellbeing and accomplishment that you rarely get from any other shows.
The Rocky Horror Show remains a huge hit around the world. Do you think the show would be as successful if written today?
Timing is very important as is luck. Zeitgeist sums it up. There are lots of variables in this equation, for instance, would it have been as successful if someone other than Tim Curry had played the lead?
How has the show developed over time? Have there been any adaptations in the past 50 years?
It has remained much the same through the years. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
How different do you think your life might have been without Rocky?
I have no idea but, I would have had a good life because I am made that way. My journey has been a different one than others. I guess some people have a game plan. I would imagine they’re rather humourless. Most of us get an opportunity and we wing it. Luck plays an awfully big part in our lives. You should never underestimate that. I am the luckiest person on the planet. I shall be happy as long as I can keep singing.
The Rocky Horror Show is currently touring the UK as part of its 50th anniversary. It plays in Cardiff’s New Theatre in April – more information and how to book tickets here.
Get the Chance Community Critic Barbara Hughes-Moore speaks with Chris Durnall, Artistic Director of Company of Sirens, and director of the upcoming new play ‘Rhapsody‘ about the life of Dorothy Edwards, one of Wales’ greatest writers. While little-known nowadays, Edwards was a highly influential member of the Bloomsbury Set, a group of radical English writers which also boasted the likes of Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster. The play is written by Gary Raymond and performed by actors Gwenllian Higginson and Gwydion Rhys, with music by Stacey Blythe (though not a traditional ‘score’ as such – more on that in a bit). ‘Rhapsody’ will premiere at Chapter Arts Centre in May 2023.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Hi Chris, tell us a little bit about why you wanted to tell the story of Dorothy Edwards.
Dorothy Edwards a writer who has clearly been repressed due to her gender, her Welshness, and her working-class roots. When she was part of the Bloomsbury Group, she was called the ‘Welsh Cinderella’. That wasn’t necessarily she reason she did what she did, but her creative life was different [because of] where she came from. I think she got swamped by the big personalities in the group like Virginia Woolf and David Garnett. So, it’s about bringing her life out and finding a way to tell that story that is contemporary, so that it’s not a piece of history. It happened in the 1920s and ’30s but its themes are relevant for now. For us, it’s about making it current and contemporary, otherwise it becomes a museum piece, and when theatre becomes that, then it loses relevance. There needs to be a reason to make it, and that reason has to be something that’s happening in the world today.
How have you ensured that the creative process retains that immediacy and relevance?
We wanted to begin with Dorothy’s suicide and work backwards. The short pieces seen [in the R&D in November] actually started with Dorothy in Bloomsbury, then it went to her introduction into London society, then we touch on her return to Cardiff and worked with [Ronald Harding, a married Welsh cellist]. Really, it’s working backwards: starting with her suicide and then trying to explain what happened to her. What were the factors that led to her being relatively unknown, and unhappy in her personal and creative life? We try to answer those questions. Her suicide note is very well-known [“I am killing myself because I have never sincerely loved any human being all my life. I have accepted kindness and friendship and even love without gratitude and given nothing in return.”] After that, the rest of the play is exploring what that might have meant.
Does that mean you follow a strict structure – x has to happen at this point, y at the other – or do you keep it quite loose?
It’s very loose, and it shifts focus. The film ‘The Hours’ is quite a similar reference point because of that. We wanted to avoid was a straightforward linear storyline: we wanted to play around with time shifts and theatrical styles. So, first of all you have the sonata form: the three different strands of a sonata, based upon musical notation, [provides the structure for the play]. Then within each of the three acts, you have three very different styles of performance / musical instruments – within those you have three sections as well. So, the sonata form is kept throughout the three sections of the play.
That’s really important for us because she was so musical: her novel was called ‘Winter Sonata’, her short stories called ‘Rhapsody’, and they’re all based on musical form. How then do you capture that musicality within the production and within the text, and how do you make the music not something that is a soundtrack but is an integral part of the production itself?
That’s the creative challenge – and within that, there’s a third layer which might be quite controversial, where the actress steps out of the story. That happened once in the R&D, but I would like that to happen a lot, where the actress steps out and comments on their life, so as to make a connection between the actress, the character of Dorothy, and the part she’s playing. It’s interesting theatrically to do something like this; it might seem confusing at first, but I think in the context of shifting focus / timeframe, that it would work. The device takes it away from a linear narrative. It is about Dorothy Edwards, but it’s also about Gwen, and about the actress playing her: you have three women investing in this role – the catalyst is Dorothy but it’s also a catalyst for their experiences as well.
You mentioned ‘The Hours’ as a touchstone for you – when I was watching the R&D, it reminded me of ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’: where actors are playing actors playing characters, which shares the ‘triple layer’ device.
That’s a really interesting observation and something I hadn’t thought of! [Harold] Pinter did the screenplay for that, and I’d like this play to be a lot more fluid so that the three drift in and out constantly. In the first act particularly, Gwen and Dorothy shift all the time, as does the male character [played by Gwydion Rhys]. Once you’ve established a convention, the audience understands and goes with it. The risk you take when doing something different is that the audience might be a bit confused at first!
Do you think that choice brings out different things for the creatives and the audience?
I think we underestimate our audiences a lot of the time, and a lot of the work I see is rather ‘on the nose’. To me, that bypasses the whole point of theatre – which is about audience involvement, the audience thinking and making decisions for themselves based on what is presented to them. If you’re constantly given information without the opportunity to assimilate and interpret it, it’s easy to be entertained but it’s difficult to be moved by it because you haven’t invested enough of yourself in the performance. The audience wants to be part of the experience. For me, it’s about what’s underneath the words: the spaces, the gaps, the moments of reflection where the audience comes in and makes it their own.
Do you feel that theatre enables you to give the audience more of an active role in telling a story?
Definitely – I’ve done theatre all my life, and what I love about theatre is you can do anything with it, it’s so incredibly flexible. You can create anything onstage and the audience will go along with it: what works is when an audience suspends their disbelief. I think that’s true of all theatre, that the audience will invest in what you’re doing and will buy into it – we sometimes underestimate and spoon-feed audiences when they don’t want that. I go to the theatre wanting to be challenged.
Would the challenge in this production be the musical aspect, i.e. Stacey Blythe’s music, which isn’t just an emotional score but a character in its own right?
This is something I’ve wanted to do for a while. In 2013, I worked with the Sherman Theatre on a production called ‘Matthew’s Passion’. I worked with an autistic actor and a musician, and I wanted the musician to follow the actor around so that everything they did was interpreted musically. It didn’t quite work in that instance and became more of a soundtrack. So, what I wanted was for Stacey to work with Gwenllian – her music is the soul of the actress, they’re in a rhythm together. Stacey has certain chords and codas in mind but is flexible enough to follow the actress and shift as needed, and vice versa – they work together in this beautiful dialogue. I find that fascinating. You’ve also got the script on top of that, and a rhythm to the script that is more evident in the monologues in the first and second act – but there’s a musicality to the script, the performance of the actress supporting the music, and those things come together in an interesting way.
There are a lot of trios going on here: the sonata, the actress, the rhythms.
That’s absolutely intentional. When you start something like this, I really believe that things happen independently of you making them happen. It’s sort of magic, theatre is: it’s based on ritual and performance, and that magic doesn’t go away, so things happen constantly if you allow them to, and if you don’t try to control them.
How do you manage to walk that line as a director, when you have to lead while also allowing for these magical ‘unexpected’ things to happen?
The first thing is, I don’t try to control the proceedings. Casting is very important, finding people who you can trust and support each other. Then I try to create an environment in the rehearsal room where people feel happy and free, where they have fun, and where they feel respected – for me, that’s the main job of the director, because once you’ve created that environment with very talented people, they’ll get on with it. The big problem, and I’ve made it in the past, is where you try to control something. Allow people to try things out, and if it’s not right it will become self-evident. A lot of the time I’m happy to admit when I don’t know what to do, or where to go, with a story – I don’t profess to know exactly what I’m doing. In fact, I very rarely look t the script once I’ve read it and talked about it. Staring at the script isn’t my job: I’m interested in what’s going on out there. The director’s job is to create an environment in which actors can be creative. If you do that, they’ll amaze you – but if you try to control it, you’re in trouble.
It’s evident in the work you’ve done, the creative freedom you give the actors.
In this country we have that tradition where we still think in terms of Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan – don’t get me wrong, they’re great, but we have to move forward. Where’s the innovation otherwise? It’s fixed in time and set in aspect, which is okay if you want a bit of nostalgia. But what I try and do is make theatre when people go to the bar afterwards and say “What do you want to drink?”, but instead that they talk about the play.
What is it about Dorothy’s work that suits this looser, more collaborative way of creation?
I read her novel and her short stories, and I thought there’s something indefinable and great here a. Gary [Raymond] then did something for the Wales Art Review on Dorothy Edwards, I emailed him saying I’d read his work and was interested in what he’d said. He came to see ‘Stone the Crows’, and we got talking afterwards and exploring some of the ideas of musicality and character. There’s something special about her work and I don’t know what it is yet, but that it’s something to do with musicality, and about masculinity – all of her protagonists were men, which is extraordinarily unusual.
I wonder what the impetus for that: is it that great literature is often written by and about men, or was Dorothy making a subversive point by speaking through her male characters?
The form she chose to adopt (i.e., the country house novel) was quite old-fashioned, yet within that traditional structure is something really unusual that I think came from her background, who she was, her upbringing. Her father was a really important figure in her life in terms of her relationships and her political qualities: he was a firebrand Welsh radical that was part of the Labour movement. One of the things we wanted to explore here is the figure of the father: at the moment, it’s introduced in a recurring musical motif from the Chopin sonnet which we translated into Welsh. The father may not be in it, but his presence will be through this tune, and also in the male characters who do feature. If you look at her relationships with older men like David Garnett [a Svengali-type figure who introduced Dorothy to the Bloomsbury Set], there are qualities in them that they perhaps share with Dorothy’s father.
Maybe it was subconsciously a way of linking with people who were successful in the field, who had access to many opportunities she didn’t have growing up.
It was all controlled by Virginia Woolf and co., who were basically literary gods. But they were very exclusive, which might have been a shock to someone as idealistic as Dorothy. Expectations and reality are often very different. I can only relate it to my own experience: when I went to drama college, I expected everybody else there to be as passionate as I was about literature – I love those people, but I was really disappointed that they didn’t feel the same way about theatre as me. I can imagine Dorothy felt the same way about the quest for knowledge.
While Dorothy wasn’t a Welsh speaker herself, the character does speak Welsh in the play. How does Dorothy’s ‘Welshness’ factor into this production?
If you’re going to include the concept of Gwenllian playing ‘Gwen the actress’ playing Dorothy, and two of them are Welsh speakers, then you can’t ignore it – it’s part of who those people are. It was important for us to bring it into how we worked together on the play.
Is that important for this story specifically, or something that theatre in Wales can and does focus on – the layers of language and ‘the self’?
The Welsh language is an important part of who and what we are – and when you’re exploring national identity as we do here, you need to address it. What that does for us here is that it feeds the production, that bilingual element. I’ve been to quite a few Welsh language shows over the years – and while I don’t speak it myself, if it’s done well, then I can follow the narrative.
What about Gwydion’s role – he seems to play combinations of characters, like Dorothy’s fiancée, and David Garnett, and ‘himself’. It’s not called ‘Dorothy and David’ – while it’s Dorothy’s story, it’s interesting to see how his role feeds into hers
You have three strands to him too – he plays the cellist she had a relationship with in Cardiff, who wasn’t her intellectual equal; David Garnett; and the actor Gwydion as well. He also represents the men in her life including her father, but we haven’t at this stage yet explored Gwydion’s role fully within the piece the way we have Dorothy’s.
‘Rhapsody’ premieres in May next year. Has the R&D process in November crystallised certain things for you and the team, and can you see aspects changing already?
We’re getting there! We will have 3 weeks to rehearse and there will be space between the R&D and then, where we can explore what we haven’t thought of yet. When you go back to something you’ve done before, you’re faced with these moments that you missed – time gives you the space to assimilate what works and what doesn’t. I’m so keen to produce work. I just want to get stuff out there all the time. I often feel like I’m treading water sometimes, when all I want to do is make new things.
What are your plans for where ‘Rhapsody’ goes now, following the R&D?
What we like to do is to perform an extract as part of the Monumental Welsh Women week at the Wales Millennium Centre in March next year, because the event celebrates the lives of Welsh women that have been largely forgotten, then stage it at Chapter, and then look for other ways to perform extracts of it at festivals. I think you can take it to various places, tour it around Wales, Dublin Fringe, Edinburgh, maybe even Germany and the States.
What has surprised you the most, either about Dorothy’s story or the creative process?
The speed with which it developed over two weeks. We now have a script – the conversations I had with Gary and the performers created the script very quickly, and Gwenllian rose to the challenge so quickly. When you set a two-week development period, you expect to come out of it with a few scenes and themes – but as it was, we had the first draft of a script! The way the actors really entered into the whole piece, pleasantly surprised me. They just did it! The second act, which is basically a monologue, just poured out of them. My job is to allow that to happen, not to tell them what to do; to guide them so they do it themselves
What do you want people to take from it, and talk about at the bar?
I would like them to make connections with their own life; that’s the whole point – to see that what they’ve experienced on the stage e.g. I’ve been through that or thought that or felt like that. When you’ve done that, you’ve achieved a lot. I want them to take something of the play home with them. To me, that’s the nature of art: taking something and saying, I understand that. It’s like looking at a painting: even if you’ve never seen it before, there’s something of you in there that you recognise. Whenever I read a book or see a play, I visualise a place within my own life that I can place it in – it’s making a link between the general and the person, and it goes to your heart not your head. You can analyse things in your head, but when it really works is when it goes to your emotions.
Finding something that resonates on your frequency.
It’s indefinable – if you try to analyse it, it kills it. You don’t have to have a reason in art, sometimes there isn’t one: there’s an internal logic but it can’t be defined. You just have feel it.
Get the Chance Community Critic Barbara Hughes-Moore speaks with actor Robert Wilfort, who plays the title role in SPIKE, a new play by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman which charts the rise of Spike Milligan and The Goons. Milligan was the head writer and one third of The Goons, a working-class British comedy trio which also comprised Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe (and, later, Michael Bentine), who took the nation by storm in the 1950s. Despite frequent run-ins with the BBC, The Goons’ avant-garde silliness inspired countless comedic greats from Monty Python to Mischief Theatre. The UK tour ends its run in Cardiff, playing at the New Theatre from 22 – 26 November (you can find out more about the production and book tickets here). Robert chats about what it’s like to play such a beloved icon of British comedy, and why Spike aficionados and newcomers alike will leave the theatre laughing!
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today, Robert!
Thank you for having me.
Tell us a little bit about SPIKE.
The Spike of the title is Spike Milligan, played by me. It’s a new play written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman written about Spike and The Goons, particularly focusing on the time round about when they were starting to become popular in the 1950s. For those of you who don’t know who Spike Milligan is, he’s a hugely influential comedian, writer, poet, performer who burst onto the scene in the early 1950s with this anarchic radio comedy show called The Goons which was quite unlike anything that came before it. It was hugely popular and hugely influential, so this play is exploring the development of that time and a celebration of his work.
How surreal does the play get? The Goons toyed with that kind of comedy.
They did! They were absolutely mad; they took these huge surreal logical leaps. We’re not too surreal: we try to tell the real story of his life, but we do have some fun surreal moments in the playing of it. Spike breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience quite a lot, and the staging is quite fast and fluid, and funny, strange things happen; we mix scenes together. There is a nice surreal thread running through the show.
How do you bring that into the creative process: is the comedy quite regimented or do you keep it quite loose?
We keep it fairly loose – if we interact with the audience we do have room to go off a bit, but we do tend to stick to the script! It’s a great script – the play is very fast and snappy so that was the thing we were trying to capture the most, because The Goons have a huge energy to them. Most of their clips are on BBC Sounds. They’re fast, snappy, they don’t let up with the jokes and we try to capture that energy in the play. If you don’t like one joke, there’s always another one along in a minute! I think what Ian and Nick wanted particularly to capture is that, when we see things on tv that talk about comedian’s life it’s often quite dark, tears of a clown – and Spike did have that side to him; he did have that side to him. He got shell shocked in WWII and had serious mental health issues throughout this life which he was always very honest about. We deal with them but we don’t dwell on them: the tone of the show is joyful and silly and happy, because I think that’s what people need at the moment.
Was it important then to bring those two tones together in the show?
That’s been the big challenge: finding when Spike is ‘on’, which he kind of always was. He was always funny and always telling jokes, he just couldn’t help it. But he could also be quite argumentative and difficult to work with and worked himself into a breakdown. He used to write an episode a week, thirty episodes in a series, and he pretty much did it on his own. It was his passion project, so he would just work and work and work. We showed the effect this had on his marriage. For me as a performer it was about finding the moments of being real as opposed to the jokes.
There are a lot of jokes, a lot of Spike’s jokes – Ian and Nick will freely say that they wrote this show because half of it was written already! We do also act out parts of Goons’ shows as well, with the microphones as if we’re recording them. So there’s a lot of original Spike material in there. It was all about finding the pattern, finding a real person in amongst all the jokes and the tomfoolery.
How do you even begin to approach playing a real person who is so eccentric, unique and beloved? What is your way into that?
When I was offered it, I thought ‘what a great part!’ then I started to get slightly worried because he’s one of the funniest people who has ever been – no pressure! I tried not to let that worry me too much. It helped that I was a fan and I knew his work, my dad was a big fan and he grew up listening to it first time around. I felt like I knew the style of the comedy and then I read and watched a lot about him. I knew his performing style but I wanted to try and find footage of him from the time. I think a lot of people have an image of him as a grumpy old man figure, but he was quite young when he started. So it was about trying to capture his energy and essence without trying to do a picture perfect impression. It’s our version of Spike, our story we’re telling. Ad it was really good fun to research – lots of silly videos!
How do you interact with the other cast members playing The Goons, and get that sense of camaraderie?
Luckily, everyone in the company is really lovely and naturally funny themselves, so it hasn’t been that much of a challenge to look like we’re having fun. It’s about getting the speed and the timing right so it feels like it’s flowing. We have some scenes where they are just messing about in the pub, because that’s how it started (and how a lot of great comedy starts: good friends messing around together in a pub!) Jeremy who plays Harry Secombe is fantastic; Paddy Warner who plays Peter Sellers is fantastic too – so it’s not been hard, we just kind of keep throwing things around and see what works. We still try and play around with it, never try to do it exactly the same every night but tweak it a bit and catch the other person off a little bit. It’s about trying to make other people laugh!
Is that one of the joys of touring this kind of show? That you not only play the different interpretations on the stage every night but different audiences react differently?
They do! That’s the fun: that every theatre presents a new challenge, and a different space and size. You have a different experience depending on where you are. We definitely notice that different towns have different feelings to them – I’m sure Cardiff’s going to be the best, though!
All my friends and family are coming to the Cardiff shows – I’m from Porthcawl so I grew up only half an hour down the road.
Have you ever performed in Cardiff before?
I haven’t performed onstage in Cardiff since I was in the National Youth Theatre – I’ve done TV and radio in Cardiff since but never a play, so I’m really looking forward to it. We’re there the last week in November, we finish on the 26th.
Just before Christmas!
Come and do your Christmas shopping on Queen Street and then see our show – it’s a great day out!
Even if people didn’t grow up with The Goons, they will have grown up with those who were influenced by them, like Monty Python, Mischief Theatre and the Horrible Histories crew.
We acknowledge that at the end of the play, actually: just how many people have been influenced by him. The Goons started in 1950, so you had people like John Lennon and Paul McCartney listening to it, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, as well as all of the Pythons. I don’t think you would have had Monty Python and all of these people without Spike. You can hear the influences in later classic sketches, like ‘Don’t tell him your name, Pike!’, there’s a version of that on The Goons twenty years before Dad’s Army. People would gather round listen to it on the radio. It was like the rock and roll of comedy: the parents didn’t understand it, but they did. I think Ian and Nick thought Spike may have been forgotten – I’ve actually explained who he was to a lot of people my age.
Is that part of the impetus behind the show: to find out more about this person who influenced so much?
Yes! Also, it was an interesting and important time: all the Goons were in the army, and they would go and entertain the troops. The Second World War helped to create this whole generation of working-class actors, writers and performers. I can’t think of the same happening now: three working-class lads having their own sketch show seems like it would be rare now. It was an interesting and important time, and we want to celebrate that. Spike died 20 years ago, a whole generation have grown up not really knowing him, other than maybe doing his poems at school. We have had all ages in the audience! It’s a good night out for anyone whether you know the Goons or not.
Why is theatre suited to telling this story?
You get the instant reaction, the laughter. It could absolutely work as a TV project, it might have originated as that. Because there’s been no theatre for such a long time, and because there’s that communal feeling you can sense as the show goes on. Being in a space with other people all enjoying the same thing, I don’t think anything is quite like that.
What’s your favourite moment that’s happened so far?
We had a couple of drunk ladies in the front row the other week! That’s the joy of live performance – they were really enjoying it, and joining in. we had a strange moment in Brighton where a few kids broke into the theatre and were running around the royal boxes trying not to get caught! That’s all part of the joy: you never know quite what’s going to happen. The best moment for me is just having an audience being happy and entertained.
What makes you laugh like that? Who are your comedy influences?
My favourites are Vic and Bob! They were my heroes, along with people like Chris Morris (The Day Today, Brass Eye) and Steve Coogan. They have a special place in my heart: pure silliness, pure nonsense.
Speaking of Chris Morris, I often quote “Peter, you’ve lost the news!” out of context, totally unprompted. Do you have a favourite Spike Milligan joke that you find yourself dropping into conversation?
His poems always make me laugh: he has one that goes ‘There was a young man called Wyatt, whose voice was incredibly quiet, and then one day, it faded away, [mimes the rest of the line silently]’. It’s always the strange experimental moments in The Goons that make me laugh most: there’s a scene where a spy has been sent to the Secret Rendezvous, and the code is to knock the door six thousand times. It goes on for ages and the knocks get faster, then the door opens and he asks ‘Is this the Tea House of the Orchard Moon’? ‘No, next door’, and then he does it all over again! What the show deals with is how much Spike had to fight the BBC to get stuff like that on, because the bigwigs at the BBC didn’t understand the comedy. The core of the play is Spike’s battle with the BBC to get the show, and its special effects, how he wanted it.
He ended up transforming BBC sound effects. He’d ask for the most ridiculous things like Big Ben falling off Beachy Head, or a Wurlitzer organ travelling through the desert as fast as it can go. He was constantly pushing and challenging, and out of that came the radiophonic workshop and all the amazing things they did on Dr Who. He wasn’t just an influence on comedy but on radio and sfx as well.
What do you think is the secret of comedy: is it that boundary-breaking rebellion against authority that Spike embodied so well?
I think it is that. It can be saying the least expected thing or breaking the boundaries. Spike would find the surreal or the silly in anything: any turn of phrase he could make a pun out of. I think it is having a way that looks at the world that turns it on its head, that makes it come to your point of view. It doesn’t have to be taboo busting, though there is a place for that in comedy.
Spike wasn’t an overnight success: like all the best kind of artists, he spent years out on the comedy circuit and then people slowly came round to his style. I think the world came to Spike as opposed to the other way round; he didn’t emerge fully formed. He was aways funny; his war memoirs are always a great read because they’re very silly.
He has a joke even on his grave – “I told you I was ill!” – there’s not many people who could do that, and make you laugh long after they’re no longer with us.
And there’s not many people who could have got away with saying what he did to Prince Charles!
What do you want audiences to come out of this play, this theatrical comedy experience, to feel when they leave the theatre?
If we send people out there to explore his work who maybe wouldn’t have before, and to go back to The Goons as a lot of people haven’t listened to them. We just want to send people out happy, really. I want people to go out and say “That was the best actor I’ve ever seen in my entire life! Nothing will ever top that!” Send them out happy, and then dip their toes into this amazing world of comedy.
I’m sure they will, Robert – we can’t wait to see SPIKE!
Please come and see us, we’re really looking forward to Cardiff. My mum’s bringing a coachload of her friends to the Wednesday matinee. Fifty pensioners from Porthcawl!
I don’t think you could have a better audience!
The UK tour of SPIKE ends its run in Cardiff, playing at the New Theatre from 22 – 26 November (you can find out more about the production and book tickets here).
This is a syndicated interview for An Inspector Calls, which is performing at Cardiff’s New Theatre from 18-22 Oct 2022. The death of a young woman at a high-class dinner party summons Inspector Goole to the scene of the crime in JB Priestley’s classic thriller. Stephen Daldry’s multi award-winning National Theatre production returns to embark on a sweeping UK. Stars George Rowlands and Evlyne Oyedokun, discuss why it’s the ultimate theatrical thriller.
Did you study An Inspector Calls at school? If so, did you enjoy it when you first read it? Do you think your appreciation of the play is different as an adult?
George: I did read it at school, although I can’t really remember much of it. But I did always like it. I always think at school when you sit down and analyse every single word it can make you go a bit crazy, and I always thought it ruined books and plays. But now that I’m an adult, or more importantly now that I’m an actor, I definitely have more of an appreciation for it.
Evelyn: I actually didn’t study An Inspector Calls at school, I studied To Kill A Mockingbird. I’d heard about An Inspector Calls but I didn’t really know what it was, or really anything about it. It wasn’t until I got this audition that I actually read the play for the first time, and I still didn’t quite understand it. It took me a while to realise how many layers this play actually has.
This production of An Inspector Calls is now 30 years old and yet still as popular as ever. What do you think makes the play so timeless and this production so engaging? Evelyn: Well, the fact that is has three timelines helps. It’s set across three timelines – you’ve got 1912 which is where the play is set, then you’ve got the future, which is the Blitz, 1945, and then you’ve also got the current now, 2022. It’s amazing. You’re flicking through the past, present and the now constantly, and it’s so reflective on humanity so it makes it so relevant, and people can really see themselves.
George: At the end of the day, at its centre it’s a play about somebody in distress, and that doesn’t get old, does it? I think at different points in time when we’ve put it on over the last 30 years, it’s been relevant. And this time around I think it’s more relevant than ever because of what’s going on in terms of the strike action and housing crisis.
Can you tell me three facts about your character?
George: Eric is well educated because he’s been sent to public school. He enjoys a drink, probably a little bit too much. The third fact is that Eric really wants to be respected by, namely his dad. Unfortunately, the combination of those three facts results in some pretty catastrophic things.
Evelyn: Three facts about Sheila… well she’s absolutely besotted with Gerald. She is very self-absorbed and in her own world, as she’s been brought up that way. She absolutely adores clothes. It’s hard to give facts without spoiling it!
What made you want to be an actor?
Evelyn: Oh gosh! With me, I actually didn’t ever want to be an actor, it happened by accident. From a young age I was struggling with people, and I never really spoke – I was pretty much mute to people I didn’t really know. My mum advised me to go and see a youth company at the weekends, so I did that, and I didn’t realise how natural it was to act as it is to live in the real world. I was a lot freer. That’s how I realised it’s the only thing I can do. Drama school taught me how to speak, and acting taught me how to be more of a human than I ever was.
George: I think it beat doing any other boring job. I did find out quite early on in Year 6, for the end of school plays we did Wizard of Oz and I completely rewrote the script because I thought it was rubbish, and obviously made my parts the best. I like storytelling and I like the creative and artistic aspect of it. With this production it has enabled that part of acting, and it’s been a really good creative process.
What’s the best part of about going on tour with a show?
Evelyn: It’s exciting to share a relevant story with so many people. We come to you guys, and you stay where you are.
George: Being able to play in these amazing theatres, I’m really excited to do that, and bringing the story to people.
Do you have any particular venues on this tour that you’re most excited to visit?
Evelyn: To be honest my main one would probably be New Wimbledon Theatre because it’s the one my mum will get to see.
George: Well, I’m excited about them all. But Bromley Churchill Theatre I have a funny connection with because I did a play there last year, in the studio. I was doing Macbeth at the time, and I think Jon Bishop was playing above us. They’d hired security and there were loads of people, and we were underneath doing sweaty Shakespeare in a room. And now cut to a year later and I’ve gone up, literally upstairs. I’m excited to do that, and I also love Bromley as I lived there for a while.
What advice would you give me about going on tour? Are there any essentials to have in your dressing room, or top tips for making yourself feel at home in each town/city?
Evelyn: I’m really bad at this stuff, a lot of people tend to make their dressing rooms cosy with nice blankets and things. I just bring everything that I have in my bag and that’s pretty much it. Some people put up fairy lights and flowers, but for me I’m very simple. With autism, as long as I’ve got really comfy clothes, a phone charger and headphones to cancel out sound, I’m all good.
George: I’m sharing a room with Simon who’s playing Gerald. I don’t know… I think a bottle of water goes a long way. A bottle of water and some Vaseline is not a terrible idea – for the lips, obviously. I get chapped lips.
What’s the most challenging part of being a performer?
Evelyn: For me it’s not being able to see your work or the story you’re creating because you’re so involved and living in the moment of it. You don’t really see the end result. I feel that the end result is mainly the response from the audience, if they got the story then we’ve done our job. I think that’s the most challenging part of it.
George: With other jobs you can put a direct amount of work in, you can work more, you can do this this and this and your results will be better because of it. Like if you’re studying for an exam, the more you revise the better the result. But with acting it doesn’t work like that because being good is so subjective – there’s no grade. I think that’s quite hard. Putting lots of work in and not knowing really how it will go.
Evelyn: One of the sayings at RADA was, ‘plan it, know it and forget it’ – it’s the hardest thing to do, but it’s the most rewarding thing to do.
If you could swap roles with the other person for a performance, would you?
Evelyn: If I had to be someone out of all the characters it would definitely be the inspector, because I’m obsessed with crime documentaries and serial killers, everything to do with murder, unsolved murder, unsolved mysteries, death row, all of that! I’ve pretty much seen everything and I rewatch it to go to sleep.
George: If I could pick any character I’d probably pick Edna. I would love to play the role of Edna. If you haven’t seen this production, there’s a special thing that Edna is part of – a little bit of magic. She’s amazing. My second choice would be Mrs Birling. I really like Mrs Birling, she’s got such sass, and doesn’t have the insecurities that Eric is stuck with.
An Inspector Calls is playing at Cardiff’s New Theatre from 18-22 Oct 2022.You can find out more about the production and book tickets here.
Get the Chance Community Critic Barbara Hughes-Moore speaks with actor Rhys Jennings, who is part of the touring cast for the When Darkness Falls. This spooky stage thriller is written by James Milton and Paul Morrissey, and is based around the legend of ‘Guernsey’s Ghosts’. The show is playing at the New Theatre Cardiff from 11 – 15 October (you can find out more about the production and book tickets here). Rhys chats about understudying the two lead roles, how the cast keeps it fun behind the scenes, and why you might just walk away from the show believing in ghosts yourself…
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Thank you for taking the time to sit down and speak with me today, Rhys.
Tell us a little bit about When Darkness Falls.
When Darkness Falls is a two-hander ghost story set in the modern day but which brings up lots of stories of the past and hauntings and ghosts. It’s set on the island of Guernsey, so it takes all this local mythology and weaves it into a two act play over the course of one night. It aims to provoke debate about what ghosts are and what the paranormal is, but also with a few scares. It’s good fun!
So what is your role in the play and how did you get involved?
So I have a very interesting role. As I said, it’s a two hander and I am the solo understudy in this show. So it’s your classic two hander where you get an older and a younger actor so they needed someone halfway between through the two! It’s a very odd experience, actually: I’ve done a lot of understudying before, but this is basically an entire play, and you’re always on edge in case someone gets ill or is off, and up you go with not much rehearsal.
It’s really interesting, and it’s lovely to be part of such a small company as well, this is a very tight-knit group of people. We’re only a few weeks into the tour at the moment and everyone’s very close, and it’s a really fun company to be part of.
How do you manage to keep it fun behind the scenes when you’re in such a scary show?
I think the guys have really managed to just enjoy the text of it, because there’s lots of storytelling which could easily become very drab and dreary. It’s about two people interacting with one another, and how a story can trigger more memories. It’s been really fun to be part of that process and to be able to offer some input as well to the guys as they work.
Do you have a favourite role out of the two?
It’s tricky! Peter Duncan, who is famous for many things but many have a soft spot for his Blue Peter days, is playing the older part, and there’s an incredible young actor in his 20s called Daniel Rainford. So I think perhaps you’d put me in the younger part but I’m looking forward to one day playing the sort of roles Peter Duncan does. I do overall prefer the older role that is a storyteller and who has a bit of a mental breakdown throughout the course of the night. That’s more interesting to me, I think.
Have you performed at the New Theatre before?
I’ve performed in Cardiff before but never at the New Theatre! I’m really looking forward to coming to Cardiff, because I trained at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. It’s really nice to make a return visit because I haven’t done anything that’s come back to Wales for a good few years. I’m really excited to show the guys in the company around Cardiff.
What do you think Welsh audiences will take from the show?
While it’s set in Guernsey, it has a similar bucolic, rural feel and a lot of similar folklore and ghost stories. I think Welsh audiences will enjoy it for that. It’s quite a universal debate the characters are having over the course of the evening about what a ghost is: sometimes it’s repressed trauma and guilt, so a lot of that is very universal. It’s an interesting thing to watch.
Without spoiling anything, is there a particular moment you would want audiences to look out for?
That’s a really good question, because it’s one of those plays where audiences might think they know what’s going on – but if they pay attention they’ll be able to see the ending. It’s a bit like an Agatha Christie mystery: if you’re canny enough, by the end you get that real satisfaction of figuring out the ending. So listen and see if you can pick out a few of those themes that are repeated. Do a bit of detective work as an audience!
That’s a great challenge to give audiences! What do you think the secret is to make a good thriller in the theatre?
It is tricky! I think it’s all about suspense and rhythm, and also having two little stories going on: one where the audience might know a little more than the characters at certain moments and vice versa. It’s about who has the information, and you can gift that to an audience, make them feel that they know something that even the characters don’t. That can be really exciting for a thriller. Or you can have an object that has been in the background the whole play, and eventually pays off – in fact, we might have one of those in ours!
The last ‘spooky’ show I saw at the New Theatre was Ghost Stories, which was also made into a film – I didn’t sleep for a month!
I was involved in the film! I had a very last minute call from my agent asking me to fill in for an actor on the day of the cast readthrough. I’m still fairly early in my career, and I’m not in the finished film, but I was reading lines with Martin Freeman and all these amazing actors. I don’t know how I managed to get a ticket into that room, but that was a great experience.
So you were like a ghost: an unseen presence that kept the whole thing going?
Yes! I like the acting profession for all these strange little moments you have – it’s never boring. I straddle a bit of writing, a bit of acting and voiceover, and I like constantly dipping my toe into different things. You get all these strange, wonderful little anecdotes.
Does being involved in such different mediums – film, voiceover, theatre – give you different shades of ‘acting’?
Yes, and the things you learn from one thing help you in another. I got very into puppetry for a while and toured the world doing it, and it’s only much later when you’re doing something more text-based, that you suddenly realise the connections. Through the course of your career start putting things together in unexpected ways. It’s really fun. We’ll be performing in Guernsey a couple of weeks after Cardiff, and it’ll be interesting to see what different audiences react to. Different places have a different sense of humour. I’m really excited to see how Cardiff audiences will respond to it!
Is there something that really surprised you about being part of this show?
In the early part, I thought it was going to be very lonely as there’s not many people backstage. And while it can be lonely at times, I’m surprised by how much warmth and humour there is; a real camaraderie to the show and I feel very included in that. Theatre can sometimes be quite hierarchical: my first job was understudying in a show that had enormous stars all the way down to new graduates fresh out of Drama School, and there was quite a lot of hierarchy to that. Here, though there’s a difference in age between all of us, it feels like we’re working on this together. Especially after everything we’ve been through the last few years, it’s nice to be part of a family again.
What’s it like working with a household name like Peter Duncan?
I’m not quite in the generation that grew up with Peter, but in my generation of Blue Peter presenters they would talk about his adventures, like him scaling Big Ben. There are lots of stories and ancedotes that Peter is just brilliant at: listening to him, you get the sense that Peter would go over to someone and say ‘I’ll give you a Blue Peter badge if you help my friend’. It feels like a skill we could all do with!
What’s coming up for you after this tour?
I’ve spent a long time writing a musical called The Wicker Husband, which opened at the Watermill Theatre earlier this year, and hopefully it will have a future life as it’s a beautiful thing. Do keep an eye out for it: it’s about an old basket maker deep in the swamp who weaves creatures out of wicker who come to life, and he weaves a beautiful husband for a girl who everyone thinks is ugly, so much so that she thinks herself that she’s ugly. Throughout the course of this beautiful musical, she learns that there’s no such thing as ugly; that ugliness isn’t something you can see.
Three words that sum up When Darkness Falls for you.
Surprising, suspenseful, curious.
Do you believe in ghosts?
Do you really? That line actually pops up in the play.
Do you think that audiences will believe in ghosts after this show?
I think those that are skeptical will be more open to the idea that ghosts can mean. ‘What are ghosts?’ is an interesting question to go in with.
What follows is Vicky Edwards’ syndicated interview with Jay Osmond.
Jay Talking They say you should never meet your heroes, but seriously? I mean, asking a 70s kid to interview an ACTUAL Osmond? The guy who sang Crazy Horses? WILD horses wouldn’t have stopped me.
Any fears about heroes having feet of clay prove unfounded. Jay Osmond is lovely. Meeting me to chat about the World premiere of The Osmonds: a New Musical, I’m curious about the show he calls a ‘living memoir.’
“I wrote this book called Stages about my life. It turned into more of a travelogue, so I always wanted to do a backstage version that included not only the good times, but the bad and sad times too,” he explains.
A friend and producer of Jay’s had an idea. “He said ‘why don’t you write a living memoir and put it on stage?’ And I thought ‘Exactly!’ I have always loved the stage – for me it was one last frontier to conquer.
“I wrote it from the heart. It was hard; I had to play my drums a lot to get my emotions out, but it all boiled down to this: why did we do what we did? It was because we wanted to help people; to use those talents to do some good in the world. I wanted to put that purpose into the show. I think you can do almost anything in life if you have a purpose.”
And you’d need a sense of purpose to get 30+ songs and Jay’s story into a two-hour production.
“It was a challenge,” he admits. “It’s about the four brothers who were at the start. I was one of them. The story starts at the 50th anniversary and then goes way back. Each of us has a different perspective, so this is very much my perspective; hard times, fun times, why we did what we did and how we did it as a family.”
The result is a show that, by all accounts, has broad appeal. Great music and a great story, in which Jay pulls back the curtain to reveal the real family behind all these hits – parents George and Olive Osmond and their nine children; it taps into something richer and is a show that will speak to everyone.
Shrugging modestly, Jay concedes only that “Our music really is multi-generational.”
He’s more effusive, however, about the show’s creative team, praising them and recalling the moment during the workshopping process when he realised that they had created something special.
“To see people laugh, cry and sing along – I knew then that it would work. We have been so blessed with the talented people involved.”
Jay started his barbershop quartet with Brothers Alan, Wayne and Merrill. They had no idea they would go on to become one of the most famous groups in history. Singing initially to fund hearing aids for their two older brothers, Virl & Tom, they were discovered by Walt Disney in 1961. Mentored by Walt, they were invited to appear on The Andy Williams show, achieving global fame. Adding brother Donny to the group, international tours and high profile TV appearances followed. Selling millions of records worldwide, earning dozens of awards and more than fifty gold and platinum records, The Osmonds remain pop royalty.
And even though he was voted one of the top 10 drummers in the country during the 1970s, co-wrote many of The Osmonds’ hit records and choreographed their shows – as well as being an accomplished TV producer – Jay brushes off his achievements. And again, the modesty is authentic. Our Jay is not a man who puts on an ‘interview’ persona. The kindness and warmth is sincere – and never more so than when he talks about the fans.
“We call them friends, not fans,” he corrects me gently, “and we hear them when they tell us that our music helped them at difficult times in their lives.”
Their ‘friends’, it transpires, were a big part of the decision to premiere the show in the UK.
“This is where our family was so welcomed. Osmond-mania kind of happened everywhere, but there was something about the UK; our family was so accepted and so loved here. We have been to almost every place on the tour list at some point and they are places that hold so many memories. We’ll go to Canada and America too, sure, but it feels right to begin here.”
It also feels like the perfect show for a world emerging from the misery of the pandemic.
“I think it really is,” he says, smiling. “I want it to be a celebration of helping people out. I want people to walk out of the theatre feeling lifted and excited about life; to feel joy. That’s my goal. I am humbled by the fact that we have been blessed with people who have loved our music and that we might have played a small part in their lives when they have faced challenges. I want them to know how much they have helped me and my family. They are part of The Osmonds. It will feel like a high school reunion when they come to the show!”
Or as one ‘friend’ said to Jay recently: “This is not just your story; it’s ours too.”
And that’s something he’s very respectful of. But then respect has always been important to The Osmonds.
“It’s a really big part of our belief system and of our perception. We had talent, but we didn’t do what we did to be famous or to make money; we did it to serve people. When we collected our People’s Choice Award, immediately after, Mom and Dad reminded us to do our chores. Our parents always reminded us what was important: Do what is right and the consequences follow. We have had to make a lot of choices along the way, but it’s been a great journey.”
Ah, but it’s not over yet, Jay. Next stop the show. And it looks set to be a spectacular jaunt down Osmond memory lane.
Take 5: five quick-fire questions for Jay Osmond
What’s your favourite Osmonds song and why?
Love me for a Reason. Because ‘let the reason be love’ is a message that is so powerful. But Crazy Horses would be my next choice.
You did karate as a young man. Still doing the fancy kicks?
No, not nowadays. But I keep fit. I’m a walker – I love to walk. And I love football. I’m also doing the Pure Trim diet at the moment. It’s organic and very pure and I have lost 30lb in the last 6 months.
Big families usually mean hand-me-downs. Did you have hand-me-downs?
We had so many clothes thrown at us in the 70s that we didn’t need to hand down. But when I look back at some of the things we wore – wow! But hey, it was the 70s and we all wore crazy stuff. I can’t wait for people to see the costumes in this show!
What’s your most memorable moment of being in The Osmonds?
So many, but one that stands out is the night we went to watch Led Zeppelin in concert. We were introduced to the guys and they were just the nicest people! Robert Plant asked us to join them on stage for Stairway to Heaven. We weren’t sure that their audience would appreciate us, but eventually we said OK. Robert introduced us as his brand new friends. I played percussion and conga. It was incredible!
What is your philosophy for life?
Go about life and do good. Because when you do good, you feel good. And have a purpose. Be a light to others. To me, that’s the goal in life. It’s the key.
How do you want people to be feeling when they have seen your show?
I want people to walk out of the theatre feeling lifted and excited about life; to feel joy. That’s my goal.
What follows is Richard Barber’s syndicated interview with Gareth Malone, who is touring his new Sing-Along-A-Gareth! show throughout the UK this autumn
He’s taken the Military Wives to the top of the charts. He’s had us all singing from our kitchens during the pandemic. Now the irrepressible Gareth Malone, choirmaster extraordinaire, will be spreading joy the length and breadth of the land together with his band, four professional singers and a choir, local to each venue, on a tour of Britain’s theatres.
Sing-Along-A-Gareth! (“I like the fact it’s got Gaga in the middle,” he says, with a smile) opens at The Lowry in Salford on October 26, taking in, among others, Liverpool, Cardiff, Bath, Norwich and London at the Cambridge Theatre on December 5, before coming to a rapturous climax in Poole on December 16.
“I’ve been involved in choirs for many years now,” says Gareth, “and then along came performance stuff on TV. But I’d never quite married the two together although, on previous tours, there was always audience participation, moments when I’d encourage people to join in with the singing.”
During the pandemic. singing was as good as banned. Then came the Great British Home Chorus which saw thousands of people around the country sing with Gareth from their kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms. Every day at the same time, Gareth would bring joy through music into people’s homes reaching an average of 20,000 live viewers every rehearsal.
So, was a tour part of the plan? ‘I promised myself that once lockdown was over, I’d get back on the road and get out in front of audiences. I wanted to hear people singing again and to entertain them’.
As soon as he put the word out, he started receiving messages from people saying their whole choir would be there. “I love that. I see this tour as a celebration of people coming together after all those months of isolation. It’s certainly the first time for almost three years that I’ll have been on the road performing in public.”
The first half of the show will see Gareth, and a group of singers and musicians, perform songs he’s sung over the last fifteen years as well as some tracks he performed with the nation during lockdown. Playing piano, guitar and bass, Gareth will tap into the musical talents of the audience to write their own songs composing something special and unique to every venue. In Cardiff, it might be about Cardiff Bay.
The second half will see a local choir from each venue perform with Gareth, continuing the fun and bringing people together. Improving mental health, wellbeing and happiness, singing encourages a real sense of community, something that was so lacking during the pandemic. Gareth is happy to bring back that sense of togetherness with a feel-good evening of upbeat fun tracks we all know and love which everyone can easily sing along to.
He’s put together a song list, available now online, for the show. “I’m adding to it all the time but it’s guaranteed to include arrangements for some of those numbers people will be familiar with from Home Chorus.
So, what will audiences be singing?
“Elton John’s I’m Still Standing for its positive message,” he says, “and Walking On Sunshine by Katrina and the Waves for its joyful optimism.” There will also be Hey Jude (arm-waving obligatory) and Wake Me Up, the Avicii song sung by Gareth’s All Star Choir which topped the charts in 2014 when it became that year‘s Children In Need anthem.
“And I’d have to have Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Then, of course, there will always be a place for Wherever You Are, the song that propelled Gareth’s Military Wives choir to Number One at Christmas 2011, selling more than the rest of the Top 12 combined.
He’ll also be including Fields of Gold, made famous by Sting. “It’s a beautiful and uplifting song, a particular favourite of mine and with a quality that will resonate with everyone, in my opinion, particularly if they were to think of the loss of the Queen.
“I was sitting on the sofa a moment ago, playing it on my guitar, and it’s one of those songs that you can read in a number of ways. There’s a haunting quality to it, something that evokes memories, both happy and sad.”
From as far back as he can remember, he says, Gareth always wanted to do something a bit out of the ordinary with his life. His father worked in a bank; his mother was a civil servant. At secondary school, he grew increasingly enamoured of performing: in plays and orchestras and jazz bands and pop groups.
“Choir was like the background of my everyday life. I’d go in at ten past eight and we’d sing for about forty minutes every morning except Friday when there was a school assembly which I hated. That was seven years at a very formative stage.
“I wasn’t quite sure where any of it would lead. I did a drama degree but, when I came back from university, I realised that music was missing from my life. My epiphany came in a concert. I sang a note which seemed to reverberate off the rafters and, on the walk home, I made up my mind I was going to be a professional musician.”
At the London Symphony Orchestra, he ran a number of educational workshops. When someone said they were starting a community choir and would he like to run it, he didn’t need to be asked twice. “In the end, I ran two choirs: one for adults, one for children.” It’s how he came to the attention of the BBC. “And that’s how Gareth Malone, choirmaster, was born.”
He’s a natural performer, something that was traced back to his mother’s father, Teddy, when Gareth was the subject of BBC1’s Who Do You Think You Are?. “My grandfather was the sort of man who’d dance round the lawn in his underpants to make everyone laugh.”
In much the same way, Gareth enjoys working with an audience. “On this upcoming tour, I’ll be encouraging people to help me make up a song about their local town or city. So, in Bristol, it might be something to do with Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I like that interaction, the sense that you’re taking the crowd with you.
“The nice thing about a tour is that, if the lights went out, I’ve got my guitar so I could sit at the front of the stage and we could all sing a song together. It’s organic. I love the immediacy of a live audience.
“But I couldn’t possibly have predicted that, one day, I’d be going on tour, for instance, and filling theatres with people singing at my behest. I’m doing what I really love. I’ve been very, very lucky.”
The only possible downside in a life of wraparound music is that, nine years ago, Gareth was diagnosed with tinnitus. “I had an ear infection in 2013 which left me with a ringing in my right ear. But I’m lucky in that it’s not hearing loss and lucky, too, that’s it’s very mild – like a high-pitched whistle in one ear – because it can be very isolating and, at its worst, send you round the twist.
“Plenty of people respond to music that’s bone-shakingly loud. Not me. I look after my hearing. There’s been no degeneration in my hearing for some years now. And, given what I do for a living, that’s got to be a good thing.”
Recently, Gareth had special ear moulds made that let in the good sounds, as he puts it, and keep out the dangerous frequencies. “I wore them to a gig recently and it was such a nice experience.
“I shall be conscious of that on the tour. For me, volume does not equal quality. You can be moved by two recorders being played without amplification in the Barbican hall, for instance. It can be rhythmical and intense and it can still excite your brain which is where all music happens.”
But isn’t Sing-Along-A-Gareth! going to be a rather noisy affair? “No, it won’t be damagingly loud. A thousand people singing along together needn’t be deafening although a lot of people clapping really loudly can test me to the limit. So, no one should be put off if they see me putting my fingers in my ears.”
He skids to a halt, quickly adding: “Not that I’m discouraging applause, of course.”