January 2008

For every actor that lives, there are parts he was born to play. Whether Wallace Greenslade is one of mine remains to be seen, but as I know the director of the London production, the Spike Milligan of the Sydney production, and the producer of the New Zealand production, I would have felt left out if I hadn’t been involved in some way at some stage, so am very pleased to have been cast.

Rehearsals are absorbing. I always forget just how much they interfere with your life, and there’s often that curious sensation that you’ve never been in anything else that evolves around the start of the second week. The first week is usually taken up with table work, where we all sit about drinking more coffee than is healthy, discussing the play line by line, scene by scene – or not. Sometimes there is no discussion, just a long and informed monologue by the director – as was the case with Jonathan Miller’s production of Bussy D’Ambois at The Old Vic in 1987 (in which I played 2nd Plum Bearer) where he spoke for three hours without notes, expounding on concepts like ‘the King’s Peace’ and associated subjects, complete with bibliographic references.

“Ying Tong – A Walk With The Goons”, is a well constructed play taking the form of a series of comic sketches around the story of Spike Milligan losing his grip on reality. The humour takes its cue from the original BBC radio series, The Goons, which ran for nine years from 1951 to 1960, the other members of the trio being Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe – with Michael Bentine leaving the quartet early on. My character Wallace Greenslade, is the one that everybody has heard, being one of the voices of the BBC, but that fewer people have heard of. I also play Spike’s wife, and a Jewish-Irish leprechaun.

The Wilma Theater is one of two new theatres which grace Broad Street in downtown Philadelphia, the other one houses The Philadelphia Theatre Company where I saw a splendid production of M. Butterfly two nights ago. There is a lot of humour in M.Butterfly and my colleague and I, seated in the front row, chortled heartily – until we noticed, you couldn’t not, that the rest of the audience was not laughing as much. They did not want to go there. To be fair it was a preview audience, and preview audiences are notoriously tough, only out-toughed by corporate ones where everybody is busy watching to see if the boss will laugh.

Looking around the well-appointed theatre – a poem in muted earth tones, with good acoustics – I assessed the audience to be well-dressed, middle-class, and middle aged – as is the case the world over with live theatre. While that explains a lot in terms of the reluctance to let loose a few belly laughs, it dismayed me as to our prospects of landing a laugh riot with Ying Tong (-A Walk With The Goons). The humour is British absurdist, and the script is peppered with uniquely British references – Lewisham, Cheam, Frankie Lane. In these circumstances I usually suggest to the management the deployment of a well placed claque, and possibly a mildly hallucinogenic odourless gas.

I’ve lived in America for almost eight years now, and one thing I’m still not used to is the nationwide passion for longer hours of work. The Yanks seem to think more work is better work, but in my view it’s just more. Where I come from (the UK) people understand the virtue of taking the odd afternoon off, and where I grew up for a while (Australia), if you tried to rehearse on a week end, you’d be laughed out of the room.

It was the very first theatre job I had in the States when a stage manager said to me, “I want you to drill these lines, drill them, drill them, drill them!!”

I had an episode of l’esprit d’escalier – which is when you come up with the reply you should have made about twenty minutes after the fact. What I should have said, but didn’t, was “If I had wanted drill, I would have joined the army, but I wanted to play, which is why I became an actor.”

Ying Tong – A Walk With The Goons, enjoyed critical success in Britain, but moderate popularity. In Australia however, the show took Sydney by storm, and toured about half of that vast continent, with a tour of the other half slated for later this year.

We are an eclectic group in Ying Tong. There is a British contingent in the cast, and the theatre itself is co-artistically directed by Jiri and Blanka Zizka originally from Czechoslovakia. The staff of the Wilma, and the production team on this show, represent a mix of races and nations in the way that is the best of America, and a large percentage of the cast, (technically it would be 62.5% taking into account some dual nationalities) are American. It’s a U.S. premiere. Will the humour cross the pond? I’ll let you know.