Thursday, 15 June 2017

INTERVIEW Susan Calman - the Calman Before The Storm



TEN years ago Susan Calman was a top flight corporate lawyer working at places including the United Nations in Geneva.
But she says it was unfulfilling and stressful so she made the decision to give it all up and pursue her long held ambition and become a comedian.
Now, a decade later the somewhat diminutive, smiley and very funny Glaswegian has had the success many in her profession can only dream about. Indeed not only has she conquered the stand up circuit with sold out shows at the Soho Theatre and Edinburgh Fringe, she has also showed off her talents on radio with numerous credits including Radio 4’s The News Quiz, The Unbelievable Truth and Now Show not to mention presenting Woman’s Hour.
And if that wasn’t enough she has appeared on the BBC’s hit shows Have I Got News for You and QI, as well as Show and Tell, The Matt Lucas Awards, Dara O’Briain’s School of Hard Sums, 8 Out of 10 Cats, The Dog Ate My Homework, Would I Lie To You and Mock the Week. 
She is currently working on Too Much TV for BBC2, is writing a book and - to underline her appeal to not just adults but the younger generation as well - will soon host 30 episodes of a new quiz show Top Class to be broadcast on the BBC children’s channel CBBC. 
Clearly Susan does not like to sit around twiddling her thumbs nor indeed rest on her laurels as in amongst all this she hasn’t forgotten her stand up roots and to prove the point she is currently criss crossing the country dispensing witty anecdotes in a tour of her new show, The Calman Before The Storm.
In it she tells me she wants to rip through all the preconceptions about her and challenge the assumptions people have about her political views, her height, her nationality and her sexuality.
As part of the tour, the show is heading to South London where she will take to the stage at Greenwich Theatre on Monday, June 26.
What is clear when we chat ahead of the gig is that she is indeed as warm and friendly as she comes across on TV and radio and has plenty to say on most subjects.
But first things first, with so much on her professional plate how has she managed to fit the tour in?
“I do a lot,” she agrees chuckling. “But I do try and tour every two years or so. It’s hectic but it’s lovely to do.
“I’ve been on the road on and off with this show since March and it’s going well. 
“The joy of stand up in a tour like this is that it’s essentially the same show but every night is different as it depends on what the audience likes and doesn’t like.”
And she’s looking forward to her foray into South London.
“I’ve never been to Greenwich Theatre before so I’m looking forward to it,” she says warmly.
“It’s really exciting to stand up in front of an audience in a venue you don’t know. It makes it quite a thrill as no one is quite sure what’s going to happen!
“What’s also nice is that the audience is close to me - I like people to still be able to see the whites of my eyes! It makes it more enjoyable too.”
So what will be on the agenda this time I ask. Quite a lot as it turns out including politics and her home life with a liberal sprinkling of personal anecdotes.
“This show is basically 90 minutes of observational comedy from a personal point of view,” she explains.
“I’ve recently bought a house and it’s quite a change as we are now in a lovely suburban street with some pretty lovely neighbours. It’s great!
“So I’ll talk a bit about this and also stories about me that hopefully people can relate to. I talk about my wife - so much that the audience feels sorry for her!
“Although I do talk a bit of politics I don’t dwell on stuff like Trump and Brexit as I think everyone is a bit sick of it. And I don’t want to dwell on how people voted as I want the show to be much more about inclusivity. 
“So there won’t be any lecturing - it’s going to be a nice jolly evening. I just want people to have a lovely time and get away from all that kind of stuff. So come and see my show and enjoy it.”
Despite her obvious talent Susan says she is surprised at her longevity and success in what is a notoriously difficult business. 
Growing up with ambitions of being a stand up after being inspired by the likes of Billy Connelly, Joyce Grenfell and Victoria Wood, she did a degree in law and became a lawyer, but says she knew in her heart that being a corporate lawyer was not for her.
“I didn’t think I would last this long!” she muses. “In many ways this show is really a celebration of my 10 years in comedy.
“Growing up I was inspired very much by the likes of Billy Connelly. Almost all his stand up featured personal stories which he made so so funny. He did certain things and made fun of himself and was hilarious. 
“I also grew up listening to Victoria Wood - she was the one I loved most and made women funny.
“When I started out I saw her at the Royal Albert Hall. It was amazing - she was the greatest comic. But she was also the most amazing actor, writer and musician and if I can do things a quarter as well as her I would be exceeding expectations. 
“But above all she was a great storyteller and that was what I really loved - I still love listening to other people’s stories.
“I’m not a joke teller - if you want that, people like Jimmy Carr are genius at it but I’m not. 
“I just colour the story in - and hopefully the stories I tell, people can relate to.”
Touring and her very busy workload does mean she spends a good deal of time away from her home in Glasgow which she shares with her wife and five cats.
“Two of them are quite young and I don’t get home an awful lot so when I do I tend to chase them around the room!” she laughs. “What then happens is that they run away.
“I do miss them all when I’m away but no matter how miserable I am for being away from home I always remember how lucky I am to do this.”
And she certainly doesn’t regret her change of direction career wise, even though she admits there were times in the early days it was a “slog”.
“I had always wanted to be a stand up but in 1992 when I left school it would be ridiculous thing to say I wanted to be a comedian. So I went into law but eventually I just realised that if I didn’t try stand up I was never going to do it. So I started doing gigs - it took a good six years before I got to the point that it wasn’t a slog.
“I know I’m lucky but I’ve worked hard and I love the variety of doing all the different things like touring, TV and radio. 
“Things couldn’t be going better and I’m incredibly happy!”

Susan Calman, The Calman Before The Storm is at Greenwich Theatre on Monday, June 26. Visit www.greenwichtheatre.org.uk or call the box office on 020 8858 4447 for full listings.



Tuesday, 13 June 2017

FOUR STAR REVIEW - Lettice & Lovage at the Menier Chocolate Factory

FOUR STARS


Peter Shaffer’s play Lettice & Lovage was first performed at the Theatre Royal Bath in 1987. Now 30 years later it has been revived by Sir Trevor Nunn at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
It is set firstly in the Grand Hall of Fustian House, a stately pile in rural Wiltshire, where a certain Lettice Douffet is a guide, taking visitors around on tours of the house. It appears to be a miserable job because nothing of note has ever happened there.
So, when one of her visitors yawns at the end of one tour she decides to take action to liven things up a bit. Using her theatrical prowess, gained from growing up with an actress mother who spent most of her time in France, she begins to embellish the stories until some of them retain very little, if any, truth. They seem to be successful, so much so, that bowls she puts out to collect “appreciations” begin to overflow.
However, one day a certain Lotte Schoen turns up from the Preservation Trust which employs Lettice, and berates her for telling fibs to bring in the punters. Despite firing Lettice, it is the start of an entertaining friendship between these two very different women which ultimately sees them joining forces.
It is not the greatest of plays, however there are some very funny moments, including the scene in which they both get sozzled on Lettice’s homemade brew of “verbal and herbal” ingredients.
The big draw in this production is the fact it’s been directed by Sir Trevor Nunn and that its two stars are Felicity Kendal as Lettice and Maureen Lipman as Lotte. 
Kendal in particular is a delight as the flamboyant, theatrical red headed Lettice whose outlandish and entertaining stories of the dull as dishwater Fustian House are regaled with aplomb.
Sadly, the full comedic prowess of Lipman is not able to shine through, although this is really down to the script. There are thankfully, a few moments of brilliance, such as when Lotte discovers Lettice has a cat and proceeds to gag as though she is bringing up a fur ball of her own, which brought the house down.
Ultimately it is a delightful pairing and a treat to see these two great actresses on stage together in what is a hugely entertaining production.


Lettice & Lovage is on at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Southwark Street until July 8. Tickets from £40.

INTERVIEW - Anthony Head


People of a certain age will know Anthony Head as the suave coffee drinking chap from the hugely successful Nescafe ads of the 1980s. Others will know him as the Prime Minister in Little Britain, David Whelan in Dominion and of course as Rupert Giles in Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
But the London born actor’s long and illustrious career also includes the stage with stints at the RSC and the National not to mention his West End turn as Frank N Furter in Rocky Horror. 
And it is the stage that is his current focus of attention thanks to a production of the critically acclaimed Love In Idleness which has just transferred to the Apollo Theatre from the Menier Chocolate Factory.
He tells me the play is actually an amalgamation of two - Terrence Rattigan’s original version, Less Than Kind and actor Alfred Lunts’ reworking of it - by director Sir Trevor Nunn.
In it Anthony plays Sir John Fletcher, a tank expert in Churchill’s government during the latter stages of World War Two. Sir John is separated from his much younger wife and is now happily living with Olivia Brown, a vivacious and charismatic widow of two years standing, played by Eve Best. It is clear the pair are besotted with each other. 
However, their idyllic set up is disrupted and put in jeopardy when her firebrand son Michael comes home from Canada from where he was evacuated a few years previously. A young socialist, Michael disapproves entirely of his mother’s relationship with Sir John, who he sees as representing everyone that is wrong with society. He sets about to destroy their relationship - forcing her to choose between her lover and son - and in so doing allows the play to explore the subjects of love, passion, politics, ideology and loyalty.
Anthony and I chat shortly before the country voted in the general election and it is clear the role and indeed the play has proved to be a fascinating project for him to work on not least given the current political climate.
“The play is set in 1944 and at a time when life had changed enormously because of the war,” he tells me. “For the first time things looked as though they were going in our favour and that we were going to win the war.
“At the same time there was a huge political change with the rise in socialism and of course after the war the country elected a Labour government who went on to create the Welfare State and the NHS.
“It’s much like today in many ways. We are in the midst of an election, there’s the whole issue of Brexit and it feels as though the political landscape is shifting. 
“Within the play we see how Olivia and Sir John enjoy their dinner parties and taking part in political discussions. It makes this production very current and relevant so I hope audiences will enjoy it and be entertained but also think about the parallels.”
But he insists it is not just a platform to discuss politics citing the incredible humour within the piece that have had audiences laughing loudly ever since it opened at the Menier.
“What Trevor [Nunn] has done with the two plays is brilliant,” Anthony says warmly. “He’s got the best of both and written it really well. When I saw the script it was clear how extraordinary it was.
“There are so many genres - it’s got themes of love and what it is to find love and keep it, as well as drama, Noel Coward-esque farce, real sadness, passion and political conscience - with clear and obvious references to Hamlet and elements of Chekhov. It’s very clever.
“There is also great characterisation. Sir John is an industrialist, a multi millionaire and minister of tank production. It’s likely he is loosely based on Lord Beaverbrook who was Churchill’s right hand man during the war.
“He is separated but not divorced from his younger trophy wife but has now found his soul mate in Olivia - so everything in his life is hunky dory, that is until Michael comes along!
“Michael comes back from Canada, a socialist, with an expectation that his mother will be lonely but finds she is living in this nice house with me hanging around. He is petulant and annoying and sees me as a dreadful capitalist, someone who has seduced his poor defenceless mother - so there is a huge head on collision both culturally, politically and emotionally. 
“Sir John comes across initially as quiet and modest but he’s got a steely determination and is really a schemer just like Michael and is more than a match for him. You see how underhand he is at the end - though he does what he does with the very best of intentions! 
“It's a really meaty piece and it’s been such a joy to be part of. In fact it was a no brainer - when you get a call from Sir Trevor Nunn and find out Eve Best is on board, I couldn’t wait to get to rehearsals!”
He adds joking that his enthusiasm was tempered somewhat when he realised that they only had four rather than six weeks rehearsal before opening at the Menier. But he needn’t have worried because the reception it got secured it a West End transfer which he describes as “wonderful”.
“Audiences seem to have found more life in it and have laughed more raucously!” he laughs.
He also chuckles as he tells me he now regards himself as something of an “expert in tanks” thanks to the research he did for the role and recommends a visit the Cabinet War Rooms for anyone interested in the history.
“Churchill was an extraordinary man, and the Cabinet War Rooms is an incredible place,” he says. “Trevor did a lot of research and got Pathe news footage from that period which is cleverly projected onto the stage at various intervals. It shows images from the war as well as afterwards such as when Labour was elected and the subsequent creation of the NHS and Welfare State - something that is now so current for us all.”
Although he’s clearly fascinated by politics, it’s acting that has always been in his blood. However, given his illustrious career it comes as a surprise that Anthony undertook acting lessons when he moved to LA just before landing his role in Buffy.
He credits his partner Sarah with the idea and says it was “absolutely the right thing to do”. 
“I acknowledge the fact I’ve been hugely fortunate,” he says warmly about his longevity in what is a notoriously tricky business. 
“Sarah encouraged me to go to America to work and when I rang her up after two months of being out there she told me to go and get on with it and go and get acting classes. It led to my first job out there and then Buffy, which in turn led to Little Britain and Dr Who, all of which were very different roles.
“The bottom line is it’s hard work trying to make sure you are not pigeonholed though.
“However, Giles in Buffy was a wonderful step as I’d always been a young romantic lead and he was a real character role. It gave me an ‘in’ to a completely new world. I knew it was going to be good because the writing was so brilliant but I don’t think any of us realised how huge it would be. We had a great time with it.”
And he says he’d do the coffee ad again. “It changed my life - and the face of advertising - so yes, I’ve been very lucky.”




Love In Idleness is on at the Apollo Theatre until July 1. Tickets from £20. Visit www.nimaxtheatres.com/apollo-theatre/love_in_idleness/ for full listings.

Friday, 24 March 2017

FIVE STAR REVIEW - Love In Idleness at the Menier Chocolate Factory

FIVE STARS

A young man, with socialist principles, comes back from living in Canada for four years only to find his widowed mother living rent free with a millionaire who is still not quite divorced from his much younger wife.
And so begins Terrence Rattigan’s play Love In Idleness which is currently being staged at the Menier Chocolate Factory and directed by Trevor Nunn.
It is hilariously funny from the off with the characters leading a merry dance around the subjects of love, passion, politics, ideology and loyalty.
Set in the latter stages of the Second World War, Olivia Brown is vivacious, charismatic, dippy and ditzy and has been a widow for two years. After her husband dies she falls for Sir John Fletcher, a man with more money than he knows what to do with and who despite being a business man with no political experience, has found himself a member of Churchill’s war cabinet in charge of tanks.
He is as besotted with her as she is with him but because of his job he cannot divorce his wife. 
Her son Michael comes back from Canada and takes an instant dislike to Sir John and eventually, after much conniving and mischief making, forces his mother to make a choice - him or Sir John.
Torn between the two and with distinct references to both Hamlet and Oedipus, she chooses her son over her lover.
It is directed with panache by Nunn and thanks to a stellar cast this staging of the play works really well. 
Anthony Head as Sir John is terrific, showing off a quiet but steely determination to keep his love, as is Edward Bluemel, fresh from starring in The Halcyon, as Olivia’s sulky, petulant and firebrand son Michael.
But it is Eve Best as Olivia who dazzles her way through the production. She positively bursts with energy and is a delight to watch, capturing Olivia’s ditziness perfectly as well as her dilemma at having to choose between son and lover - particularly when her son has given her such a horrid choice. She lights up the stage whenever she is on, which happily is most of the time.

Love In Idleness is on at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Southwark Street until April 29. Visit www.menierchocolatefactory.com for full listings.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

INTERVIEW Paul McGann

It’s 30 years since Paul McGann made a name for himself in the classic cult film Withnail & I. Now he’s about to embark on his first UK theatre tour playing German Major Von Pfunz in Gabriel. I caught up with him for a chat.

Paul McGann needs no introduction. He’s the man whose portrayal of the eponymous I in the cult classic Withnail & I propelled him to stardom. That was 30 years ago and in the years since his career has gone from strength to strength and he’s become a household name in the process. Indeed his CV is as impressive as it gets showing his versatility as an actor with performances on both stage and screen including in Hornblower and Luther and of course playing the eighth incarnation of the Doctor in Doctor Who.
But he’s never done a UK theatre tour - that is until now. For next month the 57-year-old actor is to pack his bags for an eight-week stint in Moira Buffini’s acclaimed play Gabriel which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary. 
Set in 1943 German occupied Guernsey, it tells the story of widow and mother Jeanne who does whatever it takes to keep her adolescent daughter Estelle and daughter-in-law Lily safe on an island filled with danger and fear. However she meets her toughest test in the form of the terrifying Commander Von Pfunz whose romantic advances are dangerous to say the least but which may be the only way to keep her family alive. The tension racks up further when a mysterious young man is washed ashore with no memory of who he is. It transpires he’s fluent in German and English, so the question is, is he an RAF pilot, an SS interrogator, a local boy with amnesia or a saviour sent from heaven? 
Kicking off in Richmond on March 28, the production will cross the country visiting theatres in Greenwich, Liverpool, Windsor, Guildford, Eastbourne and Clwyd, something Paul tells me he’s looking forward to. 
“It will be great to bring the play to all these wonderful theatres like Greenwich, places I’ve never performed at before,” he says.
“I’ve been to see shows in Greenwich and it’s a lovely theatre so it will be good to actually be on the stage there this time.”
We meet in a private members’ club in central London where Paul is spending the day chatting to various journalists about the production before he gets stuck into the rigours of rehearsals. And if he’s understandably growing a bit weary of all the attention and the barrage of questions by the time I arrive, he doesn’t show it. In fact he is as relaxed as they come with an easy going manner, affable charm and a warm sense of humour. 
So keen is he about the production, and being part of it, that he wastes no time in telling me all about it and about the research he did into the occupation of the island. 
“It’s a fascinating piece,” he says. “It’s dark and intense, although it’s not all doom and gloom of course, but it’s a real thriller, exciting and incredibly gripping. 
“It’s set in Guernsey in the middle of the Second World War, and it’s a great place to set a story. It was a strange time for the islanders as in many respects, life continued as normal. 
“On the face of it, it was a peaceful occupation. There was no armed resistance nor any uprisings. However food was scarce, there was a thriving black market, and plenty of wheeling and dealing going on. Indeed some people made a fortune. And while some worked the land, most of the men of fighting age were away so it was mainly women left on the island.
“So to have the central character in this play a woman is entirely fitting. Jeanne is widowed and has a daughter with whom she lives and a son who is in the forces. Her house is requisitioned by the German so she has to be careful. There are hints that she had a relationship with a German officer who has now been sent away and by all accounts they got on well - and again if you read the history books, this was what happened in many cases.” 
Into her life comes Von Pfunz, played by Paul, an army officer who has served in Poland but has now been sent to Guernsey and finds himself captivated by Jeanne. “He’s not a nice man, in fact he’s horrible, and he comes on to Jeanne much to her disgust,” he grimaces. 
“She is repulsed by him and is quite fearful of him, but there is a courage about her that he finds thrilling and intoxicating. It throws her completely. 
“Her dilemma is how to get on with the Germans, keep her family safe and survive without submitting to something she doesn’t want, where a mistake could be fatal.
“The tension is ratcheted up even further when a young man appears, washed up on a nearby beach. The girls save him and bring him to Jeanne’s house where he’s hidden. He claims not to know who he is, and when Von Pfunz later discovers him there the boy is able to speak with him in perfect German.”
It was, Paul says, a play he was instantly drawn to not least by the writing which he describes as “superb”. “The writing is key and is what really attracted me to playing this role,” he says.
“Von Pfunz is like nobody I’ve played before but it’s the way Moira beautifully weaves these situations and tensions together that is so good. It’s brilliantly told and when you get a really good story as an actor you can’t wait to tell it.” 
However, keen not to give away any spoilers Paul simply says the audience will be on the edge of their seats to find out what happens. 
“Jeanne is constantly in danger, the tension builds to a crescendo and she ends up in a really tight corner,” he says eyes twinkling. 
It’s clear throughout our chat that Paul still gets a buzz out of being on stage and he says he's excited to be making his debut theatre tour in such a “fantastic play”. 
“I’ve found over the years that the old actor clichè is true that live is best,” he smiles. 
“Doing TV and film is great, and I’ve been jammy enough over the years to do a lot of it, but when you go out on stage and feel the atmosphere and get that instant feedback from the audience, you just can’t beat it. 
“It is also a way of working that teaches you the most.” 
So why has it taken so long to get out on the road? It seems it’s mainly down to logistics and finding the right vehicle for his talents. This particular role and the fact his two sons are grown up has allowed him the flexibility to take on the challenge of a tour. 
“Many touring shows are musicals and there are few straight dramatic plays. I’ve been offered tours in the past, some of which were tempting, but they tended to last for months so were difficult to commit to.”
“This one stood out though as it’s so thrilling so I was really up for it. Also I’ll get a chance to discover and visit all these theatres that I’ve never performed in before as well as the different characters of the audiences, which I’m really looking forward to. It’s a new experience for me.
“It’ll be a bit like running away to the circus!” 
Paul is endearingly modest about his career and the word “jammy” to describe it crops up often. Indeed it is a surprise when he insists he never wanted to be an actor, instead harboured dreams of being a track and field sportsman. He was eventually persuaded to give acting a shot when he was 17 by one of his teachers. Somewhat alarmingly he also tells me he very nearly didn’t go to the RADA audition that had been organised for him as he was so unsure about whether it was the right thing to do. Fortunately for his legions of fans he didn’t walk past the door but went through it and got in on his first audition. He spent the next few years there “very happy” alongside such notables as Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance and says he has no regrets. 
“I was a 70s kid growing up in Liverpool, left school at 17, not qualified in anything and never thought about being an actor,” he remembers smiling.
“However, my teacher saw something in me and helped me prepare my audition to RADA. It was pretty embarrassing and I felt it went terribly. But I got in, and I loved it.
“I remember there were plenty of working class kids at RADA then. I think most of us had just fancied being movie stars. Of course that was all pie in the sky as there was no guarantee you’d even get into Equity. I was pretty jammy to get Withnail & I after just five years out. I loved working on it. We were pretty innocent and, in truth, didn’t really know what we were doing. We certainly had no idea how cool it would become.”
“Theatre has always been my favourite though - it’s what many actors will tell you - and the older I get the more I prefer it although I still get very nervous. 
“I’ve been lucky enough to play some incredible roles over the years and now I get to play Commander Von Pfunz in a play that is stunning. Life couldn’t be better!”


Paul McGann plays Commander Von Pfunz in Moira Buffini’s Gabriel, directed by Kate McGregor. Visit www.gabrieltheplay.co.uk for full listings.