Theatre season still thrilling us ; The series of plays now called the Colin McIntyre Classic Thriller Season is back at the Theatre Royal. ERIK PETERSEN went along to meet some of the close-knit group of actors who make it happen
SUSIE Hawthorne has an easy way of remembering how long it's been since she last did the Colin McIntyre Classic Thriller Season at the Theatre Royal.
The last time, she and husband George Telfer were working hard, partially thanks to the season's demanding schedule and partially thanks to the baby daughter that spent much of the season backstage in a pram.
She's now in Crete with her boyfriend, Susie says of daughter Lucy. So then, it's been a few years. Eighteen, to be exact.
There have been a few changes since then - and indeed, a few more since the summer season of old-fashioned whodunnits first started a quarter of a century ago. The biggest change, of course, is that Colin McIntyre is no longer here. The actor, director, producer died in 2011 and is now memorialised every August at the Theatre Royal. The Classic Thriller Season is now the Colin McIntyre Classic Thriller Season.
There have been other changes. An Agatha Christie play always used to be a staple of the season - until a 2005 deal between the Christie estate and West End producer Bill Kenwright that gave his production company exclusive rights to all Agatha's works. These days, the Christie tends to get replaced by a work by mid-century thriller writer Francis Durbridge. This year's Durbridge, The Gentle Hook, runs this week and hasn't been performed as part of the season since 1994.
But if some things have changed, plenty has stayed the same. For many of the close-knit actors who return every year for the season and also frequently work elsewhere with each other, Colin McIntyre Classic Thriller Season offers the chance to do proper repertory theatre the way it used to be done.
Although that's not always for the faint of heart.
Jeremy Lloyd Thomas has done 13 seasons - the last ten plus three early ones before living in Australia for a few years. This week he's been acting in the season's opening play, Murder Live! while preparing for The Gentle Hook, which he directs. (It's common for several of the veteran actors to slip back and forth between acting and directing during the season.) Some of the actors work in all four plays and most work in at least two, so a typical week often involves rehearsing one play by day and performing another one by night.
On those days, Jeremy says, you arrive at the theatre around 10am and leave around 10pm. There's little time and little room for error. This week, while performing Murder Live! at night, the actors have been knocking an entire play into shape in a process that might take weeks elsewhere. On Wednesday, they learned the blocking. On Thursday, they rehearsed act one off-book. (Or, Jeremy says, hopefully mostly off-book.) On Friday came act two, and today they'll do the whole play. Then they'll do the 5pm and 8pm Saturday Murder Live! shows. The Gentle Hook opens on Monday.
It's such hard work. If it wasn't such fun, you wouldn't do it, Jeremy says. We do have a really nice time up here.
All that work stacked on top of each other can lead to problems. Saturday, with its two shows just hours apart, can be particularly tricky. Jeremy describes moments when you suddenly panic, thinking you've done this bit already and then being unable to remember if that was in this show or the one you finished a little bit ago.
Accents can also be a problem.
Once, Jeremy was doing a play that required him to speak in a Scouse accent while rehearsing one that called for a more broadly northern one. That was fine - until the evening when his Scouse accent suddenly lurched eastward.
Forgotten or misplaced lines are also an inevitable problem - but with a team of actors who have been working together for so long, there's always a way around that. If an old pro forgets a bit of dialogue with information that's necessary for the plot, she just improvises a spot to drop it in later.
And if a deathly silence befalls the stage when somebody should be coming in with a line, somebody else will be there to bail him out.
We're quite a good ensemble, Jeremy says. If there's a great silence, somebody will jump in with something.
At five seasons, Susan Earnshaw remains a rookie.
I'm still very much the newcomer, she says. I've just graduated from playing maids. I won't know what to do onstage without a Hoover.
It's not possible to get through such a hectic schedule of plays without a bit of joking and mickey-taking. And a relative newcomer like Susan gets stuck in with the rest of them.
You have to be rude, she says. You have to laugh at each other's costumes and at the end of the first day's rehearsal, you have to ask somebody 'are you really going to do it that way? More seriously, the rep theatre experience also calls for checking ego at the door, mucking in and getting things done quickly.
You have to make very quick decisions about what you're going to do with the character and you have to stick with it, she says. There's no time to play about.
For the youngest member of this year's cast, all this looks like a master's degree in old-school acting.
Chris Sheridan comes from a completely different world. He lives in London; as he headed off to Nottingham, many of his friends were decamping to Edinburgh for the Fringe or staying in the capital for the Camden Fringe.
The guys I hang out with thought (repertory theatre) was dead, he says.
He gets plenty of surprised responses from actor friends when he mentions that this year he's doing rep in Middlesbrough, Chesterfield and Nottingham.
Somebody asked me if there were still that many rep companies around, he says. I said no, I'm just hanging around with people from all of them.
Ginger-haired and fair, he bears a passing resemblance to England cricketer Eoin Morgan - the sort of boyish look that will likely let him play boyish characters for at least a decade after he otherwise would have stopped. Sitting still in a chair doesn't look like the sort of thing that comes easy for him, and as he talks about the season, the excitement rises in his voice.
I've had this privilege of being in this old-school world, but I'm a young guy, says the 26-year-old. I'm a new school actor. Everyone at drama school told you 'rep theatre is dead.' And yet while a student, he heard Ian McKellen say that repertory theatre, including a stint at Nottingham Playhouse in the early 1960s, was where he learned his craft. So when Chris got the chance to further his education with some hard theatre graft, he didn't need convincing.
He now finds himself the kid in a cast that goes back decades. Susie Hawthorne sounds wistful when she explains how the daughter who lay in a backstage pram 18 years ago will this autumn begin studies at the prestigious Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Like many of the actors' children, Lucy and her 17-year-old brother Edward have grown up knowing this life.
They've grown up watching us and surrounded by actors, Susie says.
They've grown up around the after-the-watershed backstage language.
They've grown up around the lifestyle choices. (Not long ago, Susie says, she and George met with a financial adviser who told them something they were considering wasn't prudent. Well, she says, we're not prudent people. If we were prudent, we'd be financial advisers.) And they've grown up around a form of theatre that's not changed even as everything around it does.
Last time I was here, I was playing the ingenues, and now I'm playing the old bats, Susie says.
You keep expecting to see your younger self backstage. ? Murder Live! concludes with shows at 5pm and 8pm today. It is followed by The Gentle Hook (August 5 to 10), Murder Mistaken (August 12 to 17) and Murderer (August 19 to 24). All shows start at 7:30pm Monday to Friday with a 2pm Wednesday matinee and 5pm and 8pm shows on Saturday.
Tickets are Pounds 10 to Pounds 20 and can be bought at trch.co.uk, 0115 989 5555 or at the Theatre Royal box office.
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