Simon Fearn talks to the cast and crew of Ooook! Productions’ upcoming ‘A Comedy Double Bill’.
Famed for their annual Terry Pratchett production and sitcom adaptations, Ooook! Productions have now ventured into the terrain of surrealist, meta-theatrical comedy. I meet the team behind their latest double bill: Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound and Christopher Durang’s The Actor’s Nightmare.
“We first came across The Real Inspector Hound and read it as an exec, and we all thought it was so clever and so funny,” Matthew Elliot-Ripley tells me, George in The Actor’s Nightmare and President of Ooook!. “We were cackling with laughter. We did loads of digging round and looked at loads of plays to pair with it, and we finally came across The Actor’s Nightmare.”
Bart Edge, the director of The Actor’s Nightmare, assures me that this was an excellent choice. “It was an opportunity to do something very different and unique as opposed to a lot of other Durham comedies,” he explains. “The Actor’s Nightmare is a play I studied for a bit in school, and it became one of my favourites because it is strongly comic, but has that odd surreal side to it. It goes through all these different styles of plays, all these different recognisable characters. It’s always interested me.”
So what are the advantages of surrealist productions? “There have been lots of opportunities to think about the interpretation,” Edge responds. “How to make it funny to an audience, and then add in that slightly creepy, nightmarish element — sections where people don’t quite look at each other, when people are starting to distance themselves from George, and become these weird figures. It’s been a really good play to experiment with acting-wise.”
But, of course, plays like these bring with them some embarrassing conversations when sourcing props. “It’s been very strange emailing suppliers and saying ‘I want a sofa that a dead body could easily hide under,’” admits producer of both productions, Alice Malone. “And some bins that people can fit in,” chips in Mikey Bicarregui, Assistant-Director of The Actor’s Nightmare.
For Elliot-Ripley, taking the lead in The Actor’s Nightmare offered an interesting challenge: how to portray a character who is hopelessly unsuited to performance. “I’m used to playing caricature roles, and one of the things Bart has to keep telling me is tone it down and pull it back. I really enjoyed the challenge. The play explores what it takes not to be an actor. One of the things I find really fun is the way the other characters react to George not doing the right things — none of them can handle it either.” Elliot-Ripley can sympathise here, as in the past he’s found himself on stage “with people who’ve completely had mind blanks, and I’ve never known what to do! It’s every actor’s worst nightmare to find themselves on stage, having to do a monologue for a page and a half and having no idea what to say.”
Despite both plays being very funny, and the rehearsal I watched for The Actor’s Nightmare was genuinely hilarious, they draw on deep anxieties. “It’s like that nightmarish situation that often comes up in dreams where you know what’s going to happen, but you have no control,” says Elliot-Ripley. “You try to communicate with other people in the dream, but they will not communicate back to you in a satisfying way. You have this wall of detachment.”
In The Real Inspector Hound, repetition creates a uniquely unsettling effect. “It’s almost more disconcerting that you know it’s going to be the same,” explains Tom Mander, director of The Real Inspector Hound. “You watch it start to unfold all over again. The audience think that it’s got to be different because there are different people on stage. The great thing that Stoppard does is that he takes these actors [in the murder mystery play-within-a-play], that you don’t really care about, and asks ‘why don’t you really care about them?’, and then he takes the critics and asks ‘would you care about these actors?’ because they’re actually no different, they’re still people playing people.”
As I head off, the team make a last effort to try and tempt you to The Assembly Rooms. Malone, true to her role as producer, goes for the economic incentive: “you get two plays for the price of one!” Lucy Knight, who plays Felicity in The Real Inspector Hound, goes for a different tack. “We’re toying with the idea of theatre and what theatre is, specifically the relationship between actors and critics” she says. “How real is what we see? How real is art?”
“If you like your humour dark and uncomfortable in a good way, then this is the play for you,” concludes Bicarregui.
‘A Comedy Double Bill’ will be performed from Thu 3 Dec until Sat 5 Dec at The Assembly Room Theatre, Durham. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Alice Malone