Thursday, 9 October 2014

Big Interview: Alexander Hanson discusses Single Spies, Stephen Ward and the future of new musicals…

Alexander Hanson is currently starring in Alan Bennett’s Single Spies (the award-winning double bill of An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution) at the Rose Theatre in Kingston. 

Alexander most recently created the title role in the world premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Stephen Ward. His theatre credits also include: Jesus Christ Superstar (arena tour), A Little Night Music (Menier/West End/Broadway), Marguerite (Theatre Royal Haymarket), The Sound of Music (Palladium), We Will Rock You (Dominion), Candide, Copenhagen, The Merchant of Venice (National), Sunset Boulevard (Adelphi), Talking to Terrorists (Royal Court) and Hay Fever and Translations (Chichester Festival Theatre). 

I recently spoke to Alexander about his new role in Single Spies and the secret of Alan Bennett’s success as well as his thoughts about Stephen Ward and the future of new West End musicals…

How much did you already know about Single Spies? What attracted you to the project?
I kind of knew a little bit about it because I had seen it years ago on the telly with Alan Bates. I had also seen A Question of Attribution with James Fox, both were quite brilliant. I’ve always had a slight fascination for those guys. I remember my interest being peaked by an article that William Boyd, the novelist, wrote in the Observer one Sunday. I think he was promoting his book, Restless, which is a spy novel and features a kind of Philby-esque type character in it. I remember it just caught me. Then this year, quite coincidentally, Ben Macintyre came out with his new book A Spy Among Friends which was about Philby so I thought I would give it a read. It’s a riveting read but at the time I knew nothing about Single Spies. It came up and I was drawn to it. 

I think it’s nice timing for the piece because we haven’t seen many spy thrillers on stage recently!
Maybe you’re right. It was all the rage at one point, I guess in the 70s and 80s. I don’t know how relevant it is, maybe it is relevant? 

How would you describe it to people? How will they come away feeling?
For a start it’s great writing and very thought provoking. I guess for a certain demographic it is a reminder of that time. I have to say I have a great deal of sympathy for the so-called traitors. I think it is fascinating and a sort of reminder for the older generation. For a younger crowd it’s kind of a history lesson! There are universal themes regarding principles and people who are politically passionate about something who don’t necessarily regard themselves as traitors. They regard themselves as people who want to make the world a better and fairer place.

Alan Bennett’s writing is extraordinary and always comes back – we have The History Boys touring again next year too. Is it possible to put your finger on his success? 
I have to confess to my ignorance now; I’ve only read An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution. I’ve seen History Boys but haven’t read it and haven’t read many of his others. Isn’t that shocking! There is a… I don’t know… this tug of nostalgia about his writing which I think really grips an Englishman’s soul. There is certainly something Alan taps into because he is very English – he’s from Yorkshire.

How was the rehearsal process? Having a company working on two plays must have been challenging?
Rehearsals were up and down and fraught. Sometimes you want to cry and sometimes you’re ecstatic! This is so brilliantly written with so many layers to it so takes a fair bit of excavation. It’s fulfilling stuff! The only frustration was rehearsing two plays in the time that one would normally rehearse one play. In spite of the fact they are short-ish plays, you are still inhabiting a completely different world. Sometimes I felt like rehearsing but I couldn’t because they were rehearsing the other one which was a little bit frustrating, but I guess it keeps you working hard. As long as producers don’t get the wrong idea and start thinking actors only need two weeks rehearsal [laughs]! We don’t want them to think that! It has been really stimulating. It’s great to work on something like this. 

Over the last few years you’ve done Jesus Christ Superstar in arenas, Stephen Ward in the West End and now you’re at the Rose Theatre. They’re all completely different spaces to perform in! How do they all compare?
That’s a good question, I mean with the arena tour you just had to do it because it was like being a Rockstar. I did We Will Rock You originally and the reason I did that first of all was because Robert De Niro was one of the producers and, being one of the principals, he would have to give me half a minute of his time – so I thought it was worth it for six months. I was working with guitarists and for me that was [laughs] so cool! But that was at the Dominion, and then suddenly I was playing to 15,000 people at the O2 which was extraordinary. In a way it was actually less nerve wracking because they’re so remote. The music is so loud you can barely hear the crowd; we had these In-Ears because otherwise you go deaf. It was a different discipline. Stephen Ward at the Aldwych was regular theatre really and the Rose is nice too, I hadn’t performed there before. You duck and dive and tailor your performance as well as the way you work. It keeps you interested! I mean it’s better than working in a bank [laughs]!

What is it like now to look back at Stephen Ward? Everyone was talking about it and everyone had an opinion. 
It seems so long ago now! It seems like an age ago, yet it was only a few months. I loved doing it, it was a great part and I loved coming back to it every day and just chipping away and making it more three dimensional. Plus I liked the music! Having said all that, if I’d been a punter - who knows - I may not have even gone to see it! I would have thought, ‘Oh there’s Andrew (Lloyd Webber) tackling a serious subject, I think I’ll go and see that in straight theatre form at the National.’ I can sympathise with people for not coming to see it. Andrew took a punt and did something he was interested in. He's as rich as Croesus and doesn’t need to work, and yet he had a go at it. I thought it was a great world to inhabit, there’s all that stuff regarding the 60s and how Great Britain and London was changing. It was fascinating, just fascinating and I look back and think it was a lovely job to do! It was a lovely company and I’ve never been in a show which has divided opinion in quite the way Stephen Ward did. I can’t quite work out why it didn’t work, I think there are a range of reasons. It could be the title or because we opened at the daftest time – just before Christmas when it wasn’t a family show. We opened on the night the Apollo ceiling fell in which was a PR disaster and then we had the floods so the demographic audience who may have wanted to come just cancelled. There were tube strikes too. It obviously just didn’t quite grab. There were people who said “God we love that show, it’s just fantastic!” and spoke so intelligently about it because they thought it was an important show.

What do you think about the future of new musicals?
I’m worried that there is a change, we weren’t the only show to close – Tim Rice’s show (From Here To Eternity) also closed. It’s almost like unless it’s a perfect show with songs everybody knows it ‘ain’t gonna’ work. I think, ‘well hang on a second, how is this going to develop?! Are we just going to have the Mamma Mias and jukebox musicals?’ I hope that’s just sort of financially orientated because we’re great risk takers in this country with our theatre, we always have been. I think that should apply to musicals as well. I love Mamma Mia! Don’t get me wrong – I love Jersey Boys too! But we also want a good story but people aren’t going to do it. I think they are going to have to change the format and go to small theatres, start small to create interest before moving into a bigger theatre. 

That often happens on Broadway with ‘out-of-town tryouts’.
But then when I did A Little Night Music at the Menier, which is about 160 seats, it was obviously the hottest ticket in town. We had people queuing around the block and murdering for returns. It was fantastic! It’s a great space to play and there was a fantastic buzz, but then we moved to the Garrick and suddenly we were playing to about fifty percent. That’s interesting because the show had fantastic reviews, it was a wonderful production. What happened there? I don’t know. I like the Trafalgar Studios idea, I really like what Jamie Lloyd is doing. There is a shift.

Theatre fans are very dedicated and will follow your career and support whatever you do. It must be reassuring to have that support behind you?
It’s really fantastic. It’s great when people are engaged by something you’re in and want to talk about it. Stephen Ward sparked strong opinions and I thought that was really good! I enjoy that, it makes you go away and think again. I think English audiences are just great. Theatregoers in this country are bright and switched on; I just hope they don’t give up on new musicals just yet. 

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Single Spies runs at the Rose Theatre until Saturday 11th October 2014.
Visit for information and tickets.

Photo Credit 1&2: Keith Patterson 
Photo Credit 3: Nobby Clark

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