Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Interview: Leon Ockenden, starring in Flare Path

Leon Ockenden is currently starring as Peter Kyle in the UK tour of Flare Path by Terence Rattigan.

Based on Rattigan’s experiences as a tail gunner during World War II, Flare Path paints an evocative portrait of life in wartime Britain for the life-and-death existence of the RAF bomber crews, and their wives and sweethearts who were left waiting their return.

Leon's theatre credits include: Mat in Muswell Hill (Orange Tree), Charles/Sir Oliver Martext/Jaque de Boys in As You Like It & Lorenzo in The Merchant Of Venice (both Lamb Players), Terry Fordham in Plague Over England (West End), Krapp in The Big Lie & Messenger in Women Beware Women (both RSC), Terry Fordham in Plague Over England (Finborough), Ferdinand in The Tempest (Liverpool Playhouse) and Merlin in Tricky (Courtyard). 

Just a selection of his television work includes playing: Prince Serge de Bolotoff in Mr Selfridge, Hector Reid in Waterloo Road, Cameron Shannon in An Old Fashioned Christmas, Kevin Humphries in New Tricks, Connor in Secret Diary Of A Call Girl, Chris Oakley in Heartbeat, Sam Taylor in Family Affairs and Simon in Hustle. On film he has appeared in Open Desert, The Cosmonaut, Across The River, Red Tails and Dread.

I recently spoke to Leon about what makes Flare Path such an extraordinary play, how he’s feeling about taking on his first UK tour and why he likes being kept on his toes…

The first time I saw Flare Path was in the West End a few years ago with Sheridan Smith and Sienna Miller. It took my breath away and is now one of my absolute favourite plays. Were you aware of it? What made you want to take on the role?
I didn’t get to see that production, but what you just said is exactly what drew me to it! As an actor you’re an interpretive artist and you want as rich a text as possible to investigate. We are touring this production to the end of November, and I think we will still be investigating and working on it right to the end because Rattigan is a bit like an English Chekhov – the characters are so well drawn. This is a play set in very extreme historical circumstances but, like when you saw it and when I read it, the play makes you laugh so much and then it is so deeply moving at the end. 

Leon and the cast of Flare Path

These characters are in a different world, but that doesn’t stop them being relatable…
I completely concur, because it’s such a personal play which is drawn upon Rattigan’s own personal experiences as a Wellington bomber I think he was really able to write with great depth and feeling about the people he was working with. 

Tell me more about your character, Peter. Have you enjoyed getting to grips with him?
Well what we’ve been discovering is that he’s very interesting and enigmatic and a slightly contradictory character. I think sometimes with fiction we like to smooth any contradictions out to make it more palatable. What we’re relishing is enjoying his slightly contrary nature. He’s very much an outsider – all the other men in the play are men in uniform and men of service. Peter has a very guarded and protected public image. I was doing some research into Errol Flynn the other night and what the actors got away with in those days is unbelievable!! The studio would protect them in a way that can’t be done now because of social media and cameras on phones and all those things. 

Olivia Hallinan & Leon
As an actor, is it interesting to play an actor?
I think it’s always interesting when actors play actors, you can examine within yourself because it’s so similar. Also, because Rattigan writes human beings so well, on the surface Peter is a little selfish and narcissistic, but underneath that there’s an incredibly deep thinking and sensitive soul. It’s interesting how his persona is divorced from his inner psyche, as it were. 

What has the atmosphere been like backstage and in rehearsals? You have an amazing cast!
The other day we had a big cheese and wine night – we’re definitely embracing the being on the road side of things. It’s my first time doing a tour and the good news is that lots of the others are more experienced at it so know the venues and nice places to go and eat. What I like about being on tour is it feels like we’re this little band rocking up into a seaside village to put on our play [laughs], and we’re going to eat and drink lots and hopefully try and make you laugh and cry.

Your career has been so varied – as well as theatre you work extensively in film and TV, plus you were back on This Morning the other week doing some cooking! Do you like being kept on your toes?
[laughs] Yes sir! What I’m learning to embrace as an actor is you have no idea what the next job is going to be or if you will even ever get another job. What you need to try and do is jump into everything wholeheartedly and embrace it, because by the end of November that could be it! I know an actor friend of mine who is extremely talented and went through four and a half years without work. Then he just got offered a part in a play, but they did lots of behind the scenes investigations because they were like, ‘This guy is really talented, so why hasn’t he worked for four and a half years?’ But it’s just the way the industry is! I try and enjoy every day and see where we go from there. 

Leon Ockenden on This Morning

It must be nice to come back to cooking all these years later?
When I was a baker I eventually ran away from that profession, so for it to come back into my life in this way was unexpected. I can tell you this, cooking on This Morning is much better than cooking for a thousand for lunch and a thousand for dinner at the London Hilton on Park Lane. It’s a much more enjoyable experience!

It’s crazy – one minute you’re a TV chef and the next second you’re back in rehearsals for a Rattigan play! There’s nothing like a bit of variety!
Because I live in Manchester at the moment, my fictional mum (in Mr Selfridge), Zoë Wanamaker put me up while I was rehearsing in London! So I got to have my Mr Selfridge life in the evening and my Rattigan life during the day, mixed in with being a daytime TV presenter [laughs]! 

Zoë Wanamaker & Leon
Is it important for you to come back and do theatre when you can?
I love it! I think the reason all actors love it is because it’s an actors’ medium. Even last week, the performance we did on Tuesday changed significantly to what we did on Saturday. We’ve still been rehearsing during the days, last week we changed a big sequence and that’s the joy of it! With filming you do a scene – you get a blocking, you film it and then the directors and producers put it back together. They shape your performance, whereas in the theatre you work very closely with everyone and have the final control. Justin (Audibert) our director is really talented at giving us the fuel to continue investigating the text, that makes it a really good thing. I’m already a better actor because of this experience. With theatre you are able to keep improving and keep discovering new stuff, and that’s what makes it such a humbling privilege to do as a job. 

It’s amazing to speak to someone who is so genuinely passionate about what they do!
I was almost crying during vocal warm up before our first show! I was so humbled because I was a fifteen year old working in a bakery and now I’m being paid money to try and entertain people in the evenings and present this play. It’s a deep, deep privilege and I can’t… life can be quite tough, and when you get to do a job which has such a joyous spiritual side to it, it’s very lovely.

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

The UK tour of Flare Path is currently booking until 28th November 2015, visiting Richmond, Bath, Malvern, Exeter, Cambridge, Salisbury, Winchester, Ipswich, Coventry, Liverpool and Guildford. Please visit for further information, full tour dates and tickets.

Photo Credit 2-3: Jack Ladenburg

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