Thursday, 17 December 2015

Big Interview: Martin Ball

Martin Ball is playing Scrooge in Ciaran McConville’s production of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens at the Rose Theatre Kingston.

Martin recently completed a two year run as Monsieur André in the West End production of The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre after originating the role of Horace Hardwick in Top Hat at the Aldwych Theatre. 

His extensive theatre credits also include: Thénardier in Les Misérables (West End), George Banks in Mary Poppins (national tour), Dr. Dillamond in Wicked (original West End cast), Harry Bright in Mamma Mia (West End), Dead Funny (Nottingham Playhouse), Charley’s Aunt (Sheffield Crucible), The Taming of the Shrew (Nuffield Southampton) and The Importance of Being Earnest (national tour). 

On screen Martin has appeared in Doomsday, Pappadopolous & Son, Flood, Ali G Indahouse, Bernard’s Watch, Home Farm Twins, Keeping Mum, Chalk, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Down To Earth, My Family and The Thick of It to name but a few.

I recently spoke to Martin about approaching A Christmas Carol with a fresh pair of eyes, why reading the script left him with tears streaming down his cheeks plus his experiences in The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Top Hat…

What drew you to this production of A Christmas Carol?
I don’t really remember A Christmas Carol, it wasn’t part of my childhood for some reason. I think I thought it was probably ‘just a bit dull’ and I had never seen any of the films either. When Ciaran (McConville, director & adapter) sent me the script I read it and was blown away by what a lovely story it is. Although I would probably have been able to briefly describe the plot, I came to it with fresh eyes. I sat there and, as I got to the end, tears were running down my cheeks. I thought it was absolutely delightful and wanted to be a part of it. 

I met Ciaran and we had a nice chat and I said to him “This sounds great, no matter who you hire I’m definitely coming to see it”. He smiled at me with that face which says ‘you’re being one of those disingenuous actors that wants to sound enthusiastic’ [laughs]. 

Martin in A Christmas Carol

How interesting to come to a classic with such fresh eyes; I had planned to ask how it felt to be taking on a role so many others have played, but that clearly wasn’t something you had to worry about!
I know! About a month later I still hadn’t heard back and one day my girlfriend came home and asked why I was reading the script again – it was because I just genuinely really enjoyed it so wanted to read it again… just for fun. I can’t remember when I last felt so enthusiastic about a project and a piece of storytelling. It really moved me!

Have you enjoyed working with Ciaran in the rehearsal room? What have all the kids been like to work with?
Ciaran is director of learning and participation at the Rose, his great gift is with the children. He treats the youth group as adults and sets the bar the same for the ten year olds as he does for the nineteen year olds. Whenever you set the bar very high for children they reach it – it makes you realise how much dumbing down we do unnecessarily. Ciaran inspires focus, concentration and commitment. He means business and demands enormous respect from everyone. It’s really inspiring to see!

And what about your fellow adult cast members?
Oh they are all absolutely terrific! I have immense respect for actor-musicians who can act and then pick up several different instruments, they are incredible and bring so much technique to the stage. Then there’s Paul (Hawkyard who plays Fezziwig and the Ghost Of Christmas Present) and I who go back years – we’ve known each other for about ten years but have never worked with each other. We’ve taken over parts from each other and that kind of thing, he’s just the sort of actor I completely adore! He’s inventive, generous and can take an apparently innocuous line and get an enormous laugh. 

How have you found going from reading the script with tears streaming down your cheeks to actually playing the role?
It’s an absolute delight because there’s this enormous arc which is so unusual! He starts utterly lost standing on his head and ends up the right way round. What’s fascinating is plotting that journey all the way, you can’t get there too early because it takes three ghosts for him to get the point. He learns throughout but doesn’t get fully there until the end. When he realises he’s got another chance it’s one of the most beautiful moments of storytelling – it’s a great tale of redemption and it’s something we can all relate to. We’re all human and all make mistakes, to have a second chance is an incredible thing which many of us aren’t always lucky enough to have. It’s the most special gift the world can ever give you.

Have you enjoyed going from the West End to the Rose? 
Yes, the Rose can be both intimate and epic which not many spaces can achieve – that is why it’s such a perfect theatre. When you’re in the heights of the West End and have your own dressing room, you just sit there quietly with a bit of music, but actually you’re not interacting with anyone. So it’s lovely to be sharing with all the guys at the Rose – everyone has lots of banter and is very supportive. Any mood or emotional state you come in with gets rubbed off as soon as you get in because you can’t be precious or special, you’re just one of a load of boys sitting in a row farting and making bad jokes [laughs]. It’s as much fun as anything you do on stage!

“I can’t remember when I last felt so enthusiastic about a project and a piece of storytelling.”

You recently left The Phantom of the Opera after two years. What it’s like to leave a show you’ve been in for so long? It must be strange after getting into the routine?
I was sent to boarding school before I was seven and you get used to coming home for holidays and then going back to school, so I quickly learnt by the time I was eight or nine that you just need to live in the present. I’m dissecting my deep, emotional past here [laughs], but what works for me and makes me happy is to get on with things and focus on the present day. When I walk out of the stage door after two years on something – which I have done three times now, and I’ve walked out of stage doors after one year four or five times – by the time I’ve crossed the road and hit the pavement on the other side I’ve forgotten the lines. If I had to go back in an emergency I’m sure they would be in there, but I dump them. 

Martin in Les Mis
In theatre people run around on the last couple of days crying and saying “oh we must swap numbers and go for coffee next year” but I think ‘If you haven’t needed to go for coffee with this person in two years, why would you possibly need to now?’ One makes great, great friends on a two year journey, but one already has their number… you can’t make forty-five best friends on every job you do. Of course I will say hi to anyone I happen to meet on the street, and perhaps we would then go for coffee. 

Two years is a long time to do something and the challenge gets harder and harder to keep it fresh and make it feel like you’re doing it for the first time. Personally, as an actor, I don’t think it’s healthy to do something any longer than that. But I’m always happy to have gotten to the end in the most positive of ways. I love conquering the challenges and then move on.

Phantom feels like a long time ago now! I actually nipped in there a few Saturdays ago to borrow something and it was, of course, lovely to see everyone again! I’m very happy to have done my two years and then moved on to another project.

What was it like to work on? 
An enormous privilege! Eighteen months before Phantom – with Top Hat in between – I played Thénardier in Les Mis which is another of those iconic roles. I saw Alun Armstrong play Thénardier twenty or thirty years ago and every night when I changed from my factory clothes into my Thénardier clothes I would pull out these shoes and in the bottom of them they said in big marker ‘Alun Armstrong’… I literally stepped into his shoes [laughs]! Every night I saw his name, and then it said ‘Martin Ball’ in much smaller writing [laughs]. I just felt immense pride – it was such a privilege. Both Les Mis and Phantom have this enormous following and it’s a great privilege to be a part of theatre history. I saw both those shows for the first time when I was a teenager, I wasn’t even a grown up actor yet. It would never, ever have occurred to my sixteen/eighteen year old self that I would one day be on that stage in that same pair of shoes. It would have blown my mind! I often think about how lucky I was. 

Martin in A Christmas Carol

I felt the same thing when I did a BBC’s children’s series called Home Farm Twins (between 1999 – 2000). I turned up on the first day and immediately recognised the building of Home Farm from my childhood as being the house Black Beauty’s family had lived in, in the BBC children’s series. There I was as an actor, acting in the house that had been Black Beauty’s house when I was a kid… I had three sisters so was made to watch Black Beauty whenever I was home from boarding school. It felt like Alice Through the Looking Glass – I had stepped through the looking glass into my own childhood BBC land, and was now providing storytelling for a new generation of children. That’s what it was like for me to do Phantom and Les Mis – it’s a full circle.

We also have to discuss Top Hat which, as mentioned, you did between Les Mis and Phantom. It was such a special show, what was it like to take on the completely different challenge of doing a new West End musical?
The great thing about Top Hat was that the director (Matthew White) and producer (Kenny Wax) were hugely collaborative. Between them they wrote the new book (with Howard Jacques). Writers can be tricky because if anyone questions their writing and suggests something could be tightened it’s like murdering their children. Both Matthew and Kenny were hugely open to things and keen to have everyone’s involvement so we all provided little tweaks and rewrites and suggestions. We were able to do those for the way which suited how we were playing our character, so it felt like a very bespoke project. I feel sorry for anyone who wasn’t in the room during rehearsal taking on those roles after us because they were tailored for what we wanted to do with them. We made them work for us which was such a luxury. It was great fun!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

A Christmas Carol runs at the Rose Theatre Kingston until 4th January 2016.
Please visit for further information and tickets.

Photo Credit 2&5: Mark Douet

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