It’s been a couple of months since Bristol Old Vic’s last in-house show, Fanny Hill, enforced no doubt by the late pulling of ENO for the Spring opera, but the buzz surrounding Pink Mist, Owen Sheer’s play in verse, promises a more than adequate replacement. It’s also giving three recent graduates from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School their first post-graduate roles. Kris Hallett spoke to Erin Doherty, Peter Edwards and Rebecca Hamilton in anticipation of their debut professional performances.
From the off, the three display the confident familiarity, physical ease and creative shorthand that three years training has provided and all are buzzing with excitement even after a long day rehearsing what is a highly physical piece of work.
Owen Sheers’ play originally started off as a Radio 4 drama before being turned into a highly praised book. So how does this translate to stage?
“It is its own piece of work, there is nothing else quite like it, which makes it very exciting” claims Erin Doherty. Peter Edwards chips in: “There are times when it moves slowly, with these moving sections of dialogue, and these smash into big movement pieces, fast-paced, bouncing off the spoken word it’s based on. Basically what Owen did was record 60 hours of interviews with soldiers and relatives and from that put together the play.”
The play follows three young lads from Bristol who go to war in Afghanistan and the effects this tour of duty have on the men, their wives, their girlfriends and relatives. So do they feel any particular pressure having spent their last three years living and training in this city? For Edwards, it’s especially pertinent: “I’m originally from Nailsea and from first reading it, what was great was all the references to the city, from the Thekla, the tunnels. It makes it very personal and its great it’s premiering at Bristol Old Vic. It’s got a specific Bristol sound.”
He continues: “Portishead and Massive Attack are just two of the bands who feature on the soundtrack and, with the eclectic sound of the city, one wouldn’t bet against this being the hottest soundtrack in theatre this summer.
“The theatre school sometimes works with the theatre on developing scripts. They were originally asked to read the script as it’s a play they’re looking to stage at the Old Vic. Not that its potential immediately stood out. It felt very wordy, overly detailed and complicated and no one was sure if it could work as a piece of the theatre. Once they put it on its feet during the research and development phase the possibilities began to open up though there are positive relics of its original radio aesthetic. “You don’t need this big theatre to tell the story, you just say the words and listen, it comes alive through its use of language and the movement and physicality enhance this.”
Hamilton: The way they’re setting it, even though it’s in the main house it’s only going to sell something like 120 seats [they are removing something like 400 seats per performance] it’s going to be an intimate piece in a big space.
Doherty: But it’s so right for it
Edwards: I don’t think it could be done in a bigger space. It’s so nice with six characters. You’re dealing with something very personal, very intimate.
Though it wasn’t an explicit decision, casting for Pink Mist has brought together a group of actors with links to the Bristol. Alongside the three graduates of 2015 is 2014 graduate Phil Dunster, and they are supplemented by Alex Stedman – originally from Bristol before training at ALRA – and Zara Ramm, an actress who lives locally, and whose previous credits at the theatre include World Cup Final 1966 andSwallows And Amazons. All three of the crop of 2015 had to attend auditions, recalls and workshops before they found out the job was theirs.“We feel very lucky to have been put up for it”, they admit.
Talk turns to their time at the theatre school. All three trained on the three-year course and they all make it clear, that it was the second year of their training that really stood them in good stead moving forward. Unique amongst drama school,s the second year allows them to take three touring productions around the South West ending eventually in a summer run at the Edinburgh Festival. As Doherty points out: “what you get from that second year is impossible to beat, it’s the second year that is key to our training.”
“Everyone thinks acting is glamorous, but it’s not at all,” chips in Hamilton. “When you’re playing in a school hall in November, and its freezing and everyone is ill, it’s tough, but you know what, it’s so much fun!”
Edwards agrees. “You come to your first grad show feeling ready to work, we’ve done this for a year now.”
So do they feel much different now they are working professionally and away from the security of the school? “In research and development week it was like ‘best behaviour’” says Hamilton, but the biggest thing they feel is how much more organic the whole process is. With lighting designer (Peter Harrison) and composer/sound designer (Jon Nicholls) both in the room, they are creating the world during rehearsals. “You can feel it being built, it’s insane, within minutes there is a scene that could be shown to an audience,” observes Doherty, while Hamilton explains further. “The whole world is an amalgamation, all the pieces fit together. Try to run a scene without the sound and it doesn’t work, it’s not as much fun without all the big bangs and crashes!”
They have also had their first experience working with co-directors (John Retallack and associate director and Quercus director in residence for Bristol Old Vic George Mann). It was not always easy at the beginning, ‘’going into a room and working on something, and then showing it to the other and them having a different perspective but still having to play the first note. They soon realised the strength of this approach; being asked to play from two different perspectives was stretching them as performers. ‘’They contrast well; John is really on point with the text, while George- with his training at the LeCoq school in Paris- well… I don’t understand how his brain works, but it’s amazing”, says Edwards.
Going straight from their final show into rehearsals for the first professional production is a dream come true for any actor but the caliber of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School means that their graduates are constantly in demand. Doherty (who in the heady last few months has also won the Stephen Sondheim Student of the Year Award) will join Headlong’s The Glass Menagerie for its Autumn tour, while Hamilton will join the BBC Radio Drama team for five months as winner of the Carlton Hobbs Award. peter Edwards plans on staying in Bristol for now with a move to London, and the aim of breaking into television and film, on the horizon
Their energy and warmth in the interview is infectious. I feel like they are excited about what is to come and also can’t quite believe their luck they have found such an exciting first job. Hamilton sums it up nicely: “I’ve never had the experience of creating a character for the first time. No one has ever seen these characters before and that is just such a privilege. It comes with responsibility inevitably but it’s also really exciting and cool.”
Pink Mist runs at the Bristol Old Vic from 1st July – 11th July.
Image: Mark Douet