Originally published on Reviews Hub
Hadley Fraser must have built up some good karma in a previous life. For 10 years he was a leading man in a number of musicals including two successful stints in Les Miserables, portraying Raul in the 25th anniversary of The Phantom of the Opera and aged just 26 opening a show on Broadway The Pirate Queen (though it’s arguable the luck kicked back, the show created by the writers Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg closed after just 85 performances). Then in 2013, there was a decided shift in his career, the musicals being replaced by straight theatre but still in the most illustrious of companies, work at the Donmar, in the Kenneth Branagh ensemble. Kris Hallett caught up with Fraser in the foyer of the Bristol Old Vic.
So was this a deliberate choice he made? “Yeah, it was I suppose. I did a few plays early on, The Shaughran in Dublin and Longitude, plays have always been there or thereabouts, but it’s not something I necessarily found much success in early doors. So a couple of years ago I made a conscious decision to say no to some things I perhaps would have said yes to musical wise in order to be a bit brave. In order to do this when I’m 60 or 70 as I would like, I think that sort of breadth of career is really important; but moreover, I’m someone that gets really bored, doing the same thing over and over again.’’ He doesn’t mean that musical work bores him, just that he is naturally an impatient man who wants to express himself through many different media, whether musicals, plays, films or writing.
Which brings us to why I am at Bristol Old Vic chatting to him in the foyer one lunchtime as he takes a breather from running Long Day’s Journey into Night, potentially Eugene O’Neill’s magnum opus and undoubtedly the showpiece of Bristol Old Vic’s 250 years anniversary. It won its writer a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1957 and has played countless times around the world since. What is it about the play that makes it so popular? “I suppose there is a sort of real beauty to the characters that I think people can keep coming back to. Whether some people can see their own families [in it] I’m not too sure, I’m sure some can see an echo of their own situations in the tale. The writing is cyclical actually, like listening to a piece of music, where things come back and are played by a different instrument or in this instance played by another character. I suppose there is immense power in the writing and because of that it has always attracted strong casts, look at previous casts in London or New York – it’s a real rundown of the great and good, so when you get the call with an offer you’re like ‘all right yeah’ “.
It’s certainly a starry cast assembled for this Bristol Old Vic production, not just in Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville as James and Mary Tyrone but also rising stars Billy Howe and Jessica Regan.
When you run the National for 10 years you get enough goes at doing it that you know you don’t have to micromanage…
“It’s an absolute nightmare, they’re all awful’’ he jokes. “No It’s terrific, we all get a chance during the play to be offstage so to be sitting back there watching Jeremy and Leslie bring such a wealth of experience onto that stage. And Billy and Jessica as well are just terrific and perfectly cast and bring such creativity to the roles they play.’’ It’s all steered by former National Theatre head Richard Eyre who brings “immense amount of calm and patience, I suppose when you run the National for 10 years you get enough goes at doing it that you know you don’t have to micromanage; he’s very good at letting people try things out, making us think that the ideas are ours but probably coming from his brain in the first place and (he has) a real eye for detail as well, which is quite thrilling and also a sort of overwhelming humanity I suppose.’’ The words tumble out of him at this point, it is clear he has a particular fondness for a director he first worked with on The Pyjama Game 2013. “He feels things very keenly and is able to express them and orchestrate them on stage so it touches people and (he) certainly gets the best out of a cast. He has this immense sense of warmth as a man and that sort of translates as a humanity in his productions.’’
There had been plans for a National Theatre Live recording straight from Bristol but this idea now seems to have been quietly been put to the side. With this cast, though, surely a transfer is inevitable, so I ask if he has currently heard anything “Not yet, I’d like to know as much as you… obviously with a cast like Jeremy and Leslie you know you’d think there’d be a chance of it happening, I suppose it’s a case of timing, we’d love it to happen, though.’’
Moving forward he hopes to keep working across the genres, film – he is playing Tarzan’s Dad in the upcoming Warner Bros flick and television – having recently completed a short run in Holby City. Then there are the gigs he plays with his buddy and theatre mega-star Ramin Karimloo. “He’s doing a night in the Palladium (16 July) and I will pitch up there and play second fiddle,” he demurs. “That’s something to keep ourselves sane really. I suppose it’s more of a passion project though Ramin is following it up more seriously.’’
Two years ago he starred in the Donmar’s scintillating City of Angels but for those who hoped there was still some chance of a commercial transfer he has bad news: that ship has now passed. “I think if we’d transferred straight away there would have been a possibility for it or at least it would have been more doable. I think commercially it would have been hard to sell, it is not in the public eye and is more of a theatre favourite. That said, I think if any production could have done it, it would have been that one. Josie [Rourke – the director of the piece] understood it and brought it through so specifically, understood it for what it was and as a consequence simplified it. It was a wonderful piece of work.’’
With that he is off, a man ready to tackle what he claims is “the saddest play ever.’’ He strolls down the stairs though with the unmistakeable ease of a man whose career is going places.
Long Day’s Journey into Night runs at the Bristol Old Vic until 23 April 2016 | Image: Contributed