Christmas is a time that brings old friends together. Colleagues meet for a drink and childhood mates catch up over a meal. Yet few seasonal university reunions are as unusual as that which brought Warwick alumni Tom Goodman-Hill, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Mike Punter together at the Hampstead theatre, finds Matthew Amer.
Actor Rhind-Tutt and playwright Punter were always planning to spend the festive season at the Hampstead theatre, bringing Punter’s ghoulish new Victorian ghost story Darker Shores to the stage. Opposite Rhind-Tutt’s American spiritualist Tom Beauregard, former League Of Gentlemen star Mark Gatiss was due to play the devoutly Anglican scientist Gabriel Stokes, a man who encounters inexplicable spooky goings on at his new residence on the East Sussex coast and is forced to resort to a medium for assistance.
Unfortunately just days before the show’s first preview, the sickness of a close family member forced Gatiss to withdraw from the production. Goodman-Hill, who was enjoying a break from the stage between Enron’s closure at the Royal Court and its transfer to the West End, stepped up to help his old friends out. They were “strange, sad circumstance, to be suddenly drafted into it,” he admits, “but it’s fantastic to be working with two of my oldest friends.”
“It was,” Goodman-Hill continues, “a bit like taking a baseball bat and hearing someone scream that they were about to throw a ball and then just hoping that you hit it.”
Some might call it a Christmas miracle that Goodman-Hill managed to get up to speed so very quickly, cancelling only the first preview and giving a polished performance at the press night as planned. But the actor has previous.
"They’re all huge themes, but they’re themes he explores at a very human level. The ghost story is incidental"
In 1997, five days after he became a father for the first time, Goodman-Hill received a phone call from English Touring Theatre director Stephen Unwin, telling him he would be on stage that night as Konstantin in The Seagull. This was news to Goodman-Hill, who was not even in the production. “I went on that night with the book in hand and I learnt it overnight and went on without the book from there on. It was quite odd… but that was 12 years ago and I’m now in my 40s. I did think ‘Am I still capable of doing this?’”
Yes, is the resounding answer. It helps, no doubt, that he had read a draft of Darker Shores a year ago, that he has worked on Punter’s work before and that, “I know my way round Mike’s writing very well, his cadences and themes, they’re all very familiar to me.” Those themes include Creationism vs Darwinism, which “infects everything he writes”, the existence of a god, mankind’s place in the universe, love, loss, history, responsibility. “They’re all huge themes, but they’re themes he explores at a very human level. The ghost story is incidental. If you can sit all generations of a family down and entertain them, and at the same time leave them talking about existential notions, then that’s fantastic.”
He has always enjoyed working with Punter, Goodman-Hill tells me as we sit on the balcony of the Hampstead theatre, the festive tunes playing in the foyer sneaking into the back of my consciousness. It comes, he thinks, from upbringings that were poles apart; Punter being raised in the Anglican tradition and Goodman-Hill a devout atheist. “We meet at a point where those two belief systems converge and have conflict. That’s where the work resonates between us, it’s why we’ve always understood each other. They’re the same concerns, just from other ends of the spectrum. When those ideas converge, that’s where sparks happen, that’s where you get conflict, that’s where you get dramatic interest.”
Playing the haunted Gabriel Stokes has given Goodman-Hill the opportunity to take a break from Andy Fastow, the character he has been playing in one of 2009’s most acclaimed shows, Enron, since July, when it opened at the Chichester Festival Theatre. “From a Jewish New Yorker in 1992 to 2001, to an upright scientific Anglican natural historian in 1874,” says Goodman-Hill, the two characters “could not be further removed”. In fact, the actor nearly lost his voice when he first started in Darker Shores, as he was not used to using his lower range, Fastow talking with a higher pitched New Jersey twang.
“It uses a side of me that I don’t think I’d ever really used before,” he says of the Lucy Prebble-penned drama based on the collapse of the American energy giant which, under the directorship of Headlong’s Rupert Goold, has imbued statistical analysis and financial markets with a level of inventive theatricality that has set it apart from every other show this year.
"If Kevin Spacey and Philip Seymour Hoffman aren’t gagging to play those parts, I’d be very very surprised"
“We never feel like we’ve run it in,” Goodman-Hill explains, grinning. “It’s always fresh, it’s always alive, because that was the atmosphere in the rehearsal room. Everything was up for grabs, which doesn’t mean we were competing to keep our parts of the shows, it’s just that that’s the spirit of it; it’s competitive, it’s virile and that’s what sustains it really. There is nothing else stylistically like it out there because it sort of refuses to have its own style. It is what it is; it doesn’t conform to the idea of it being a play with songs, it doesn’t conform to the idea of it being a movement piece with scenes. It’s just what it is.”
What it is, is one of the most talked about theatrical happenings of recent years, which is saying something when you consider the level of interest in drama that the West End has seen this year, with shows including Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart’s Waiting For Godot and Keira Knightley’s stage debut in The Misanthrope catching the headlines. Enron had sold out its run at the Royal Court and announced its 2010 transfer to the Noël Coward theatre before the curtain had lifted on its London opening night.
Such hype and chat can only lead to speculation about a Broadway production and even a much rumoured big screen adaptation. While Goodman-Hill is certain both will happen, he remains unconvinced, though in no way despondent, that they will involve him. “If Kevin Spacey and Philip Seymour Hoffman aren’t gagging to play those parts, I’d be very very surprised. But it’s great to have been there at its birth in Chichester, and running around like idiots in the Union Chapel in Islington.”
It must have been nice, I mention, to have known that, as the buzz around Enron built and transfers were announced, he knew he would be employed for the best part of a year. So many performers I have spoken to admit they have no idea what they will be doing when their current project comes to an end. Goodman-Hill just looks a little sheepish and professes himself a “bad example of the industry”, as he has always had another job in the pipeline.
In addition to feeling a little embarrassed about this, Goodman-Hill doesn’t take credit for being in demand. Instead he puts it down to a piece of advice given to him on his second job, Bartholomew Fair, by the vastly more experienced John Quayle. “He said ‘Never say no to anything.’ He was absolutely right. I’ve completely clung to that ever since. That’s what the industry’s like now, it’s very hard for an actor to sit back. In order to make any kind of living you cannot afford to say no. If anything comes up you’ve got to take it, you’ve got to grab it with both hands because security is really not there. I don’t think there’s an actor out there with that sort of luxury, unless his name is George Clooney. You’ve got to take what comes, you’ve got to make yourself available for everything, you’ve got to pray that you’re in a position to do the jobs when they come around.”
"[Spamalot] nearly killed me. It’s the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done."
This is not mock humility from an actor who, in addition to his stage appearances, is a regular on BBC sitcom Ideal, had leading roles in acclaimed dramas Moses Jones and The Devil’s Whore, and often plays the all-important guest roles in series such as Doctor Who and Hustle; it is absolutely his truth.
As he sips his strong, sugary coffee, looking a little like he needs the kick to get him going for the evening’s performance, talk of Monty Python’s Spamalot, the big budget musical in which he originated the part of Lancelot – and a number of others – for the London production, brings a huge laugh as he remembers the Eric Idle-penned show. “I hesitate to use the word monster,” he grins, “but it was definitely a different animal [to either Darker Shores or Enron].”
“It nearly killed me. It’s the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done. That, I wasn’t expecting. I thought it would be not remotely draining. I thought it would be just fun, a good laugh. It’s the hardest two hours on stage you can imagine and I’m sort of at a loss to explain that because I generally associate exhaustion with emotionally weighty roles; Gabriel Stokes is exhausting. Torvald [from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House] is exhausting. But this just killed you. I have enormous, massive, massive respect from this point on for anyone in a musical. The sheer energy and commitment required physically is beyond anything I’ve ever known, it’s phenomenal.”
He does look exhausted today, his eyes weary and his voice subdued, quite possibly to save it for the performance. As the coffee warms him after the journey in from his South London home and the caffeine kicks in, he perks up. I wonder, as he is starring in a ghost story, if he believes in ghosts? “To this day,” he replies, “I can’t explain something I saw on holiday on Holy Island when I was about nine years old, but do you know what, it could have been my PE teacher dressed in a monk’s habit. I have no idea. I’m not a ghost person… it doesn’t mean there aren’t unexplained things, I just don’t think they’re ghosts.”
A shiver runs down my spine and the air feels cold around us. It could be a Christmas ghost hinting of his presence… or someone might have opened a window.