The current production originated at the National Theatre and has been a major hit, playing at the Piccadilly before touring. It has now returned to the Piccadilly, while another Frayn play, Democracy, is packing them in at the National. We went to meet Leigh Lawson, to talk about his latest role.
You take over from Philip Franks next week? "Yes, which is quite funny really as we seem to be following each other around at the moment: He has toured in this show, while I toured in Art, which I also played in the West End, and for a period I was leaving a theatre when he was arriving, or vice versa. The other connection is that I played Lloyd Dallas in Noises Off in the Broadway production.
Was that also directed by Jeremy Sams? "Yes, it was, but what's been interesting about rehearsals over here is the various little differences between the New York and London productions. In terms of rehearsals, it's been a luxury to be able to rehearse on the set here at the Piccadilly. When we were in New York, we couldn't rehearse at the theatre itself — there are all sorts of bureaucratic rules there, and the producers would have had to employ endless unnecessary people just to cover the rehearsals. So we went to a barn of a place instead where they re-created the set!"
It must be a tough play to get right? "It is! I'm always amazed that Michael Frayn wrote it, because it's so complicated, and everything comes together just right — providing the actors get it right, of course. Having been in it on Broadway, I'd never actually seen the show. I didn't want to watch it in London originally as I wanted to come to the part fresh, but having played it on Broadway I felt it was okay to watch the London production before joining the cast. And it's even better when you watch it than when you're acting in it!" You've made a lot of films and television. Where does theatre come on your list of preferred work? "Top! I've always loved theatre, and though I enjoy films — and I had an early start, just after RADA, in Franco Zeffirelli's "Brother Sun, Sister Moon" — I've always seen myself as a theatre actor."
What about directing plays? "I enjoy that, too. I adapted and directed Sheridan Morley's Noël and Gertie, and renamed it If Love Were All. When Sheridan saw it in New York, he said 'There's not a word of mine left!' but he'd given me permission to do what I wanted with it, and he liked the result. It's the story of Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, but there was a lot of tap dancing and a lot of Noël's hit songs. It was designed for an American audience, and at one point Twigs [his wife, sixties icon Twiggy] danced in an Uncle Sam uniform, top hat and tails, with a sort of streamer of red, white and blue that came out of her costume — designed by Tony Walton — and that used to bring the house down every night."
Are we going to see it over here? "I don't think so. The British are a bit too reverential about Coward. And the Americans are more likely to try something new in any case. I find that's the main difference between America and Britain. In America the key word is 'yes.' In Britain it's 'no.'"
Having been on Broadway, do you find the atmosphere better or worse than the West End? "That's hard to say, as they're so different. You certainly get more plays in mainstream theatres here in London: on Broadway it's mainly musicals. But having said that, there's more of a buzz to Broadway, more of a sense of it being a theatre district. In New York they allocate a local cop to each theatre, and I was walking along 46th Street a while ago, when I was in Noises Off, and a traffic cop saw me and shouted out "Leigh! How ya doin'?" The point is not that he recognized me — though that's always nice — but that he felt he belonged to the theatre, that it was part of his life. How many London bobbies could you say that about?
"And that saddens me, because I think we've lost something that we used to have — and that could still be rescued. My Mum used to work in the theatre — she was a theatre manager. In fact, she was manager at the Phoenix Theatre, where Noël Coward's Private Lives opened, and she was married from that theatre. She had wonderful memories from that period, so I grew up on stories about Coward, Novello and other great theatre figures from before the War.
"In America they still have that love of Broadway as a theatre district, and although there's a much stronger film tradition than there is over here, plenty of actors will still tell you their greatest ambition is to have their names up in lights on Broadway. It would be good if a few more British actors were determined to have their names up in lights in the West End, but it's not something you here people talk about these days. Yet the West End still has such amazing theatre on offer, and this play is a great example of that. We have a very mixed audience — lots of young people — and I don't think I've ever heard an audience laugh so much, whether on Broadway or in the West End, as at this play!"
Finally, what about eating out after the show? Any favorite restaurants? "That's one of the things I still love about the West End — finishing a show then going out to eat with a group of friends. There are several restaurants we like, but at the moment our favorites are definitely Sheekey's and San Lorenzo."