THE LEADING MEN: Will Chase and Jim Norton, Two "Sides of the Coin" in The Mystery of Edwin Drood

By Michael Gioia
14 Jan 2013

Norton as the Chairman
Photo by Andrew Eccles

The Chairman runs the show. Is it exciting? Exhausting?
JN: It's both of those things because there's nowhere to hide. You're on [stage] all night long. It's like being up on a high wire without a net because you never know what's going to happen. Yes, it is exciting, but in terms of the energy required, it is like an Olympic event, I feel, every night. It's like being part of a track team, where you have to go and run 100 meters every night and break a world record, so that's the real test that we have every night — to keep the show fresh. And, my job, as [director] Scott Ellis keeps telling me, is to drive the show along and never let it slag. So that's why my days are usually spent quietly, either swimming, walking in the park or just getting myself ready for the evening. But it's great to be with a company like this — 22 actors and a fabulous orchestra.

You're wearing two hats in Drood. In the middle of the music hall show, you take over the role of the Mayor. Can you tell me about this dual role?
JN: It's a wonderful piece of theatrical magic that Rupert has thought up. The Chairman is the man who's written the [music hall] show, who's directed the show, who's choreographed the show, and we have to remind ourselves — and the audience — that this is the premiere performance. It's the first performance, so anything can go right or anything can go wrong, and, in the midst of [the show], one of the actors gets drunk and isn't able to appear, so the Chairman steps in. It's a lovely opportunity to play another character. I have to keep reminding myself who I am from time to time. As he says in the song ["Both Sides of the Coin"], "I don't know who I am from scene to scene!" [Laughs.] It took a while to get that to be fluid, as I hope it is now.

Will Chase mentioned that you studied Victorian mannerisms and gestures for this role…
JN: There's a great guy named Jack Murphy [from] London who is an expert on Victorian theatre, so I did some work with him before I started rehearsals — [on] the mode of address, how they stand, how they speak, how they move. But I've always been interested in Victorian theatre because, as a young actor, I worked with a lot of those old actor laddies — chaps who wore capes and had silver-topped canes… It was all about voice projection and how they looked.

The Chairman is really, for me, an amalgam of all those older actors who I saw when I was a kid, doing their old-fashioned plays. That's a kind of style of acting that we don't have anymore. There's a lot to be said for it because they, of course, had to act in theatres where there was no amplification, so they had to have incredibly strong, articulate voices to play to sometimes 2,000 people. That's really where the [term] "show business" came from because when they said things like, "On yonder mountain, I see the cloud," they would point and do these big gestures because the theatre was so huge that everything had to be huge, including the performance. Actors now are so used to working in close-up on film that it's a kind of technique that has been lost to a lot of young actors today. What I try to do, playing the Chairman, is to revive that style — that old-fashioned, fruity style of acting. [Laughs.]

( staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)