Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Interview • NOT THE NATIONAL THEATRE • The Beauty Queen of Leenane • 2003

When Terry Johnson saw NOT the National Theatre’s production of Hysteria, he said: ‘Clear as a bell. Dead classy.’ Jeffrey Perry, one of the four directors of the company, hopes that all the authors whose work they take round the British Isles think the same.

NOT the National Theatre will celebrate two decades of touring in 2004. The company’s roots go back to the National Theatre canteen and three actors: Roger Gartland (not to be confused with the TV director), Peter Needham and Tim Davies. It was the beginning of the 1980s and Michael Bogdanov, founder of the English Shakespeare Company, was working at the NT with a remit to tour workshop productions of the Bard to small theatres and arts centres. ‘Any space, really,’ says Victoria Little, co-director of NOT the National Theatre with Jeffrey Perry, Leonard Kavanagh and Gilly Evans (better known as actress Lilian Evans). ‘There was no budget for anything except a van,’ says Victoria. ‘And they’d just find bits of props wherever they were — schools, colleges, church halls. After a year of it, even though it did rather well, the National decided to axe it. So a few of the actors who were involved whose contracts were coming to an end thought, “Well, why don’t we take it on?”‘

The first production was a double bill of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter and Mortimer’s The Dock Brief, which Gartland and Davies took on the road, leaving Needham to continue working at the NT. Victoria first became involved in 1986 with Jeff Perry arriving before the decade was out. The original founders moved on to other things and NTNT became a limited company. ‘It started off as a co-operative which it still is, nominally,’ explains Victoria. ‘Everybody who worked for the company used to be part of it but that became administratively impossible because you could never get enough people together for a meeting! And so, as people couldn’t commit and dropped out and things like that, and were off doing other jobs, we didn’t increase it any more.’

And there’s the thing — all four directors and their predecessors have kept the company going through thick and thin whilst doggedly pursuing acting careers. Keeping a theatre company going in any climate, let alone starting one, is a feat requiring courage and tenacity, a trust in hope over experience and the ability to withstand the punches — just as for an actor. Let no one be surprised that some, whose talents we might question, make their names over and above many gifted professionals who sink without trace — a successful career can have much more to do with tenacity than an abundance or dearth of talent.

And it is the word ‘tenacious’ that Victoria uses to describe her colleague when we speak on the telephone. Jeff Perry’s pursuit of funding in the wake of recent changes to the Arts Council system is clearly to be applauded. The company now has to apply for money through the London Arts Board as against directly to ACE. Jeff describes the particular difficulties when I talk to him later: ‘It was an overlap of an old funding system to a new funding system. Everybody applied which meant that quite a few companies, including theatre companies, were pushed off the table. But not only that, the funding system had changed [in such a way] that we found ourselves competing with other art forms such as dance and music when previously there’d been money set aside for theatre. How can you compare a theatre company like ours with a ballet?’ he asks in vain.

As a consequence, NTNT’s tour of Martin McDonagh’s 1995 hit, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, originally scheduled for early in the year, consists of 30 instead of 45 dates. Victoria says: ‘People couldn’t wait to find out if we’d got the money and they had to go to print with their brochures and things. You have to book the tour before you find out if you’ve got the money, which is on a project-by-project basis. And then, of course, they can pull the rug from under you. We’ve been very lucky in the past.’ They did have to cancel one tour some years ago. ‘We were very close to having to do that this time. But we kept on.’ She is in no doubt that the success of their application is down to her colleague. ‘Jeff was extremely tenacious because this year he’s been pretty much running the company single-handedly.’

The delay has meant that loss of dates. ‘The old favourites that we go back to again and again, they hung on bravely, but we lost a week at the Manchester Royal Exchange and Northern Ireland and stuff like that.’ Companies can go bust over such delays. ‘If you haven’t been going as long as we have, then people go “ooh dear, if they’re not going to get their money and we’ve planned ahead and everything, we can’t rely on them”. So they don’t book you the next time. And it’s only the fact that we’ve been reliable over the years and have longevity on our side that really we haven’t been finished off by it. But anyway,’ she adds, ‘we’re up and running so no complaints.’

While Gilly Evans is company secretary, it is Victoria who deals with the finances. ‘You just learn how to do it on the spot,’ she says with equanimity. ‘The basic idea of budgeting and working out how you’re going to spend it all is fairly basic. You have to do it in a certain format for the Arts Council when you’re applying for funding because they want to see how it all breaks down into set and costumes and props and marketing and all of that. I’ve just learnt on the job, really, and increased my knowledge over the years about VAT and National Insurance and all of that.’

Following schooling at Cheltenham Ladies College, Victoria trained at Webber Douglas in the late 1970s, which is where she and I first crossed each other’s paths. She made her debut in Swansea, her home town, where she played a range of parts from the Nurse in Whose Life is it Anyway? to Lucia in Black Coffee. She has toured extensively with Millstream Theatre Company for whom she assayed all the female parts in both Michael Frayn’s Chekhov adaptation The Sneeze, which toured throughout the UK and Europe, and The Golden Pathway Annual which toured Sweden. She has appeared in the West End with Alan Bates in Osborne’s A Patriot For Me and joined NTNT to play Joyce in Orton’s The Ruffian on the Stair, becoming a director in 1987.

Victoria has also played the title role in D H Lawrence’s The Daughter-in-Law for the company as well as Jackie in Charlotte Keatley’s My Mother Said I Never Should and, more recently, Sandra in Bernard Kops’ Playing Sinatra. She stresses, however, that NTNT is not a ‘jobs-for-the-boys company’. ‘Sometimes there’s a part for us in it but mainly we function as the producers.’ She has produced or co-produced many previous NTNT tours including Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, Not A Game For Boys, Vita and Virginia and Hysteria in which Jeff played Freud. ‘But you can’t keep doing stuff with just yourself in mind,’ she says, later conceding she may have spent too much time running the company — ‘you get distracted from your career’. Recently she’s been getting more television work: ‘In middle age, I’m suddenly starting to get telly work which I didn’t seem to get when I was younger, stuff one should have been doing for 20 years.’ Such, of course, is the nature of the beast.

While Victoria shoulders the launch of The Beauty Queen of Leenane at London’s Bloomsbury Theatre, along with Gilly Evans, Leonard Cavanagh is just about to start at Glasgow Citz and Jeff is in Suffolk unable, for the first time, to attend an NTNT press night. ‘Jeff’s swanning round Southwold,’ says Victoria. ‘I’m supposed to be in Spain but I’ve had to ditch that.’

The difference between Spain and Suffolk is that the latter is home to the seaside town of Southwold and Southwold Summer Theatre, this year celebrating 20 years under Jill Freud’s stewardship. Jeff is playing opposite his wife, Patience Tomlinson, in Brian Clemens’ thriller, The Edge of Darkness, with the company billeted in a local girls’ school. ‘And how nice that is. We’ve all got our rooms and we all get on and eat communally,’ Jeff says. He and I met in Southwold nearly ten years ago when both of us were appearing in the season.

The thriller’s director is Richard Frost, another Southwold regular, whom Jeff describes as ‘terrific’. ‘He’s of the old school. He’s done years and years of rep.’ Like many professionals, Jeff mourns the old days: ‘Southwold is just like rep used to be. I think it’s the very best way of seeing theatre, and any town that doesn’t have a theatre, I think, is a dead town. And it’s a sort of holiday to come back here and do several plays, even though I’m only doing one this time. Three weeks rehearsal, three weeks playing. That’s how rep used to be. Generally the standard is good. Sometimes it’s terrific and sometimes you get a clearer view of a play that you might have seen in the West End with stars.’

Southwold certainly demonstrates the advantages of such a rep season with audiences returning again and again to see their favourite actors. The current system elsewhere, whereby actors are, for the most part, cast play by play rather than by season, does not provide nearly enough experience for the actor. ‘You build up a rapport with the audience and they appreciate it, the actors appreciate it and it’s just a wonderful opportunity to do different kinds of plays. And with two-handers around at the moment in theatres, who has the opportunity to do a Shakespeare and a musical and then an Ibsen and then a William Douglas-Home — that mixed programme is what the audiences like. And all the outreach that goes on from those theatres. What’s happened to all of that? There’s a crisis.’

He does not see that much has changed for the good in this respect since he attended Guildhall School of Music and Drama in the late 1960s, a training that gave him ‘three years just to do plays and think about plays’. There have always been, he avers, ‘classy actors around, terrific actors and wonderful directors but even directors don’t get opportunities to work any more’. He believes that NTNT goes some way to redress the balance. ‘We are taking classy plays out on the road right across the nation, the first out-of-London tours of terrific plays that just aren’t picked up commercially which are well worth seeing, plays such as Playing Sinatra. And we did the first tour of Jim Cartwright’s Two, the first tour of Vita and Virginia, and the first extensive tour of Hysteria.’

It is this aspect that the company emphasises when applying for funding. To my mind, NTNT should automatically get funding. ‘Well, it’s been said by quite a lot of people,’ says Jeff. ‘But what is alarming is has the money that was so eagerly lobbied for gone through? We don’t see it. Does anybody else see it?’ Nevertheless, the company endures. ‘We’re a survivor, still out there. It would be nice — this is our 20th year of touring, our 33rd production — it would be nice not to have to apply for funding yearly. It would be great to get revenue funding and I just wish that we were recognized by the powers-that-be because we’re very much a part of that scene — the small-scale scene — providing them with plays every year as part of a mixed programme. It’s been consecutive for 20 years. And all the foreign stuff. But that tends to have dried up because the British Council, I think, has lost funding over the years, as indeed have most theatres.’

Actor and director Peter Symonds is in the driving seat for The Beauty Queen of Leenane. ‘He’s done quite a lot for us because he’s very good at coming up with the goods.’ As for a cast, they were spoilt for choice. ‘We auditioned about 60 people for The Beauty Queen. Some wonderful people. We could have taken out half a dozen tours quite easily.’ Returning to the subject of experience and the old rep system, he goes on: ‘But you see these people, you read their CVs and some of them are in their early 30s and have perhaps done a dozen plays since they left drama school, most of which we know they won’t have been paid for. And we all had the opportunity of working in reps and isn’t it sad that they’ve closed and are closing. The Redgrave at Farnham has been battling to keep open. The site is going to be redeveloped. Isn’tthat sad.’

Apart from numerous appearances on the small screen, Jeff’s work has taken him to most of the regional theatres as well as the West End, where he played The Man From The Department in Prisoner Cell Block H – The Musical with Lily Savage, fringe such as the King’s Head, and tours abroad. A quick look at some of the many roles listed on his CV is more than enough to give a failsafe idea of exactly how to cast Jeff without even meeting him. There’s Will Mossup in Hobson’s Choice, Charles Appleby in Eden End and Tusenbach in Three Sisters, not to mention Wicksteed in Habeas Corpus and a tour of Pakistan as Rupert Billings in The Happiest Days of Your Life. Directed by sometime contributor to Rogues, Richard Syms, this production of John Dighton’s endlessly entertaining farce began its life in Southwold, courtesy of Jill Freud & Company.

It was an earlier tour abroad that brought Jeff to NOT the National Theatre. Giles Block was directing Hard Times for the company — Stephen Jeffreys’ adaptation of the Dickens — and cast him as Gradgrind. It played the Lyric Hammersmith before leaving these shores. ‘We went to South America with that, to Brazil, Argentina and Chile. We were the first company into Argentina after the Falklands [War] to celebrate the opening of the British Council offices over there. And then the next year I became a director. They knew that I was interested. I’d done a lot of help with administration and they thought it was time to make me a director. They tested me out.’

This was not something Jeff envisaged or craved when he started out. ‘Not at all. Like most actors, you don’t even think about that, you just accept the job that comes along, you don’t think about making work for yourself. And it’s been a major change of attitude to be involved in that side of things, to actually set up tours and get the funding and book the accommodation, all the minor things, and why shouldn’t actors do that? And how nice that actors can actually run their own lives to some extent, making work for others and taking terrific plays out.’

Long may Not the National Theatre continue so to do.

Sarah Vernon © September 2003

Originally published on R&V 05-09-03

Postscript: Sadly, dear Jeff died in 2012 and NOT the National Theatre company no longer exists.

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