Thursday, 15 June 2017

INTERVIEW Susan Calman - the Calman Before The Storm

TEN years ago Susan Calman was a top flight corporate lawyer working at places including the United Nations in Geneva.
But she says it was unfulfilling and stressful so she made the decision to give it all up and pursue her long held ambition and become a comedian.
Now, a decade later the somewhat diminutive, smiley and very funny Glaswegian has had the success many in her profession can only dream about. Indeed not only has she conquered the stand up circuit with sold out shows at the Soho Theatre and Edinburgh Fringe, she has also showed off her talents on radio with numerous credits including Radio 4’s The News Quiz, The Unbelievable Truth and Now Show not to mention presenting Woman’s Hour.
And if that wasn’t enough she has appeared on the BBC’s hit shows Have I Got News for You and QI, as well as Show and Tell, The Matt Lucas Awards, Dara O’Briain’s School of Hard Sums, 8 Out of 10 Cats, The Dog Ate My Homework, Would I Lie To You and Mock the Week. 
She is currently working on Too Much TV for BBC2, is writing a book and - to underline her appeal to not just adults but the younger generation as well - will soon host 30 episodes of a new quiz show Top Class to be broadcast on the BBC children’s channel CBBC. 
Clearly Susan does not like to sit around twiddling her thumbs nor indeed rest on her laurels as in amongst all this she hasn’t forgotten her stand up roots and to prove the point she is currently criss crossing the country dispensing witty anecdotes in a tour of her new show, The Calman Before The Storm.
In it she tells me she wants to rip through all the preconceptions about her and challenge the assumptions people have about her political views, her height, her nationality and her sexuality.
As part of the tour, the show is heading to South London where she will take to the stage at Greenwich Theatre on Monday, June 26.
What is clear when we chat ahead of the gig is that she is indeed as warm and friendly as she comes across on TV and radio and has plenty to say on most subjects.
But first things first, with so much on her professional plate how has she managed to fit the tour in?
“I do a lot,” she agrees chuckling. “But I do try and tour every two years or so. It’s hectic but it’s lovely to do.
“I’ve been on the road on and off with this show since March and it’s going well. 
“The joy of stand up in a tour like this is that it’s essentially the same show but every night is different as it depends on what the audience likes and doesn’t like.”
And she’s looking forward to her foray into South London.
“I’ve never been to Greenwich Theatre before so I’m looking forward to it,” she says warmly.
“It’s really exciting to stand up in front of an audience in a venue you don’t know. It makes it quite a thrill as no one is quite sure what’s going to happen!
“What’s also nice is that the audience is close to me - I like people to still be able to see the whites of my eyes! It makes it more enjoyable too.”
So what will be on the agenda this time I ask. Quite a lot as it turns out including politics and her home life with a liberal sprinkling of personal anecdotes.
“This show is basically 90 minutes of observational comedy from a personal point of view,” she explains.
“I’ve recently bought a house and it’s quite a change as we are now in a lovely suburban street with some pretty lovely neighbours. It’s great!
“So I’ll talk a bit about this and also stories about me that hopefully people can relate to. I talk about my wife - so much that the audience feels sorry for her!
“Although I do talk a bit of politics I don’t dwell on stuff like Trump and Brexit as I think everyone is a bit sick of it. And I don’t want to dwell on how people voted as I want the show to be much more about inclusivity. 
“So there won’t be any lecturing - it’s going to be a nice jolly evening. I just want people to have a lovely time and get away from all that kind of stuff. So come and see my show and enjoy it.”
Despite her obvious talent Susan says she is surprised at her longevity and success in what is a notoriously difficult business. 
Growing up with ambitions of being a stand up after being inspired by the likes of Billy Connelly, Joyce Grenfell and Victoria Wood, she did a degree in law and became a lawyer, but says she knew in her heart that being a corporate lawyer was not for her.
“I didn’t think I would last this long!” she muses. “In many ways this show is really a celebration of my 10 years in comedy.
“Growing up I was inspired very much by the likes of Billy Connelly. Almost all his stand up featured personal stories which he made so so funny. He did certain things and made fun of himself and was hilarious. 
“I also grew up listening to Victoria Wood - she was the one I loved most and made women funny.
“When I started out I saw her at the Royal Albert Hall. It was amazing - she was the greatest comic. But she was also the most amazing actor, writer and musician and if I can do things a quarter as well as her I would be exceeding expectations. 
“But above all she was a great storyteller and that was what I really loved - I still love listening to other people’s stories.
“I’m not a joke teller - if you want that, people like Jimmy Carr are genius at it but I’m not. 
“I just colour the story in - and hopefully the stories I tell, people can relate to.”
Touring and her very busy workload does mean she spends a good deal of time away from her home in Glasgow which she shares with her wife and five cats.
“Two of them are quite young and I don’t get home an awful lot so when I do I tend to chase them around the room!” she laughs. “What then happens is that they run away.
“I do miss them all when I’m away but no matter how miserable I am for being away from home I always remember how lucky I am to do this.”
And she certainly doesn’t regret her change of direction career wise, even though she admits there were times in the early days it was a “slog”.
“I had always wanted to be a stand up but in 1992 when I left school it would be ridiculous thing to say I wanted to be a comedian. So I went into law but eventually I just realised that if I didn’t try stand up I was never going to do it. So I started doing gigs - it took a good six years before I got to the point that it wasn’t a slog.
“I know I’m lucky but I’ve worked hard and I love the variety of doing all the different things like touring, TV and radio. 
“Things couldn’t be going better and I’m incredibly happy!”

Susan Calman, The Calman Before The Storm is at Greenwich Theatre on Monday, June 26. Visit or call the box office on 020 8858 4447 for full listings.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

FOUR STAR REVIEW - Lettice & Lovage at the Menier Chocolate Factory


Peter Shaffer’s play Lettice & Lovage was first performed at the Theatre Royal Bath in 1987. Now 30 years later it has been revived by Sir Trevor Nunn at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
It is set firstly in the Grand Hall of Fustian House, a stately pile in rural Wiltshire, where a certain Lettice Douffet is a guide, taking visitors around on tours of the house. It appears to be a miserable job because nothing of note has ever happened there.
So, when one of her visitors yawns at the end of one tour she decides to take action to liven things up a bit. Using her theatrical prowess, gained from growing up with an actress mother who spent most of her time in France, she begins to embellish the stories until some of them retain very little, if any, truth. They seem to be successful, so much so, that bowls she puts out to collect “appreciations” begin to overflow.
However, one day a certain Lotte Schoen turns up from the Preservation Trust which employs Lettice, and berates her for telling fibs to bring in the punters. Despite firing Lettice, it is the start of an entertaining friendship between these two very different women which ultimately sees them joining forces.
It is not the greatest of plays, however there are some very funny moments, including the scene in which they both get sozzled on Lettice’s homemade brew of “verbal and herbal” ingredients.
The big draw in this production is the fact it’s been directed by Sir Trevor Nunn and that its two stars are Felicity Kendal as Lettice and Maureen Lipman as Lotte. 
Kendal in particular is a delight as the flamboyant, theatrical red headed Lettice whose outlandish and entertaining stories of the dull as dishwater Fustian House are regaled with aplomb.
Sadly, the full comedic prowess of Lipman is not able to shine through, although this is really down to the script. There are thankfully, a few moments of brilliance, such as when Lotte discovers Lettice has a cat and proceeds to gag as though she is bringing up a fur ball of her own, which brought the house down.
Ultimately it is a delightful pairing and a treat to see these two great actresses on stage together in what is a hugely entertaining production.

Lettice & Lovage is on at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Southwark Street until July 8. Tickets from £40.

INTERVIEW - Anthony Head

People of a certain age will know Anthony Head as the suave coffee drinking chap from the hugely successful Nescafe ads of the 1980s. Others will know him as the Prime Minister in Little Britain, David Whelan in Dominion and of course as Rupert Giles in Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
But the London born actor’s long and illustrious career also includes the stage with stints at the RSC and the National not to mention his West End turn as Frank N Furter in Rocky Horror. 
And it is the stage that is his current focus of attention thanks to a production of the critically acclaimed Love In Idleness which has just transferred to the Apollo Theatre from the Menier Chocolate Factory.
He tells me the play is actually an amalgamation of two - Terrence Rattigan’s original version, Less Than Kind and actor Alfred Lunts’ reworking of it - by director Sir Trevor Nunn.
In it Anthony plays Sir John Fletcher, a tank expert in Churchill’s government during the latter stages of World War Two. Sir John is separated from his much younger wife and is now happily living with Olivia Brown, a vivacious and charismatic widow of two years standing, played by Eve Best. It is clear the pair are besotted with each other. 
However, their idyllic set up is disrupted and put in jeopardy when her firebrand son Michael comes home from Canada from where he was evacuated a few years previously. A young socialist, Michael disapproves entirely of his mother’s relationship with Sir John, who he sees as representing everyone that is wrong with society. He sets about to destroy their relationship - forcing her to choose between her lover and son - and in so doing allows the play to explore the subjects of love, passion, politics, ideology and loyalty.
Anthony and I chat shortly before the country voted in the general election and it is clear the role and indeed the play has proved to be a fascinating project for him to work on not least given the current political climate.
“The play is set in 1944 and at a time when life had changed enormously because of the war,” he tells me. “For the first time things looked as though they were going in our favour and that we were going to win the war.
“At the same time there was a huge political change with the rise in socialism and of course after the war the country elected a Labour government who went on to create the Welfare State and the NHS.
“It’s much like today in many ways. We are in the midst of an election, there’s the whole issue of Brexit and it feels as though the political landscape is shifting. 
“Within the play we see how Olivia and Sir John enjoy their dinner parties and taking part in political discussions. It makes this production very current and relevant so I hope audiences will enjoy it and be entertained but also think about the parallels.”
But he insists it is not just a platform to discuss politics citing the incredible humour within the piece that have had audiences laughing loudly ever since it opened at the Menier.
“What Trevor [Nunn] has done with the two plays is brilliant,” Anthony says warmly. “He’s got the best of both and written it really well. When I saw the script it was clear how extraordinary it was.
“There are so many genres - it’s got themes of love and what it is to find love and keep it, as well as drama, Noel Coward-esque farce, real sadness, passion and political conscience - with clear and obvious references to Hamlet and elements of Chekhov. It’s very clever.
“There is also great characterisation. Sir John is an industrialist, a multi millionaire and minister of tank production. It’s likely he is loosely based on Lord Beaverbrook who was Churchill’s right hand man during the war.
“He is separated but not divorced from his younger trophy wife but has now found his soul mate in Olivia - so everything in his life is hunky dory, that is until Michael comes along!
“Michael comes back from Canada, a socialist, with an expectation that his mother will be lonely but finds she is living in this nice house with me hanging around. He is petulant and annoying and sees me as a dreadful capitalist, someone who has seduced his poor defenceless mother - so there is a huge head on collision both culturally, politically and emotionally. 
“Sir John comes across initially as quiet and modest but he’s got a steely determination and is really a schemer just like Michael and is more than a match for him. You see how underhand he is at the end - though he does what he does with the very best of intentions! 
“It's a really meaty piece and it’s been such a joy to be part of. In fact it was a no brainer - when you get a call from Sir Trevor Nunn and find out Eve Best is on board, I couldn’t wait to get to rehearsals!”
He adds joking that his enthusiasm was tempered somewhat when he realised that they only had four rather than six weeks rehearsal before opening at the Menier. But he needn’t have worried because the reception it got secured it a West End transfer which he describes as “wonderful”.
“Audiences seem to have found more life in it and have laughed more raucously!” he laughs.
He also chuckles as he tells me he now regards himself as something of an “expert in tanks” thanks to the research he did for the role and recommends a visit the Cabinet War Rooms for anyone interested in the history.
“Churchill was an extraordinary man, and the Cabinet War Rooms is an incredible place,” he says. “Trevor did a lot of research and got Pathe news footage from that period which is cleverly projected onto the stage at various intervals. It shows images from the war as well as afterwards such as when Labour was elected and the subsequent creation of the NHS and Welfare State - something that is now so current for us all.”
Although he’s clearly fascinated by politics, it’s acting that has always been in his blood. However, given his illustrious career it comes as a surprise that Anthony undertook acting lessons when he moved to LA just before landing his role in Buffy.
He credits his partner Sarah with the idea and says it was “absolutely the right thing to do”. 
“I acknowledge the fact I’ve been hugely fortunate,” he says warmly about his longevity in what is a notoriously tricky business. 
“Sarah encouraged me to go to America to work and when I rang her up after two months of being out there she told me to go and get on with it and go and get acting classes. It led to my first job out there and then Buffy, which in turn led to Little Britain and Dr Who, all of which were very different roles.
“The bottom line is it’s hard work trying to make sure you are not pigeonholed though.
“However, Giles in Buffy was a wonderful step as I’d always been a young romantic lead and he was a real character role. It gave me an ‘in’ to a completely new world. I knew it was going to be good because the writing was so brilliant but I don’t think any of us realised how huge it would be. We had a great time with it.”
And he says he’d do the coffee ad again. “It changed my life - and the face of advertising - so yes, I’ve been very lucky.”

Love In Idleness is on at the Apollo Theatre until July 1. Tickets from £20. Visit for full listings.