Friday, 8 September 2017

INTERVIEW: James Byng, currently starring in The Woman in Black at the Fortune Theatre

James Byng is currently playing the Actor in the West End production of The Woman in Black, He was also most recently seen playing Toulouse-Lautrec in the Secret Cinema's production of Moulin Rouge! His other theatre credit include: Edgar Rychenkov in Noël (National Opera House, Ireland); Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales (Bargehouse, South Bank); Nick Willow in Carrie’s War (Novel Productions UK Tour); Posner in The History Boys (West Yorkshire Playhouse/Theatre Royal Bath UK Tour); Frodo in The Lord of the Rings (Theatre Royal Drury Lane); Peter Pan: A Musical Adventure (West Yorkshire Playhouse); Les Misérables (Palace Theatre); Oliver! (London Palladium); Hey! Mr Producer(Lyceum); Oliver! (Theatre Royal Plymouth).

We chat to James after his opening night in his new role...

Is the love of music and theatre something which runs in the family?
Not particularly, though my sister and I starred together as kids in Les Misérables at the Palace Theatre in the 90s, and my brother is a talented musician, and I suppose my grandfather was a bit of a crooner - oh alright, scrap that, I suppose it does, yes.

Where did you train and how has this helped you build your career in the arts?
I didn’t. It hasn’t. I was lucky, I fell into acting at an early age and carried on!
I’m not quite sure what ‘building a career in the arts’ means these days really. It’s all too easy to feel as though one’s building something and then… bam! You’re flat on your backside again. It can happen to any actor, however prominent. It’s an extremely fickle industry and I’m very glad and grateful to be working!

Secret Cinema this year was one of the most exclusive events on the circuits and was raved about by everyone. What was it like being an integral part of that experience?
It’s an extraordinary thing to be part of. I’ve done 3 shows with them now and they’ve improved each time. They employ some of the most talented people I’ve come across - in every department. I only wish those people could receive the credit and exposure they deserve and have worked so hard for, often under immense pressure. In terms of the shows themselves, it’s hugely rewarding to see audience members undergoing some truly life-affirming, and occasionally life-changing experiences. That may sound hyperbolic, but for the shy or sheepish, these shows can yield real awakenings in one’s sense of self, one’s place in the world and one’s ability to play and embrace the present moment. Wow, that sounds pretty pretentious… but I think I believe it. It's real escapism.

How will you use that immersive theatre experience to elevate your performance in The Woman in Black?
Immersive theatre is, I think, invaluable for reminding performers why it is that they perform. The focus is on the audience, to facilitate their experience. It’s easy as an actor to get caught up in your own performance - but as soon as you start feeling rather pleased with yourself, you risk alienating the audience. Immersive theatre requires of its performers that they consistently check they’re making contact with the human being they’re talking to, and not just talking at them. 

For those who don’t know, could you give us a brief summary of the story of The Woman In Black?
Arthur Kipps, a lawyer in the autumn of his years, enlists the assistance of an enthusiastic, young actor to help him tell the story of his previous life... In his twenties, as a trainee solicitor, he is sent to sort through the private papers and legal documents of recently deceased widow, and recluse, Alice Drablow. He encounters a remote town with a horrifying secret. Emboldened by his rationality and driven by his sense of duty and insatiable curiosity, the things he discovers will leave him profoundly and irrevocably changed.

What do you think has made the show so successful? It's going into its
29th year in London - that's staggering! It's now the 4th longest running show in London. 
I think it's a beautifully adapted, designed and directed celebration of theatrical storytelling. It's a piece of theatre that reminds one how effectively and efficiently a great (and, I think, heart-rending) story can be told, and it's one that audiences want to revisit and rediscover time and time again, with thrills and chills that resonate differently with every age group. Its actors only ever get a 9 month run, so it's never become stodgy or staid. 

It's also, I think, the best date-theatre in town!

The show gave me my first panic attack at the age of 12 – I just couldn’t believe how frightening it was! I appreciate I am a bit of a wuss, but has a show ever had that kind of effect on you?
I’ve had numerous mates in WiB over the years, so I had become fairly familiar with it, but I still jump at the same moments I did when I first saw it as a lad!

I enjoy being unexpectedly moved by theatre. Kathryn Evans' 'Norma Desmond' in the Watermill's 'Sunset Boulevard', from about 10 years ago, had me choking back tears that seemingly sprang from nowhere.

The 2012 film adaptation is the most successful British horror film of all time. Will you be drawing any inspiration from it for your role as “The Actor” in the stage show?
That’s an astounding accolade and testament to Susan Hill’s ability as a storyteller! I haven’t watched the film. I tend to avoid other interpretations of characters, at least until I feel I’ve a good sense of my journey through a story. Our story is framed quite differently, I’m told. Ours is a play within a play, so whilst I’m ostensibly playing Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe’s role in the movie), I’m actually playing an actor playing Kipps. I would like to see it eventually though, I’m not so morally-minded that I won’t borrow a good idea from another actor when I see one!

Is the Horror/Thriller genre something which has always appealed to you?
No. Nope. Not at all. Had I not been dragged along to see WiB for school I might’ve avoided it like the plague. (I should add that I’m very very glad I was though!) I love a good story but I certainly don’t seek out the thrill of being terrified.

Aside from The Woman In Black, which show in the West End would you say is a “must-see”?
Right, this is where I list all the shows my mates are in: 42nd Street (our neighbour), An American In Paris, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Kinky Boots, Wicked…I’m sure there’re more. Embarrassingly, I’m very bad at going to West End theatre - I’m usually too poor, and when I'm not, it's because I'm in a show! I have seen An American In Paris though and loved being bathed in Gershwin.

There’s been lots of debate within the theatre community about the etiquette of fans at Stage Door. What kind of interaction at Stage Door gives you the most joy and what advice would you give to fans looking to meet cast members after shows?
It’s a delicate one this. For me, the argument that performers should be beholden to their fans holds no water. If a fan has seen a performance and enjoyed it, great. The performer has the benefit of their support and the fan has a product that they enjoy - that’s the transaction. Stage door interactions are an added bonus and in my opinion, neither party has any obligation to the other. You wouldn’t expect or demand a photo with a stranger, nor, I hope, would you take one without asking. It’s really lovely to meet people who have enjoyed the show and your performance, and as long as the respect and courteousness flows in both directions it’s great. I suppose the grey area arises when a performer is asking fans to support him or her with no discernible show or product. As far as I’m concerned though, I like meeting nice people and I’ll take it while it lasts.

We look forward to seeing you take on your new role in The Woman In Black. Do you have any future dream roles or collaborations you’d like to share with us?
I’ve never done Sondheim - I’d really like to. I’d also love to take a show to New York. If the rest of my career featured playwrights like Rattigan, Stoppard, Ayckbourn, Albee, Orten, Mamet, Miller and Tennessee Williams I’d be a very happy boy.

Questions by Harriet Langdown 
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