Tom Wicker talks to former Harry Potter star Alfie Enoch ahead of his biggest adventure yet: making his professional stage debut in London.
Enoch, who portrayed Dean Thomas in the blockbuster film series, is starring in the UK premiere of Happy New, a dark comedy by award-winning Sydney playwright Brendan Cowell. The play opens at London’s Old Red Lion Theatre on 31 January and will run until 25 February.
Hi Alfie. What is Happy New about?
It is about two brothers in their mid-twenties, Danny and Lyle, who we meet in their flat, on New Year’s Eve – the day before they are being forced to move out. It becomes apparent over the course of the play that they were abandoned at a young age, by their mother, in a chicken pen. This traumatic experience has stayed with them ever since. So, the question they are faced with from the first scene is whether they are ready to live in the real world. With them is Pru, a news reporter who is a sultry, “media babe” figure. She is the girlfriend of my character, the older brother, Danny, and has a personal but also professional interest in the pair. We watch how this scenario plays out over the course of a single evening.
The similarity between the behaviour of chickens and of people is a prominent theme. Do you think the play works as a satire on relationships?
I think there is a satirical aspect to it. But I think there is a lot of truth in it, too. That is certainly something we are looking to uncover. It is important to us to find the truth in the imagery and the language and not to alienate audiences. When you have a play that takes place in one room, the idea of hierarchy is important. You have these three characters, with their own aims and dreams, who are all trying to get out, so it is about their power struggles and relationships with each other.
This is your professional stage debut. Why this play?
The first thing that got me was the freshness of it. It was fantastically ambitious; so radical and inventive. There is a real boldness to the writing. It wasn’t a safe option, by any means, which appealed to me. I wanted to bring the audience into the story. And I love Brendan Cowell’s use of language. His writing is at once beautiful but also very mocking. He can turn the mood so quickly. We are invited to sympathise with the characters and the awful things that have happened to them, but he can undercut this in a moment. There are some fantastic instances of bathos. The imagery plays an important part in establishing the character and tone of the play.
Did the single set and tight focus appeal to you as a departure from big-budget productions like the Harry Potter films?
The differences are enormous. One of the things that appealed to me about Happy New was that it is so much about language. I studied literature for four years at university, so spent a lot of time considering words and how they are used. When I saw the last Harry Potter I was amazed. The special effects work that goes in to creating the world we see on the screen is astonishing; it is a visual feast. When you are working in film or TV the image has to speak very loudly. Happy New also has visual elements that will hopefully be impressive. But the real spectacle is in the language, which I enjoy. If you look at the theatre of the past, and storytelling before, it originates in the spoken word. Brendan really relishes that, which is a wonderful opportunity for me as an actor. The wordplay is so witty.
Actors who make the transition from screen to stage often comment on the strangeness of performing something in sequence, from start to finish. Did you find it a problem?
One of the challenges of film is jumping all over the place in terms of the order of scenes. So being able to play a character linearly is a luxury. It is one of the great benefits of theatre. When I was in Spain, on my year abroad while studying Spanish and Portuguese at university, I was fortunate to be able to work with Roberto Quintana, an absolutely fantastic Spanish actor. He always talked about preferring theatre and once described film to me as “not a place for actors.” Of course, he was exaggerating – he has done a lot of film work and enjoyed it – but his point was that on stage you are able to play out your character in a way that makes sense. To be able to do that is important and very helpful. There’s always a narrative, even if it is broken chronologically. It has been selected to be that way; it doesn’t depend on what set or camera operator is available that day.
What or who inspired you to be an actor in the first place?
My father is an actor, so I grew up going to the theatre, watching him and spending time with his friends. Acting was something that had always been at the forefront of my mind, from a young age. I enjoyed performing and looked up to my Dad tremendously. He is 87 now and has been acting for 64 years. He started in repertory and worked his way up. I thought it was a wonderful thing to do with your life and always knew that I wanted to pursue it as a career.
Did your father encourage you?
It has been immensely useful having him as a mentor. It means that I am not overly naive about acting. He was always at pains, and still is, to illustrate to me the difficulties of the profession – that you can never guarantee work, and so on. All the pitfalls and complications have been ladled on from an early age! He wasn’t trying to put me off; he just wanted me to be aware that it can be a tough industry, which is true. It is hard to break in, get a job and then find yourself wondering where the next one will come from when you hit a dip. He once told me that he had never had a year where he worked for the full 12 months; that uncertainty is built into the profession, however successful you are. Knowing this has been really important.
And it never put you off?
No, it strengthened my resolve. At a younger age, I probably thought that he was just being contrary. But now I see it in a more cool-headed way. I am very fortunate in the respect that I have a clear idea of what I want to do in life. I have a lot of friends who have just come out of university who don’t have that clarity. On the other hand, if you know what you want to do, you have so much to lose!
Brendan Cowell once said in an interview that the Fringe should be a place for “anarchic aggression”. Do you see a distinction between off-West End and mainstream theatre in this regard?
I would hesitate to say that certain things aren’t possible in the mainstream. One of the functions of art and theatre is to ask the big, difficult questions. You should be able to do that at the National or the Old Red Lion. But it is true that you can take the kind of risks on the Fringe that you can’t always in mainstream theatre, at least not as easily. A sense of excitement and vitality is important to this industry, and the Fringe can play an important role in rejuvenating theatre and moving it forward. I love Shakespeare, but there isn’t a theatre scene if every venue in the country is only putting on Shakespeare plays. There needs to be a place for new writing and that embraces work that challenges people. And I think Happy New will do that. It asks questions and invites you, as an audience member, to get involved.
How have you found working with a small cast? Has it been enjoyable?
It has been a lot of fun and a terrific learning experience. I did my training, of sorts, with Roberto, but that was a small, informal thing. I never went to drama school to do a full course. My father, who also never trained, said that you should always be looking to improve and to gain different perspectives from other people in the industry – to treat acting as a process of collaboration. I have been aware of that and have tried to learn as much as I can from everyone around me. Josie Taylor, as Pru, is fantastic – she has been a working actress for several years – as is the director, Robert Shaw; and Joel Samuels who plays Lyle, is just out of LAMDA and has a wealth of experience and technical ability to draw on.
And what has it been like acting in the Old Red Lion?
It is a lovely theatre and I think it is going to be a great venue for Happy New because it is such an intimate space. We are staging this in traverse, which means that the audience is right by us, even three rows back. That is so important for this play. It will really help us out. And the story is set on New Year’s Eve, in Australia, which is not a quiet time of year. So the fact that we are above a pub should add to the flavour of the piece! I can’t wait to see how it feels when we can get the audiences in.
Going forward, would you like to maintain a mix of theatre and filmed work?
At the risk of sounding spoilt, I would love to. I want to do as much of everything as I can. Working in film presents its own challenges and complications, as well as skills and techniques to learn. But there is something so immediate and powerful about being on stage and relating a story to an audience right in front of you. Some people claim that film is more realistic. But the ephemeral nature of each performance on stage seems much more authentic to me than, say, an explosion on a screen. To share the same space, the same air, as an audience is a wonderful thing.
So, what is up next? Do you have any plans beyond this?
Not really. Because I am aware how much work is required from us to make this play accessible to an audience, I am spending a lot of time concentrating on the moment. The idea of going straight into something else would be exhausting for me. I like to wade in deep! However, I do have The Mimic coming up this summer, which is a sitcom that I made the pilot for last year. That was a lot of fun, with a good group of people. We shot it in six days, it was fast paced and Channel 4 liked it. Until then, though, I will be looking for work and to learn as much as I possibly can.
For more information on Happy New, and to book tickets, go to: http://www.offwestend.com/index.php/plays/view/6697
First published by OffWestEnd.com