Stephen Tompkinson, star of Drop The Dead Donkey and Ballykissangel, is waxing lyrical about the sound of 15,000 pigs while sitting next to a beautiful, sweeping marble staircase.
I am a ridiculous, flustered mess, casually trying to wipe beads of sweat surreptitiously away from my soggy eyebrows, thanks to a last minute sprint to the St James Theatre following a miscalculation about Friday evening tube travel.
It’s a somewhat fittingly farcical image for an interview with Tompkinson and his director/producer Katharine Farmer, about new comedy Pig Farm, which is currently playing at the Victoria venue.
My sense of panic must also reflect that felt by Farmer who, when the postponement of musical Stardust Road left a gap in the St James Theatre programming, had two months to bring this project to the stage from scratch.
Written by Urinetown creator Greg Kotis, it is the story of what happens when Teddy, an inspector from a government agency, arrives at the porky property of Tom and Tina suspecting they may have more than their quota of hogs. This, you see, has a knock on effect: price of meat goes down, so the need to produce more goes up. More pigs means more waste, but where will all that extra slurry go? If the figures don’t add up, the farmers are in more trouble than Babe, Pinky and Perky at a bacon-lovers convention.
But there’s more than that going on in this production of a play first staged in New York in 2006, each of the alliterative characters – there’s also a farm hand named Tim – have an agenda of their own, as I found out…
What’s going on below the surface at the Pig Farm?
Tompkinson: Teddy has a bit of a revelation during his visit to this particular farm; he has an epig-phany. The only thing standing in the way of what he sees as an ideal place to become a pig farmer are the legal owners.
And the young farmhand has a bit of a hidden agenda as well. The only thing halting his dream is money and where to get hold of some quickly.
Our poor beleaguered farmer Tom is just trying to make the farm work. His wife Tina, she’s almost fallen out of love with him and her young dream. She desperately wants that to be rekindled and thinks the way of bringing that together would be to have a baby. So everyone’s got a vision of that in secret as well.
There’s a lot going on.
When you first saw the play, what excited you about it?
Farmer: The rhythms of the play, Greg writes so beautifully. He really knows how people speak and he knows how to hit humour through repetition. For me as a director it was also the physical comedy. The raucous, almost slapstick humour is so much fun.
Tompkinson: It could be a very typical mid-West kitchen sink drama of a Sam Shepard ilk, struggling to make the land work. Then there’s something that starts to hit your ear in Greg’s writing, the immediate alliteration of the characters names, ever so slight mathematical repetitions throughout that he drip feeds, and it’s suddenly not the play that you thought you were going to watch. People are taken by surprise by it every night. Some people tune into it a lot quicker than others, but everyone ends up on the same journey together.
Farmer: There’s a lot of heart in the play as well. Greg writes four really human, flawed, humble, lovely people who you genuinely care for.
Tompkinson: They’re all slightly guilty of something, but that doesn’t get in the way of you caring, which is very clever writing.
You had to put the production together very quickly. How testing was that?
Farmer: This play, I think, thrives on energy and everyone was so energised by it, everyone. To have such a fast turnaround was, I think, actually really helpful for the production.
Tompkinson: You’ve no time to worry about it. It’s happening and it’s on. There’s a momentum to that, an energy that carries you through.
Farmer: There’s something about the spontaneity of the play that because of the physical comedy… if I had too long with it I think I would have fussed. Just being able to run it and run it and run it was great; every time I watch it there are new nuances coming through.
How have you found working together?
Farmer: It’s been fabulous to be able to direct Stephen. You play in the rehearsal room. It was constantly ideas, new things being tried out all the time, which is so necessary for a comedy to have that almost improv feel.
Tompkinson: You can interpret a line and bend it any way you want. I’m getting double entendres out of things that never had that intention at all, but it feels right for that particular moment.
I adore comedy, always have. From grandparents showing me Laurel and Hardy and the effect it was having on grown-ups, to learning the history. I find it extraordinary that Stan Laurel from the Lake District in England met this big guy from the deep south of America. They’re still making people laugh now. It’s joyous. Stan was Charlie Chaplin’s understudy. It was Stan who invented the tramp character and Chaplin ripped him off. I love that we’re the only mammals that go to such extremes to get a laugh out of others. There’s something very noble about it.
You’ve described Pig Farm as the “best British comedy written by an American…”
Farmer: I said that because it’s very very dry. It’s very subtle. And Brits love social awkwardness, I think. We love… [hesitates]
Tompkinson: You rarely associate Americans with the ability to laugh at themselves.
Farmer: I wasn’t sure if I could say that.
Tompkinson: I’ve dropped myself in it. I’ll never work there! British awkwardness, there’s thousands of characters. Basil Fawlty. David Brent. We make a real art form of it.
Farmer: It’s important that this play doesn’t descend into caricature. These are real people that you genuinely care about. Brits respond to that.
Tompkinson: It’s not as crude as a Saturday Night Live sketch about farmers. It’s much more than that. It wouldn’t hold up for two hours if it was.
How are you finding the St James Theatre as a place to perform?
Tompkinson: A space like this is such a gorgeous shared experience. You can see the audience, you can feel it when they’ve got it and you’re on the same journey together. There’s an immediacy, and intimacy, which is fabulous. I think it’s getting a great reputation for new plays. People are turning up not knowing what to expect; that’s why they’ve turned up. There’s a real palpable vibe of excitement about it.
Pig Farm plays at the St James Theatre until 21 November. You can book tickets through the theatre’s website.