The new leading man of hit comedy One Man Two Guvnors had, when he took over as Francis Henshall, simultaneously the most enviable and unenviable of opportunities; he was leading the cast of one of the most celebrated shows in the West End, but following in the Olivier Award-nominated footsteps of James Corden. He had very big comedy shoes to fill.
But the boy from a small town in North Wales, who was offered the role during the interval of his first understudy performance as Henshall, took it all on the chin, sold his beloved motorbike for fear of injury, and got down to the serious business of being funny. Little did he know his new role would entail being pelted with confectionary, as Matthew Amer found out.
CV in brief:
1994: Made staged debut in Theatr Gwynedd’s William Jones
1994-2003: Played Aled Shaw in Welsh soap opera Rownd A Rownd
2006: Played Timms in the third cast of The History Boys
2008: Appeared in TV drama The Palace
2010: Directed by Trevor Nunn in Birdsong
2011: Understudied James Corden in One Man, Two Guvnors
2012: Stepped into the lead in the recast One Man, Two Guvnors
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Rhiwlas in North Wales. It’s a little village with a population of about 200 on the side of a mountain. We had to walk a mile to the petrol station to get some sweets. It was a proper little Welsh community there, everybody speaking Welsh, which is my first language. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
How did you get into acting?
There was a drama class after school hours. My grandmother wanted me to go there. I didn’t want to at all, I had no interest in it. All I wanted was to play football, like everybody really. My grandmother said, “I’ll pay for those lessons for the first term, see if you like it.” I didn’t really like it that much. I was hiding in the back.
I remember one day I was trying to get this thing right and I was complimented by the teacher. I remember thinking “Oh, that’s the first time I’ve had a compliment.” I stayed there and then this theatre director came in, he was doing a play in Theatr Gwynedd. He cast me in a play called William Jones. I enjoyed it and from that a Welsh soap opera approached me and offered me two weeks work. They seemed to like me and wrote me into the series and I was there for nine years.
It was hard work because I was missing lessons and I always had to play catch up at school. But I got all my GCSEs and my A-levels. I took two years out to stay on the soap opera, to try and get a bit of money and decide what I wanted to do, then I applied to colleges in London. I thought “Let’s give it a go, if I can get in here then maybe I should stick to it.” I got a place at Guildhall, which still, up to today, I feel is one of my biggest achievements.
I went to drama school knowing one or two things about acting, but also I realised I knew nothing about it too, so it stripped me down of bad habits and started from scratch, and it was the best thing I’ve ever done.
How did you feel about taking over in the lead role of One Man Two Guvnors, given all its success?
The pressure of the play being good wasn’t on my shoulders, it was on Richard Bean’s [the writer] shoulders really, to see if it could work with another cast. That was out of my hands. But the pressure of filling James’s boots was hanging over me. I was trying not to think about it, because if you dwell on a thing like that you’re shooting yourself in the foot really.
When the reviews came out the following day after press night, it was a huge relief. Personally, I didn’t care what they thought. I believed I was doing what I was doing; I was playing the situation and that’s all you can do really, you’re just serving the play. But this power that critics have, that kind of stresses you out sometimes. Whether I’m filling James’s boots or worse than him in certain ways, thinner, fatter, taller, Welsh or English, I don’t really care, everybody had a good time.
Tell me about your character.
Francis Henshall is a happy go lucky guy. All he wants is food and he’ll lie through his teeth just to have that. At the end of the day it’s simple. Don’t ask me about the plot!
Some guy interfered in the play the other night. He kept throwing food at the stage. He was throwing M&Ms at me from the balcony. He went “Are you losing the plot?” I said “No, you’re spoiling the plot!”
It’s one of the few shows where you can get away with that…
It is. I do ask questions. I do now and again get people answering back. People do sometimes offer me things. That’s the joy of it. When you’re doing shows you’re doing the same thing every night, but this show is never the same.
Which performers do you admire?
There are loads of actors that I respect. If we were to think about me being Welsh, I respect Anthony Hopkins and I respect Rhys Ifans too.
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with Rhys Ifans. Just to see him work and just to see the switch in him. It taught me a lot that day about how much of yourself you have to invest in a part. I respect him a lot. There’s a quality that Rhys Ifans has that I like, that’s kind of dangerous; he truly believes in what he does. He’s a very intelligent man and sometimes underestimated by the public, I think.
I respect James Corden. The drive he has to work and to create work and to be creative in that too. I respect that a lot. Jemima Rooper too, I think she’s a fantastic actress. Every night she would give 100% in every show she did. You can only respect hard working actors. If things were going astray or if some people were rebelling or didn’t have much energy, she would give it and she would listen on stage every night and I respect those people too.
How do you find performing in your second language. It doesn’t seem like you struggle with it?
Not any more. I’ve been here eight years now. But the first time I acted in English was my speeches for college. That’s one of the reasons I still feel it’s one of my biggest achievements. It was a huge. It took a year in college and I had a good teacher, Kate Godfrey, she helped me in sight reading, which I was terrified about. Every Welsh speaking person, doesn’t really, unless they’ve been out of Wales and worked through the English language, have that confidence in speaking English, my friends don’t anyway. They feel as though they’re less intelligent than English people. I have definitely discovered that is not the case. The moment I had that eureka moment in college, that’s when I went “Alright, let’s give this a whirl.”
What’s the best thing about being on stage and performing?
It’s just such a thrill and knowing that you make people laugh is such a gift. The part itself is such a gift and I will be eternally grateful to Nick Hytner [director], Richard Bean and Adam Penford [Associate Director] for giving me this opportunity. No matter what happens to my career after this, I’ve got to play one of the funniest parts ever in the West End. To be leading a company is something I never thought I would do. Maybe when I was 40 or 50 when I’d fallen into my niche more. I never thought it would come round this soon if ever.
And what’s the worst?
The fear of getting it wrong. The fear of not being liked, I think. Which I think is every actor’s nightmare. Actors are so vain. Basically performing is just a way of getting attention and boosting your ego, I think. To get that “Well done”.
One Man Two Guvnors is taking part in Get Into London Theatre Summer 2012, offering reduced price tickets between 21 June and 30 August. Tickets must be booked by 31 May. Book now!