Best known for playing “dumb cockney” Neil in hit comedy The Inbetweeners, Blake Harrison is making his West End debut in a very different role at the Trafalgar Studios. He invited Official London Theatre into his dressing room.
“The feeling that you get when you deliver a line that you know is really harsh and unacceptable in the real world, but you’ve got 100 people around you laughing, is incredible,” London-born actor Blake Harrison tells me as we sit in the stalls of the Trafalgar Studio 2, peering at the grimy bedsit set where night after night he makes audiences cringe, gasp and giggle in Rob Hayes’s dark comedy Step 9 (Of 12).
The show finds Harrison a world away from the character of Neil, the gormless, naïve yet loveable schoolboy that catapulted him to fame in The Inbetweeners, the E4 comedy that managed to be both current and ring true with anyone who was ever a teenager, and that went on to spawn the biggest grossing British comedy film of all time.
On the London stage he plays recovering alcoholic Keith, who has reached the portion of his 12-step recovery plan at which he has to ask forgiveness for his actions. As a couple enter the room, he begins to try to atone, but drags up memories that are probably best buried forever.
His West End debut comes in one of Theatreland’s smallest theatres, with just 100 audience members squeezed into the Trafalgar Studio 2 each night. While his TV experience means he’s used to having a camera inches from his face or performing to an X on the wall while ignoring numerous crew members gurning around him, he wasn’t prepared for the audience member who knocked Maltesers onto the stage, the lady who laughed so hard at everything – “even stuff that wasn’t really that funny” – that she nearly made him corpse, or the helpful audience member who stretched their legs out so far Harrison had to step over them.
It’s unsurprising that the 26-year-old actor is, in fact, nothing like Neil or, thankfully, the unhinged character he plays in Step 9 (Of 12). The BRIT school graduate doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do for a living, so much so that he had no plan B. Before the success of The Inbetweeners he funded working in one unpaid play by sticking labels to the inside of buses between 20:00 and 04:00 before heading off to rehearsals at 08:00. Even after filming the first series of The Inbetweeners he had to go and work in Madame Tussauds between jobs. “It’s scary how blinkered I was,” he says. “It very easily might not have worked out and what would I have done with the rest of my life then?”
Thankfully it has. So far at least. But Harrison is under no illusions that one success makes a career, especially in his industry: “I feel great about The Inbetweeners, but it’s all down to the writing. It’s now for me to prove that I can do other things. I don’t think I will feel I have made it until I have done a variety of different things that have been very successful. At the moment I’ve done a bunch of things, but only one of them has been really successful. It’s probably going to take me a hell of a long time to achieve the goals that I want to achieve.”
Have you decorated your dressing room?
I’m barely in it. It’s not like a personal space, so I don’t feel I can do whatever I want to that room. I’m sharing it with two other guys, so I just treat it with respect for everyone else and their space. Because I’m pretty much on stage for the entirety of the play, I dump my clothes, get changed and that’s all I’m in the dressing room for, so it’s not a big deal.
Is there anything you have to have in your dressing room?
I’ve been getting a little bit partial to having a Strepsil 20 minutes before going on because it stops me drinking water. I get a bit nervous and I need to wee a lot before the show. Today I didn’t have a Strepsil and it felt like I was busting for the loo from five minutes into the show. The worst thing in the world is when you feel like you need a wee when you’re acting.
What’s on your iPod?
A mixture of so many different things. I don’t have anything in particular that I listen to for this show. My iPod’s got loads on it. Hip hop, pop, R ‘n’ B, rock, a bit of Buble. I would like to think it’s pretty eclectic.
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
I have a really weird one. I’ve got a really big fear of drying on lines, so I go through the entire play by myself. I’m in an hour and a bit before everyone else and I’ll go over stuff. I don’t feel comfortable dryly going into it and being ready for a performance. I feel I have to go through it once, then I feel like I know what’s going on and I’m ready for the performance of it. I know it’s slightly weird, but I don’t feel right if I haven’t done it.
Are you superstitious?
I wouldn’t go as far as to say I was really superstitious. I do touch wood every now and then. I slightly believe in karma or jinxing yourself. I would never say anything like ‘Nothing will go wrong’ without touching wood. I tend to think that fate will do the opposite of what I say.
What do you do after a show?
If I’ve got someone in I’ll go for a quick drink. If not I’ll go home. Just chill out. It is quite an emotional play and it takes quite a bit of energy, so it takes a little bit of time to wind down.
"It’s going to take me a hell of a long time to achieve the goals that I want to achieve."