About to appear in his second play at the National Theatre, Oliver Chris tells Caroline Bishop why he intends to relish every second of an experience which has been a dream since childhood.
The three main themes of Richard Bean’s new play One Man, Two Guvnors are food, sex and money. Which raises the question, how would you rank these in order of importance? It may be a little mean to put this query to one of the play’s stars, Oliver Chris, but I do. “I’d say all at the same time! If I had to rank them? How do you choose that?” he pauses, before deciding: “I would say sex, food, money.” Another pause. “But then on a different day I would say money, sex, food and on a different day I would say food, money, sex. It depends what mood I’m in. It depends if I’ve got the spendy bug or the horn.”
Chris laughs, which is something he hopes audiences will be doing a lot of when watching his new play. Because One Man, Two Guvnors is a little different from the rest of the National Theatre’s current repertoire. Following a musical based on the aftermath of the 2006 Ipswich murders, a play about a family of Jewish Londoners affected by their soldier son’s death in Israel, and a high-profile version of gothic horror novel Frankenstein, One Man, Two Guvnors is aiming to provide a bit of light relief. “We’ve just had all these amazing, quite diverse and often quite serious shows and I think they went, d’you know what, let’s just put on a balls-out, hilarious play. And I think it’s brilliant.”
Bean’s farce is a new version of Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni’s 18th century comedy The Servant Of Two Masters, which Bean updates to 1960s Brighton, a world of “cheap gangster suits and lowlifes”. Truffaldino, the comic servant at the centre of Goldoni’s play, becomes Francis Henshall (James Corden), a food-loving busker who is inadvertently employed by both Stanley Stubbers (Chris) and his disguised girlfriend, who have fled London separately after murdering her “scumbag” twin brother. Thus ensue all the classic trappings of farce – door-slamming, misunderstandings, silly disguises – as Henshall strives to keep his two ‘guvnors’ apart.
“I’m the token poshie,” says Chris when we meet at the National Theatre during rehearsals, describing Stubbers as “somewhere between Captain Flashheart, Bertie Wooster and Edward Fox.”
It sounds like a fun combination, and I can see why NT Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner would cast him in such a role. Tall, with dark blond hair and a twinkle in his eye, Chris has the gregarious, appealing manner of a little boy grown up, and a certain Englishness that would apply to all three.
“The first time I walked on the Lyttelton stage, it [was] a magical experience. It’s like a massive Arsenal fan scoring a goal at the Emirates.”
It is obvious that Chris is in his element. He talks garrulously about the intricacies of the plot, the spirit of commedia dell’arte that the production aims to capture – “lots of buffoonery, mucking around, having a great time” – and a farcical set piece involving 60s-style cuisine such as crepes suzettes and a trifle. “It’s hopefully,” he concludes, “going to make people laugh until a bit of wee comes out.”
It is a phrase that could have (indeed, has) come out of the mouth of Tamsin Greig, his former co-star in cult telly show Green Wing. Chris played prankster student doctor Boyce and it is the role for which the 32-year-old remains best known, while he has, by his own admission, “a very small theatre CV.”
Yet theatre is the reason Chris wanted to be an actor. Growing up in Tunbridge Wells he was “a precocious little show off as a kid.” So when he got the chance to join a youth theatre company he “just loved it straight away. I never wanted to do anything else so I failed all my A-Levels. That spell, particularly when you’re a kid and you can’t see the joins – if it’s sets or costumes or effects in musicals and stuff – it just sucks you in. It also suits my temperament, because I have a very short attention span. The idea of short, very intense bursts of work I like. I couldn’t sit in an office or anything like that.”
His passion for the stage is also due, in large part, to the National Theatre. His theatrephile parents used to take him up to London and he remembers seeing “some seminal stuff” on its stages over the years. As a result, working at the National became Chris’s goal, even if he knows he sounds like a theatre geek to admit it. “Some kids get inspired by movies and stuff, with me it was always the theatre and it was always this building. It’s all a bit gushy and pathetic,” he says sheepishly, “but ah… you know, this is where I used to come.”
However, he has had to wait to realise his childhood dream. Following drama school it was a stint in – ironically – Ricky Gervais’s The Office that enabled Chris to cut his teeth in the profession, leading on to more television roles in sitcoms The IT Crowd, According To Bex and then Green Wing. Theatre jobs took longer to come; he played Petruchio in The Taming Of The Shrew at Wilton’s Music Hall in 2007 and joined the Peter Hall Company in Bath in 2008, before getting his first part in the West End in a short run of Lisa Kron’s play Well later that year.
“Some kids get inspired by movies and stuff, with me it was always the theatre and it was always this building”
It may have been a slow burn, but it all led to his casting, at the end of last year, in Marianne Elliott’s revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy Season’s Greetings at the National Theatre. Starring alongside Catherine Tate, Jenna Russell and David Troughton, it would have been a coup for any young actor, but for Chris it fulfilled an ambition. “The first time I walked on the Lyttelton stage – it was just a rehearsal – it [was] a magical experience. It’s like a massive Arsenal fan scoring a goal at the Emirates.”
It was during his time in Season’s Greetings that Hytner asked him to participate in a workshop for Bean’s then half-written play. “I get to work with Nick Hytner in the National Theatre, having just worked with Marianne Elliott, I cannot think of a better way to spend a year. It’s just like… a dream. It sounds pathetic but it’s a dream. I promised my girlfriend that from now on I would no longer be neurotic about work because I’d ticked that box.”
Ah yes, his girlfriend. A slight cageyness in his manner when, later, I take the opportunity to ask him about her – “I never mentioned her!” – indicates that perhaps their relationship is subject to more scrutiny than most. The reason is that his girlfriend is Rachael Stirling, the Olivier-nominated actress and daughter of national treasure Dame Diana Rigg. Are he and Stirling competitive? “No. I mean, I don’t think we play the same parts,” he says glibly. “But, you know, we’re not competitive. She’s really awesomely supportive of me and I’m really awesomely supportive of her; well, I try and be!”
The couple just got engaged, four years after meeting on that production of The Taming Of The Shrew; she played the shrew, Kate. Talking about Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ play, Chris’s passion for theatre comes across once again. “God I love talking about [that] play, I could do it for hours,” he says mid-flow. “I was very proud actually of our production, particularly because we had no money and we had no anything really. It was an independent production and it was tough going. I think we did a pretty good job. I would love to have another crack of it but I’m proud of that. And also I picked up The Hotness.” Is that her nickname? “Well, no,” he says with a grin, “but I fear it might be now!”
Given his passion for the stage it seems a shame that Chris has not been able to indulge it as much as he would have liked. The wide-eyed enthusiasm of his youth theatre days has been tempered by the reality of a profession that can be frustrating. “Acting is hard,” he says. “A flippant way of saying it is you pull your trousers down every single day and you ask people to look at you and say ‘what do you think?’ And nine times out of ten they go ‘yeah, don’t really like you very much’. So it’s hard, it’s tough.”
“I promised my girlfriend that from now on I would no longer be neurotic about work because I’d ticked that box”
Even when he has had work he has sometimes found the daily routine – or lack of it – a little hard to deal with. During Green Wing, which he was a part of for three successful years – “loved it!” – Chris only filmed two days a week. He subsequently started a part-time degree in politics, philosophy and history to fill the downtime. “How much Richard & Judy can one individual watch? I do love Homes Under The Hammer but let’s be honest…” he jokes. “I’m really interested in stuff, so I just started doing this degree in the evenings. But then obviously when the theatre started to really pick up, which I really just adored, it was no contest.”
His degree is now on hold indefinitely, though he doesn’t rule out going back to it. But hopefully he won’t now have enough gaps in his work schedule to be able to. However frustrating his chosen profession may be at times, his experiences have made him appreciate what he has now. “I have been more fortunate than most, not as fortunate as some. I’ve definitely had ups and downs, big ones, but acting’s difficult. There are a s**t load of people who are struggling more and are more frustrated than I am right now. But the way I feel at the moment is, having felt frustrated, I think in some bizarre way you owe it to the people who are struggling and aren’t having such a great time to really grab hold of the great experiences when they come along.”
And, starring in his second production at the venue he always wanted to work at, Chris has every intention of grabbing hold of the experience with all his might. “To have the opportunity to do this, no matter what happens afterwards, I’m not going to let that go by insignificantly. It’s brilliant, it’s wonderful, and I hope lots of other actors get the same opportunity because it’s a dream.”