Unassuming. The word could have been created for Accolade leading man Alexander Hanson. Let us not forget that this is an actor who earlier this year created the title role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest musical Stephen Ward, who led the acclaimed Menier Chocolate Factory production of A Little Night Music in the West End and on Broadway, who has played the O2 in Jesus Christ Superstar.
He’s also the same actor who is carrying his M&S lunch around with him as we try to find a spot near the St James Theatre, where he will be starring in the revival of Accolade, to conduct our interview. There was a double booking, you see, on the space we were going to use. Far from any diva-ish reaction, Hanson rolled up his metaphorical sleeves and tried to pull in favour to solve the problem.
If he were surrounded by hype, he wouldn’t believe it, but as he points out his wife, Downton Abbey’s Samantha Bond, is the more high profile of the pair. She would be the more likely to sympathise with the plight of Hanson’s Accolade character, an author who, as he is about to receive a great honour, finds his world caved in by potential scandal.
I’m not suggesting that Bond would be involved in anything morally questionable, of course. Just that, in an age when success in the arts rides hand in hand with celebrity, fame and increased media scrutiny, she may understand the feeling of being public property.
That’s just one of the topics, along with Stephen Ward and his children following him into the business, that we cover during our chat.
What about Accolade first caught your attention?
I think what struck me most of all was how modern it is. I think more so in the light of the Leveson Inquiry. I’d love to know how I’d have reacted to it before those events, but I think they’ve really given it new prominence. It’s an extraordinary story.
Will Trenting’s an interesting character. He’s from an establishment background, but finds that suffocating and hypocritical. He understands that world very well, but feels much more at home in the honesty and authenticity of low life. He’s a hugely successful writer. He not only writes about and observes the underbelly of society, but he has always been fascinated by it and in fact, participates as well.
He kicks out against rules, he kicks out against regulations. He wants people to be interested in his writing, not him. What he is has nothing to do with anybody, nothing to do with the press. Of course, if you accept a knighthood, responsibilities come with it, scrutiny comes with it and part of the play is about how he and everyone else deals with it.
As someone who lives to a certain extent in the public eye, do you sympathise with Will’s situation?
I can understand it. I don’t have that scrutiny. My wife is far more high profile than I am. One can understand the pitfalls and the Trojan Horse element of it; it all looks great but suddenly you’re everybody’s property.
How have you found working with the director, Blanche McIntyre?
She’s wonderful. She’s one of these directors who directs without seeming to direct. She’s very tuned into the actors’ instincts. But she’s got a wonderful method of working, which I like enormously and I’m not alone, obviously. She’ll notice if we’re talking and there’s a slight hesitation. She’ll say “What is it?” You may not want to say it because you think it’s silly, but nothing’s ever silly in that room. She’s using the creative impulses of those particular actors in that room, plus her own intellect which is colossal, her own understanding and perception of the play. It’s a very healthy environment and one finds oneself making leaps and bounds without any apparent effort.
Every play you do is a journey. Sometimes you get part of the way through that journey and you can’t solve certain problems. With this one you feel as an actor you’re really bringing something to the party because she’s interested. She’s not just interested in her vision; she wants to know what your impulses are.
How do you feel about being part of the One Stage season, helping emerging producers?
I like what’s going on here. If you’re getting young producers at the St James and they’re getting a leg up, it’s a good thing for the St James and it’s good for our industry.
Have you done a lot of research into the setting for this piece?
I haven’t done as much as I’d like because I got the gig when I was rehearsing Single Spies [at the Rose Theatre, Kingston], so my focus was on that. By the time you finish rehearsals, you’ve done your shopping, got home, cooked, washed up, you’ve got very little time to actually do anything but look at a few lines, which is obviously the most important thing – learn your lines and don’t bump into furniture.
I don’t sleep very well during rehearsals. I think a lot of it is to do with working too late. You’ve got to switch off and relax and trust the subconscious a bit to do some of the work to process what you’ve been doing during the day and over the last week.
Both your children have followed you into acting. How do you feel about that?
We’ve been very lucky, my wife and I, we’ve worked pretty consistently. We work very hard and we’re not bad at what we do, but there’s luck as well. That’s what they perceive the business is like; one of us is always working. It’s trickier than that. We never said ‘Don’t do it,’ because that’s red rag to a bull. We thought we’d played a really clever game. Then the whole thing collapsed.
At the end of the day, if that’s what they think they want to do, they’ve got to do it. My daughter likes her clothes. If she doesn’t get the work, if there’s no income coming in, she’ll quickly move on and find something else!
How do you look back on the Stephen Ward experience?
It was an extraordinary experience. I was doing Jesus Christ Superstar for Andrew [Lloyd Webber]. I came out of my dressing room and Andrew said ‘I’d love to get you in a rehearsal room with Christopher Hampton and Don Black.’ It was extraordinary. To be first up in a new Andrew Lloyd Webber production and to be courted and solicited was really quite exciting. That was a year before we started rehearsals.
I could feel there was something there. I remember Andrew saying ‘We’ve got a show here’ and thinking ‘Yes, we have.’ Then it divided opinion hugely. I suppose we should have read the runes really. It wasn’t a family show, so we should never have opened at Christmas, but it was the only way of securing Richard Eyre’s services because he’s booked so far in advance.
Then on our press night the ceiling fell down on the Apollo and it was a PR disaster. It was inappropriate to do interview and photographs; we had no idea if there had been casualties. Then there were floods, there were tube strikes, reviews were very mixed. I was so sure that we would be okay; we had such integrity. I’ve talked to a lot of people since. Punters liked it, but people in the industry didn’t seem to like it as much.
It was very sad to close. Inevitably there is a sense of failure, but what can you do? I enjoyed working on it. I loved the company. Now it feels like a decade ago. That’s what happens, you move on.
How have you managed the trick of balancing musical work with straight theatre?
I trained at the Guildhall as a straight actor. That is what I wanted to do; that is what I wanted to learn. That is what I bring to musical theatre. To ground yourself in straight plays and the analysis of text, it’s a priceless thing to bring into musical theatre where there’s not as many words or scenes; you have that ability to invest more in it. Equally the other way round, it’s brilliant to bring a bit of pizazz to straight theatre if you can.
It was difficult. I had to put myself out of work. I had to say ‘That’s it, I’m going to get a straight theatre role.’ I had enough faith in myself, but it was tough. When I did Arcadia, one of the things that impressed Tom Stoppard, who interviewed me for the takeover, was the fact that Michael Codron who was producing it made it quite clear that I had turned down The Phantom Of The Opera at £1500 a week, to go legit.
Do you have any advice to aspiring performers?
The first thing is ask ‘Are you really sure you want to do this?’ If you’re going to do it you’ve got to commit to it and take responsibility. Back yourself and get on with it. Work hard. Go and see theatre. Work begets work. When you turn a job down things can stutter to a halt. It takes a while for you to get going again. There’s a lot to be said of quite a large turnover of stuff.
The other thing is not to neglect life. It’s very easy to get very narrow. It becomes just about the play and suddenly current affairs go out the window – the Rembrandt exhibition, the Turner exhibition, the Nick Cave concert, the Proms – but if you go to those, that feeds in. The trouble is when you’ve got the money to afford them you’re working, and when you’re out of work you’ve got no money.
What do I know?