In a stage career that spans almost 30 years, What The Night Is For at the Comedy is Roger Allam's first two-hander. And who better to share the experience with than Gillian Anderson, sultry star of TV series The X-Files? Laura North finds out if sparks are flying on stage and what Allam thinks about American stars in the West End, dressing up in drag and hair removal techniques…
Allam plays Adam Penzius who tracks down his ex-lover Melinda Metz (Anderson) over the internet. Their passion has lain dormant for over a decade and they reunite for a night of will-they-won't-they. This is not unfamiliar territory to Anderson: Scully, her character in The X-Files, spent the best part of ten seasons not getting it on with her colleague Mulder, despite the presence of a powerful chemistry. However, What The Night Is For is clearly a different kettle of fish to the sci-fi series: the first sparks of romance are generated at a Book Circle in New York rather than a cannibal-infested sewer. And the flames of their passion (undoubtedly fanned higher by a paperback of Madame Bovary) are dampened by issues of fidelity rather than the inconvenient entrance of a genetic mutation. But the chemistry of Mulder and Scully is still a hard act to follow.
"I'm a bit of a jack of all trades, I'll do anything"
"It's not something I'm really aware of on stage at all because it's so unlike the character she plays in The X-Files," says Allam, obviously not phased by the precedent. "It has no effect on me until we come out the stage door and there's a great big crowd of people waiting for her and then you think, oh yeah, of course." Mulder, Scully and groupies aside, achieving a powerful chemistry is a pivotal part of the play. Both characters are married with children, so rekindling an affair means taking a big risk and the attraction has to justify this. The two actors have had an intensive time rehearsing it and so plenty of opportunity to develop a convincing relationship. "We were in the rehearsal room for just over four weeks and because it's a two-hander obviously you don't get any time off. So it's been pretty full on." Allam is confident that the essential electricity has been achieved: "Oh I think so, yes, I hope so, very much."
Allam and Anderson come from very different acting backgrounds. Allam has spent a great deal of his career on the stage. He joined the RSC in 1981 where he co-starred with the now Patrick Stewart, who transferred his Shakespearian gravitas to the Starship Enterprise in StarTrek. Allam subsequently built up an impressive list of credits, working at the National, the Donmar and many other institutions of British theatre. Anderson, on the other hand, has had an extensive screen career – X-Files, the films The House Of Mirth and Playing By Heart – but her stage appearances have been few and far between. "She had done theatre before, it's just the vast bulk of her experience is doing film and telly and the vast bulk of mine is doing stage." Allam feels she has adapted excellently. "The stage is just more unfamiliar to Gillian than to me, so she's got more to get used to and it's a hell of a role to get used to. But she's great, absolutely great.
"Last year I played a drag queen, the year before that I played Hitler"
Anderson is just one in a long line of American stars to make their debut in the West End recently – Gwynneth Paltrow, Madonna, Glenn Close – a trend recently criticised by the prominent and prolific playwright Alan Ayckbourn. At an Orange Word lecture at the Apollo Theatre he said that producers have an "obsession" with hiring Hollywood stars: "If all we are looking for these days is one-shot plays with one big name in it, I don't want to be part of it". Allam is wary of making a sweeping judgement. "It's a difficult thing to generalise about really. I think the good aspect of it is that it's brought a bit of glamour back into the West End, which is needed. Maybe one aspect of it that's unfortunate is that it needs Americans to do that." For Allam, though, it comes down to one vital fact. "Beyond that, it's just a question of whether or not they're good actors. If they're good actors I've got no complaints about it whatsoever and if they bring a different kind of crowd into the theatre I think that's all to the good."
Allam is not adverse to the movies himself but he thinks that his long stint with the RSC (ten years) meant that subsequently stage-work has tended to dominate his acting career. "It can become a bit self-fulfilling that I get offered much more interesting roles on the stage than on film and telly." However, he recently starred in a film based on Swiss Family Robinson called Stranded and this year he played a character based on Tennessee Williams in the film The Roman Spring Of Mrs Stone with Helen Mirren and Anne Bancroft.
Although film appeals to him, he confesses "I'm a bit of a jack of all trades, I'll do anything." He's certainly played a wide array of roles: "Last year I played a drag queen, the year before that I played Hitler." His roles are not confined to straight acting. Whilst still at university he had singing lessons at the English National Opera with the vocal consultant. He decided to follow the acting path, but his training obviously played a part when he landed the role of Javert in the original production of Les Misérables. Now in its blockbusting 17th year, Allam had no idea the musical would become so successful. Having started off in the Barbican, the RSC production transferred to the West End where its future was not so certain. "We moved into the West End around Christmas which is always a difficult time unless you're specifically a Christmas show. I know that Cameron Mackintosh [producer] was quite concerned about the state of the advance booking when we moved into the West End." One thing seemed to help secure the success of the musical. "I think what finally did it in terms of publicity was Princess Di coming to see it twice – it was like a couple of million dollars worth of publicity. She saw it in the Barbican and then she came to see it again in the West End, I think bringing Prince Charles, and it after that it just sort of took off."
"I had to shave all over, fingers, arms, toes, everything. Wax? Oh god no"
His performance as a drag queen in Peter Nichols' Privates On Parade stands out. The role of Terri Dennis, officer in charge of an army concert in the steamy Malaysian jungle of 1948, won him this year's Olivier award for Best Actor. Having performed so many roles on the stage, why was it this one that won him the coveted award? "Putting on a dress. It means they notice the acting." He explains, more seriously, that the transformative element of the role draws attention to the actor: "You're a middle-aged man not noted for having done this before and you dress up as a drag queen." The role also contained opportunities to do impersonations of Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn, Carmen Miranda and Noel Coward, so giving Allam the pleasure of "a lot of flash showy stuff". Modestly, he puts his success down to the part itself. "It is a most wonderful character. There are certain kinds of characters that are award-winning roles. I mean Denis Quilley who played the part originally won an Olivier for it. Although I don't want do myself down of course."
The drag queen act was also a voyage of discovery. He discovered his feminine side, as he candidly revealed at the Olivier Awards itself: "It feels nice when you've shaved your legs for the first time." The issue of hair removal is clearly important. "I had to do it all over, fingers, arms, toes, everything. Wax? Oh god no. I was advised against it. Various people said wax, and then others said no you'll get a rash and I thought I'd stick to just shaving it off."
Now he's let it grow back, so if Adam and Melinda do take the plunge and reignite their steamy affair, Gillian Anderson will not be confronted with an entirely hairless Roger Allam…