John Stahl doesn’t drink. He gave up cigarettes and alcohol six years ago in an effort to improve his fitness and voice control so as to extend his career as a Shakespearean actor. This can only be a good thing, but it takes me slightly by surprise as Stahl’s latest role sees him playing a man inextricably linked to alcohol, a Scottish whiskey taster, the title character in James Graham’s new play at the Bush theatre.
“I kind of grew up with whiskey,” Stahl reassures me. “My father was a brewer in a distillery for 40 years. When the script came through I recognised it was a good play, but there was also a lot of echoes in it that I could identify with because of my upbringing; the scents and smells, burning malt and copper stills.”
While the imagery conjures thoughts and memories of his childhood in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, rehearsals are actually taking place in West London, where the show’s cast has been working since before Christmas.
“I think James Grieve, the director, has gathered together people who are not shrinking violets, who will stand up and be counted and will roll their sleeves up and get into the play in the right, constructive and challenging way,” Stahl tells me in his rolling Scots accent. “The good thing is that James Graham’s play stands up to that. There are some plays that I’ve been in where I’ve thought: ‘This is great, I really want to be involved with this.’ Then, when you subject it to close inspection it doesn’t quite add up and you suddenly realise it’s a bit more superficial than you thought it was. This isn’t.”
Also among those actors gathered together in the cast is former History Boy Sam Barnett, who plays advertising executive Barney, the character who, along with his colleague Nicola, is charged with creating a pitch for a new vodka. Barnett, like Stahl, was drawn to the project by the writing, impressed, he tells me, that at only 27, Graham “seems to know everything about the human condition and human relationships”.
“You can’t get away with anything less than the truth”
Graham’s play finds the whiskey taster of the title brought to London to help the advertisers in their plan to create a new culture for vodka drinking, a culture of tasting and snobbery similar to that which whiskey enjoys. But his presence has a far greater effect on those around him.
Both actors are excited to be back at the Bush theatre, a venue that is consistently reconfigured for each new production, but always has intimacy on its side.
“You can take it down and just flick things at the audience and you’ll know they’ll hear them,” explains Stahl.
Barnett agrees: “You can’t lie in that space. You can’t get away with anything less than the truth. People are as close to you as they are to their televisions at home and they can see everything. They can see a glint in the eye. They can see you raise an eyebrow. They can see you breathing. I really love working under that scrutiny.”
While he might welcome the closeness of the attention he will be given, Barnett’s job is a little harder than usual as Barney has the rare condition synaethesia, which causes the senses that usually work independently to muddle together. A synaesthete, for example, might taste sounds or experience colours when they read. It is a fascinating condition, but how do you act it convincingly? “It’s been a challenge to make it seem realistic,” Barnett tells me. “It’s one of those things that’s not an obvious physical thing. It’s all going on inside. It’s the senses firing off one another all the time. I hope I’ve got close to making it realistic.” He has spent a lot of time researching the condition and the whole cast spoke to a representative of the synaesthesia society to understand better the relatively unpublicised problem.
Stahl is certainly impressed by what Barnett has done in the rehearsal room and isn’t shy about saying so. “I thought he was great in The History Boys,” he says. “It’s nice when you see somebody and you’ve admired their performance and you get a chance to work with them and you realise you weren’t wrong. He has a command of his craft already that is lovely to play with.”
“It was and remains the most extraordinary job of my short career so far and probably will remain one of the most extraordinary jobs of my whole career”
At 56, Stahl could be described as a veteran in the acting game. While he would stop short of saying he regrets his two decades spent working on Scottish soap opera Take The High Road, he certainly feels that it robbed him of the chance to work more extensively in the theatre. Even so, he has more than 50 stage credits to his name, including work with the Royal Court, Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare’s Globe. Since the long-running series finished in 2003, he has immersed himself in the theatre world. Yet, with a strong career behind him, there is no sense that he is complacent. In fact, he welcomes the chance to work with younger actors he can learn from.
“This play is taking me forward,” he grins. “That’s what I look for, to get involved in projects where I can take my love of theatre and where I can learn. The great thing is that you get to my age and I’m working with actors who are 30, 35 years younger than me. To learn from them is fantastic.”
Barnett, who at 29 is doing a good job of building a very strong reputation for himself as an actor who, as Stahl would put it, is “s**t hot good”, also gets a lot from working with his older colleagues.
“I’ve done three years of drama school,” he says, “but for me it’s working with actors who’ve been doing it for years and years that I just learn more and more. Doing The History Boys with Frances De La Tour and Richard Griffiths I learned what I now know about timing. They’re just masters. I think you always learn from older actors. Always.”
The slight groan when I mention the Alan Bennett play which became a phenomenon suggests that six years after the show first took to the National Theatre stage, Barnett is a little bored of discussing it. But with a little coaxing he doesn’t take long to warm to the subject: “It was and remains the most extraordinary job of my short career so far and probably will remain one of the most extraordinary jobs of my whole career. We expected it to run for 50 shows and didn’t think it was very good. Then it just took off.”
Many of the boys in the original cast have gone on to make names for themselves: James Corden has scored a massive success writing and starring in Gavin And Stacey; Dominic Cooper has appeared in huge movie hit Mamma Mia!; Russell Tovey leads the cast of top BBC drama Being Human; and in addition to The Whiskey Taster, Barnett has recently been seen in historical drama Desperate Romantics. The reason for such success may all come down to learning from older actors. “They set the standards; Frankie [De La Tour] and Richard [Griffiths] and Clive [Merrison] and Stephen Campbell Moore. They set the standards and we had to up our game. We all had a base level. We could do it. We had a talent, but we were all quite raw. There was a level to which we all rose because of working with such great older actors.”
“I would desperately like to do a musical next, I really would”
If there was one thing that young actors should learn from Stahl, it should be his work ethic. He is: “of the school of thought that the rehearsals never stop. It’s an organic thing, a production, and you just need to keep on working on it until somebody says you can’t any longer. There’s a lot of actors who never see the value of a director coming in on the second last night and giving you notes. I love that. You should never ever stop working on something.”
Stahl tells me about Gagarin Way, the Gregory Burke play that he starred in for three months in London before embarking on a 10 week tour of Scotland and a four week Scandinavian tour. At every performance for six months he and colleague Billy McElhaney struggled with one particular moment, never quite making it work to their satisfaction, “until the last performance in Stockholm when suddenly the moment worked. We didn’t have a chance to try it again.”
Once The Whiskey Taster opens he will be working even harder, as while he is performing in the evening, he will be rehearsing during the day for the Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Gods Weep at the Hampstead theatre. Then, the fitness that comes with abstinence will come into its own, he assures me. “I know it sounds like a cliché,” he adds, “but it is true; if you’re doing stimulating work you don’t notice the physical situation.”
Barnett also has another theatre project lined up, but as it has not yet been announced, he is coy about giving too much away. It is, though, unlikely to be a musical. While he has appeared in two Notes From New York concerts and has been singing since childhood, Barnett has yet to make an impact on the musical stage. “It’s not for want of trying,” he laughs. “I audition for musicals; I just don’t ever get cast. Last year I auditioned for about seven musicals. I always get close; I just never get the job. If you’d like to put it in print that I would desperately like to do a musical next, that would be amazing, because I really would.”
So there you have it casting directors. Samuel Barnett, star of The History Boys, Desperate Romantics and cult comedy Beautiful People would like a musical role. Come on, it is not like he doesn’t have a strong CV. John Stahl would just like to keep working and learning. For now, they continue to learn from each other and enjoy the odd drink after work. Not whiskey, though; neither of them touch the stuff.