Trevor Nunn’s production of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes spent the cold, harsh Winter of 2002 lifting the spirits and warming the hearts of audiences at the Olivier Theatre where it won rave reviews from theatregoers and critics alike.
Now transferred to Drury Lane it is again making toes tap and mouths smile in the auditorium. Matthew Amer caught up with Simon Day, who plays Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, to chat about the show and its similarities to a champagne enema…
“Even if you turn up in a stinking mood, as soon as the overture starts in this show it just cheers you up; it’s extraordinary!” The magical effect of Cole Porter’s uplifting score produced smiles, laughter and even the odd rhythmical sway from the often tough Olivier audiences last winter and is now weaving its spell of unquestioning happiness in the West End at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The loosely strung plot follows the attempts of Billy Crocker to win the heart of his true love by stowing away on the S.S. America to be with her. Thrown in his way are sexy, sassy showgirl Reno Sweeney, who he knows just a little too well, Public Enemy number 13 ‘Moonface’ Martin and Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, the archetypal English aristocrat who, in a cruel twist of fate, happens to be affianced to the woman of Crocker’s dreams. But the plot of the show is really secondary to the outstanding score that includes songs such as Blow, Gabriel, Blow, You’re The Top, It’s De-lovely and the title tune. The effect they have on audiences is quite astounding. “To see 1,300 people in the Olivier theatre clapping along like demented seals at the end was just an extraordinary thing. That’s what makes me think it’s this unparalleled joy-bringer.”
“I think everyone could do with a champagne enema.”
As a heavyweight piece of theatre Anything Goes may not scale the mountainous heights of Hamlet or Uncle Vanya; it is unlikely to be cited as a world changing, deeply philosophical piece of writing. But that is not to say that the story is not ship-shape in its own, nautically-themed, way. “There are moments of wonderful satire and touching moments of romance, even some gentle – very gentle – philosophical statements. But its main purpose is to entertain and I think it does that terrifically. We all need some cheering up at the moment, especially with the state of the world. I think everyone could do with a champagne enema.” Although the Day’s statement suggests a somewhat overindulgent misuse of fine alcohol he does explain that “scatological as I always am, [Anything Goes] just piles you full of bubbles.”
After a sell-out run at the Olivier, Anything Goes’ transfer was expected to be as quick and painless as Day’s favourite use for sparkling wine, but nothing was heard for about five months. One reason for the delay was John Gunter’s remarkable, but very large, set which could probably only be accommodated by two West End stages; Drury Lane or the London Palladium. When My Fair Lady closed at the end of the summer, Drury Lane became available and Anything Goes set sail for one of London’s most famous theatres. Most of the main Olivier cast have transferred with the production reigniting the chemistry that worked so well at the National Theatre. But without the four month break, Day may not have followed the show. “You do something 100 times and it inevitably becomes a little bit dull. Your acting challenge every night is to try and keep it fresh and to hide the fact that you’re slightly bored from the audience.” But with a few months off to get his land legs back Day is refreshed and raring to go.
It was not just the cast, though, that weighed anchor and moved across the Thames, Ex-National Theatre Artistic Director Sir Trevor Nunn has also been on hand to steer the ship in the right direction. Having been Nunn’s most employed actor at the National, Day was happy to keep ‘the people’s director’ on board. “We’ve got Trevor firing on all cylinders. He’s not running a building any more so he can give us his undivided attention and it’s wonderful because he’s being very specific and bringing out wonderful details.”
Day began his acting career training at the Bristol Old Vic and worked with the RSC before spending several seasons working in regional theatre. Oh, What A Lovely War, directed by Fiona Laird, marked the beginning of five very successful years at the National where the productions he played in included Candide, Albert Speer, Hamlet and Love’s Labour’s Lost. More recently he has become a successful and well-respected writer. One thing he was not, however, before joining the cast of Anything Goes, was a dancer. According to Day, not much has changed on that account: “I remain thoroughly untalented in the dance department. I think I have a basic sense of rhythm; I hope I do. I sway in time to the beat and I have drilled myself to get my feet to go where they’re meant to go. But you don’t want audience’s eyes to dwell on my feet for too long, because it’s not pretty.” Day is, in fact, overly self-deprecating about his dancing talents. Bonnie Langford he’s not, but the dancing of Lord Oakleigh is one of the shows highlights. He even graces the stage with his own solo during the company number Blow, Gabriel, Blow, although choreographer Stephen Mear still hasn’t let him wear tap shoes to perform in.
“I remain thoroughly untalented in the dance department.”
The big company numbers Anything Goes and Blow, Gabriel, Blow are remarkable feats of song and dance where the cast need more energy than a frigate of Duracell bunnies, but they are also, for Day, a highlight of the performance. Rather than seeing it as having to “dance and sweat in a heavy costume”, he takes an enthusiastic view of it, based in nostalgia: “it reminds me of being at a school disco when Dancing Queen comes on. Everyone goes ‘Yeah!’” Day’s exultant ‘yeah’ is accompanied with a fit of excitement as the thought of ABBA’s disco classic fills him with the urge to dance, illustrating the effect he was talking about perfectly.
Although more recent than his acting, Day has also carved out a reputation as a writer. His first play Spike received its premiere at the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton in early 2001 while his adaptation of Turgenev’s The Country Doctor was presented at the National during his time playing in The Coast Of Utopia. This summer he has translated the German play, Pains Of Youth, for performance at the BAC. However, just a couple of years ago his literary agent told him that to be taken seriously in either field he had to give one up. That argument did not entirely convince Day. “B******s to that. I love acting and I love writing. Other people have managed it and so can I. One feeds the other. One’s a very social thing and one’s a very quiet, private thing. I wouldn’t want to do either exclusively.”
On top of acting and writing Day’s life is now filled with looking after the new addition to his family, his young daughter Beatrice who was born on April 1. Being born on April Fool’s Day she is destined for a life filled with comedy and laughter, which she may well need sooner than she thinks. “We love the name Beatrice because it is Shakespearean, but we call her Bea, which is unfortunate given that my name is Day because that makes her a Bea Day. That’s why she’s got a double barrelled surname with my wife’s name. So she’s Bea Paisley-Day.” As with all new fathers, Day’s face lights up with joy as he talks about his daughter and although he has recently had to start spending time apart from her again he is aware of the fortunate position in which he finds himself. “[Actors] work much less than bankers and chartered accountants and shopkeepers. We have very intensive working periods but its only three and a half hours a day so I get to spend more time with my baby than other Dads, I’m sure.”
“We’re dressing up and just sort of being silly.”
When he’s not acting, writing or watching Beatrice totter, Day enjoys the time he gets to spend exploring the great outdoors. Being married to a bear scientist has certainly helped this aspect of his life as for three years he spent his breaks from theatre flying to Bolivia to “stay in a stone hut at 12,000 feet and help radio track bears around the cloud forests.” It was an experience that clearly made an impact on Day’s life and his view of the acting profession. “We’re dressing up and just sort of being silly and she’s out there doing something real and proper. It gives you an outlook that we don’t get in our make believe world.” But with more and more bears appearing around his house these days – the teddy variety, not the variety that inhabit the Andes – Day’s outdoor activities may be slightly restricted from now on; “I think I’ll have to find my outward bound kicks in the garden growing apple trees and trying my best at DIY.”
Anything Goes is currently booking to January 2004 and looks likely to sail further into next year. But in addition to the Drury Lane stage, Day will soon be seen on the big screen in the satirical comedy Churchill: The Hollywood Years, which he filmed during his theatrical break. Day plays a taxi driver – “My arse was recently sitting in the same seat as Sid James’ arse sat in Carry On Cabby” – who is driving Sir Antony Sher and Miranda Richardson, in the form of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun. “It couldn’t be more bizarre doing that and then coming back to playing a silly upper-class twit.”
The ‘Upper-Class Twit’ is not a new role for Day. In the past he has played Sir Frederick Blunt in Money and Gussie Fink-Nottle in By Jeeves; he knows how to play a Lord and, by golly, he’s not afraid to do it. But Lord Evelyn may be the last time for a while that he is spotted with a monocle in one hand, a sword in the other and an upper lip stiffer than a two day old corpse, as the fear of type-casting has raised its ugly head. “It’s great fun to play but one doesn’t want to get bogged down. I think I want to play Macbeth next. I’ll be looking to do some serious Shakespeare or some Greek tragedy: tear my eyes out, eat my children or something like that.”