Powerful war drama at the Theatre Royal
EMMA LEE Set during the Malayan campaign of 1942, Willis Hall’s powerful drama The Long and the Short and the Tall comes to Norwich Theatre Royal. One of its stars, Cutting It’s Jason Merrells, tells Emma Lee why the play is very relevant today.
“You have to be a bit of a vagabond to be an actor. I can't understand people who want to settle into one thing. I'm a chancer,” says Jason Merrells.
The actor - a familiar face on our screens thanks to roles in shows like Casualty, Cutting It, where he played nice-guy Gavin, and now Waterloo Road as harassed headteacher Jack Rimmer - is talking about what drives him.
The rather grand setting for our interview is a gorgeously opulent room at the Lyceum theatre in Sheffield.
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The Essex-born actor's been appearing there in a revival of Willis Hall's war drama The Long and the Short and the Tall, which transfers to Norwich this week - hence he's sporting a new moustache.
Live theatre must be hungry work - fresh off stage and out of his combat fatigues something's caught his attention - a plate of biscuits.
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And during our chat he practically scoffs the lot.
In his late 30s, while he might be a TV regular now, it took five years of hard work before he earned what he describes as a “proper wage”.
“I went to art school, but I ended up doing more theatre,” he says.
“We went to Edinburgh and on the first night there was only one guy in the audience. And he was a steel worker who'd gone in by mistake. He felt so sorry for us he took us out for a beer. I did every job you can imagine, bar work, van driving…”
Now he's a busy jobbing actor, although he says he's not got to the point where he can cherry-pick his roles just yet.
The long-running BBC1 medical drama Casualty, which he appeared in from 1994-1997 as receptionist Matt Hawley, could be classed as his big break - and he's also had roles in the ground-breaking and controversial series Queer as Folk and Clocking Off.
“Queer as Folk was great - we knew it was going to cause a stink. But we didn't think it would be as loved as it was,” he says.
But he's probably best known so far for playing Gavin in Debbie Horsfield's off-beat drama Cutting It.
Millions were gripped as he tussled with the rogueish Finn for Allie's heart - with a few romantic liaisons thrown in for good measure.
“The series had to end because there weren't any members of Allie's family left for Gavin to get involved with,” he laughs.
September to December last year was spent filming Waterloo Road, which is the latest project by Shed, which brought us Bad Girls and Footballers' Wives.
While it is famed for its fantastical, no-holds-barred storylines, Jason says that Waterloo Road has more of a grip on reality.
It's set in a struggling school, where many of the pupils wear their Asbo like a badge of honour. But writers Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus haven't toned it down completely. In the first episode, some of the kids went joy-riding - in a limousine.
Eight episodes have been made so far and the cast is waiting to see whether a second series of up to 20 episodes will be commissioned.
“You really couldn't get a more different character to Gavin,” says Jason of Jack Rimmer.
He stars opposite Angela Griffin, who he worked with on Cutting It, and Denise Welch, who he worked with on the 1960s-set film The Jealous God, which had a limited cinema release last year.
“I've got a great fondness for TV - it can be a great medium,” he says, citing American imports such as Desperate Housewives and the Sopranos and home-grown hits like Shameless, Extras (he's friends with one of the show's stars Ashley Jensen) and the Mighty Boosh among his favourites.
But - between mouthfuls of biscuit - he tells me he's enjoying being back on stage in the challenging role of Sgt Mitchem in The Long and the Short and the Tall.
The play, directed by Josie Rourke, is Sheffield Theatres' first touring production under new artistic director Samuel West.
Jason is looking forward to coming to Norwich - his wife's father lives near Yarmouth and he wants to get out and explore the coast.
“I haven't done any theatre for five years. I was sent the script and I loved it and knew that it had to be done. It's a joy.
“I thought it was very relevant. What struck me was how prescient it was for its time, when you look at the situation in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay - the theme of morality within war is such a grey area. Willis Hall didn't write it as an anti-war play, which is another strength. It's serious, but there are some incredibly funny lines in it.
“And also we get to run around with guns,” he deadpans.
Set in 1942, deep in the Malayan jungle, during the advance on Singapore, a seven-man British patrol is on a mission to assess the strength of the Japanese enemy invasion.
Set within the claustrophobic confines of an abandoned wooden hut, Sgt Mitchem, who Jason describes as a “career soldier” faces two struggles - maintaining his authority with his troops and battling with his own self-confidence.
Each soldier has an individual and strong personality - especially the fierce Cpl Johnstone (Dorian Healy), aggressively defensive yet caring L/Cpl Macleish and, most of all, cocky joker Pte Bamforth (Tom Brooke).
As they stop for respite, their characters start to reveal themselves - and when an enemy soldier is captured they really start to show their true colours.
“It took me a long time to decide where Mitchem's mistake was. He allows the fate of the prisoner to become a debate. And as soon as he allows it to become a debate he loses control,” he says.
Willis Hall, who died in March last year, was a comparatively unknown playwright when the play was produced at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1955.
He had left school at 14 and began his working life on a North Sea trawler. At the age of 17 he joined the professional army and was posted to the Far East where he moonlighted both as a scriptwriter for the Chinese Schools Department of Radio Malaya and also as a reporter for the Singapore Standard.
The Long and the Short and the Tall went to the West End - with Peter O'Toole as Bamforth and Michael Caine his understudy and won the Evening Standard best play of the year award. It was made into a film, directed by Leslie Norman, starring Richard Harris.
Hall frequently collaborated with Keith Waterhouse and he helped adapt Waterhouse's novel Billy Liar for the stage. They worked together on the screenplay for Whistle Down The Wind, and Hall also penned the much-loved children's TV series Worzel Gummidge.
Jason took great care to research his role.
“I spoke to quite a few Chelsea pensioners who had been involved in the Burma campaign. They didn't want to talk about it much but they said it was a hellish war and that you didn't take prisoners,” he says.
The four weeks of preparation and rehearsals also included army training and trying out a humidity chamber.
“The guns are real but decommissioned. And we practised with them because we didn't want it to look like we'd never held guns before.”
The result is a gripping, funny and moving piece of work. The cast - which also includes Craig Gallivan who appears in the latest series of Footballers' Wives - works well as a team and Lucy Osborne's imaginative set effectively evokes the humidity of the jungle.
“I've heard it's been reviewed well. But I never read my reviews. If one says you're good, another's going to say you're bad,” Jason says.
“Josie [who trained at the Donmar Warehouse as assistant director to Michael Grandage, Nicholas Hynter, Phylida Lloyd and Sam Mendes] is one of the finest directors I've worked with,” he says. “And the group of guys is great - it's lovely when an ensemble comes together like this.”
The biscuits have nearly all gone, so time must be up. One last question - what's next?
“I would like to do more classical theatre - I'd love to do Chekov, which I haven't had chance to do before,” he says.
“Oh, I'd love to do a western too - which would mean another 'tache!” he laughs.
t The Long and the Short and the Tall opens at Norwich Theatre Royal on Tuesday March 28 and runs until Saturday April 1. Tickets are priced from £4-£18.50. Box office: 01603 630000, or visit www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk