TV faces in thriller at Theatre Royal
EMMA LEE A host of familiar TV faces star in a new stage production of the thriller Strangers on a Train, which is at Norwich this week. Emma Lee meets three of the leading players – Alex Ferns, Anita Harris and Will Thorp.
“I don't know if I ever will play a nice guy,” says Alex Ferns. The actor, who shot to fame playing Little Mo's tormentor husband Trevor Morgan in EastEnders, is talking about the perils of being typecast.
Despite leaving the soap a few years ago, casting directors don't seem to be able to get the baddie out of their minds - but Alex, who in 2002 won the best villain accolade at the British Soap Awards, doesn't seem to mind particularly as it keeps him in work.
“It took me a good couple of years to convince them I can do other stuff,” he says, in that famous husky voice. Luckily it's accompanied by a smile rather than a menacing scowl.
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“But then I like playing someone you can get your teeth into. And you get the best lines,” he says.
That's certainly the case in his latest role.
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He is playing Charles Bruno in a touring production of Strangers on a Train, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's psychological thriller which was the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock's classic film.
The play is at the Theatre Royal, Norwich, from Monday, and boasts an all-star cast of familiar TV names, including Strictly Come Dancing contestant Will Thorp, veteran singer and actress Anita Harris, former Doctor Who Colin Baker and Emmerdale star Leah Bracknell.
I speak to the actors when they are gathered together for a whirlwind meet and greet with journalists at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley, before setting out on the play's nationwide tour of 16 theatres.
Texan Highsmith worked as a writer all her life and Strangers on a Train, which was her first novel, was published in 1950.
Her most famous creation was Tom Ripley, who appears in five of her books. He debuted in the Talented Mr Ripley, which was turned into a film starring Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, ex UEA student Jack Davenport and Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
Another Ripley novel, Ripley's Game, was adapted for the big screen in 2002, starring John Malkovich.
In Strangers on a Train, Alex's character meets ambitious young architect Guy Haines (Will Thorp) on a train. Guy has a troublesome ex-wife who stands in the way of his marriage to his new girlfriend Anne (Leah Bracknell) and Charles' father disapproves of his lavish lifestyle. They lightheartedly discuss what it would be like to commit the perfect pair of murders - Guy could kill Charles' father and Charles could kill Guy's ex-wife and with no evidence to link them together who would ever know?
For Guy the idea is just a fantasy to relieve the boredom of the train journey - but Charles takes it seriously, with fatal consequences.
And just when you thought things couldn't get more complicated they do, when detective Arthur Gerard (Colin Baker) smells a rat. It's real edge-of-your-seat stuff and Alex is clearly loving playing such a complex role.
“It's a really great part, he says. “He's a playboy who's got more money than sense. And he's got a really odd relationship with his mother.”
And it's Anita Harris who takes on the role of the mother.
“I'm very possessive and dictatorial. It's a real suspense - will they won't they? We get a few 'oohs' from the audience,” she says excitedly.
The entertainer is warm, friendly and brimming with enthusiasm about the role. During her career she's sold millions of records, appeared on the stage countless times, including roles in Cats and Peter Pan, has starred in Carry On Films and has had her own TV series. And that's barely scratching the surface. She's in the process of recording a new album and is working on a project based on the life of Wallis Simpson.
“It's lovely being reunited with Colin Baker. He killed me off every night in Deathtrap,” she laughs. “What's nice is that every role is very necessary to the piece,” she says.
What does she like about working in the theatre?
“For a performer, doing theatre is a challenge every day,” she says. “You have to be on form every day. People have paid to come and see you, so you're committed to doing the best possible performance. Everyone is in this show is very committed. And you need the nervousness to get the adrenaline pumping”.
Will Thorp knows all about getting the adrenaline pumping. During his stint on the celebrity talent show Strictly Come Dancing he was well aware that his fancy footwork was being scrutinised not just by the panel of judges, but by millions of BBC One viewers.
It was an experience the Bristol Old Vic-trained actor describes as “terrifying”.
“I wasn't sure how I was going to feel [doing theatre] after doing Strictly Come Dancing. That terrified me so much. It was live in front of 10 million people. So that put it in perspective,” he laughs. “And it's a lovely cast.”
In person Will's laid-back and charming - with, if I'm not mistaken, a passing resemblance to Jude Law.
His big TV breakthrough came playing paramedic Woody in the long-running hospital drama Casualty.
He was still filming his last scenes for the show - which involved gruelling 12-hour days - while rehearsing for Strictly Come Dancing, and was voted off in week six.
He recently appeared in two episodes of Doctor Who, which he describes as a “really exciting” experience.
“As a boy I dreamed about being in Doctor Who. I played a guy who's totally different from Woody. They are great scripts, and David Tennant and Billie Piper were great.”
But while he enjoyed working on Doctor Who, he doesn't see TV work as the be-all and end-all. In fact you get the impression that he finds the Heat-style obsession with celebrity culture rather distasteful.
“People are fascinated by celebrity. God knows why. I don't buy into it. I'm a celebrity on the sense I have done a celebrity show and have been on TV fairly regularly. But I don't go to parties and premieres - there's no such thing as a free lunch. If you go to one you have to accept the fact there's going to be paparazzi. I didn't cash in on Strictly Come Dancing.
You can make a lot of money. OK! asked me to do a photoshoot and I got asked to do Cosmopolitan's nude centrefolds. You can buy into it and make money in the short-term but it's not a career. Not unless things get really desperate!,” he laughs.
He says that he's enjoying being back in the theatre and playing Guy.
“It's good to get back on stage. It's good for actors because it keeps you sharp,” he says.
“In TV there's no development of your character. You take for granted that you know what you're doing. When you're doing TV people aren't going to see your mistakes. You've got editors to make you look good. In the theatre it's very much down to you. Artistically, theatre is a lot more exciting and if you stay on TV you don't grow. Theatre toughens you up. TV can be like handrails,” he says.
So what projects has he got in the pipeline?
“I don't really have a plan,” he says.
“I would like to do more film work. I had a tiny part in [Stephen Poliakoff's] Friends and Crocodiles and that was a great project to be involved with. And I'd like to keep on with the theatre.
“I want to keep on working on interesting projects that have integrity,” he says. t
t Strangers on a Train is at Norwich Theatre Royal from Monday August 14 to Saturday August 19. Box office 01603 630000 or www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk