Witness For The Prosecution, Agatha Christie’s murder thriller is playing very successfully at London’s ingeniously converted County Hall venue. RSC leading man Jasper Britton heads the latest cast change and as he took over the role of defence barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts he and I chatted about the play and his career…
Jasper, tell me about your journey into Witness For The Prosecution?
Well I was doing A Pack of Lies at the Menier and then Lucy Bailey (the director of Witness For The Prosecution) called me. This is the fourth time I’ve worked with Lucy. She usually phones me at midnight and asks me to start rehearsing the next morning, telling me that she’s “made a terrible mistake casting!” I’m forever meeting her in bars and in theatres and she says: “Oh I’m directing such and such, and there’s a marvellous part for you, you’d be brilliant in it.” So she phoned up and said: “Look I’m doing this thing. And we’re recasting and it’s great fun.”
And so we went in one afternoon and she showed me round the whole place. Downstairs at County Hall the company has kind of created a whole backstage area out of nothing and there’s a real sense of fun and I just thought this is a happy place to be, a happy fun place and “Well, why not?” And it was a six month contract too which is sort of rare in this day and age.
And then my agent said; “Don’t do it, it’ll kill you, you’ll be performing (at the Menier) while you’re rehearsing Witness.” And I said: “Well I’ve done that before at Stratford.” And she said: “Yes but you’re normally in rep and you’re… you know….”
And of course she wasn’t far off. By the time we got to finishing Pack of Lies and starting Witness, I really was on my knees. I turned up for a photo shoot, I can’t even remember it. I look at the photograph, I look like the tiredest man in the world. That period of performing and rehearsing was a month without a day off and 70 to 80 hour weeks. Luckily we were rehearsing at the Jerwood which is only round the corner from the Menier, so it literally was a three minute walk to and from each venue. But bloody hell!
Was the entire cast replaced for this change over in Witness?
More or less. There are a couple of people in the smaller roles who stayed on, who’ve been there for a while. And yeah, they are a fantastic bunch. Some of them it’s only their first job, but you’d never know it. Their range of skills is absolutely astonishing. And there is a wonderful work ethic. Everybody pulls their weight, even down to the smallest parts.
Jonathan: In my recent review of the play I noted that there are four of the show’s players who are making their West End debuts and how this speaks volumes for the excellent standard of the current cohort of actors currently entering the profession.
Jasper: Quite right too and it’s very nice of you to big them up like that, because they really do deserve it. And they are all very kind to me and patient with me. It took me a while because I was so tired!
Jonathan: What strikes me about the play, is that It’s the sort of show that the tourist who’s not well versed in English literature could go to and thoroughly enjoy as top notch theatre. How does Witness compare with say Shakespeare where there’s more potential for interpretation in the verse?
Jasper: That’s a really good question. I would say that this is absolutely a piece of popular theatre and that’s reflected in the breadth of the audience that we get. We get very young people, we get very old people. We get foreign people, we get English people. We get a very different audience to the one that I’m used to working with in what I would describe as subsidised British theatre. The attraction of it, is that it is a popular piece of theatre. And that you don’t have to engage your brain too much. But of course people do because they’re trying to work out who done it, all the way through.
The challenge of any piece really is that after you’ve finished rehearsing as it were, I always feel that’s when the real work begins. Because the audience teach you so much about the play. And they teach you about what works and what works less well. And they teach you about when they get bored, and they teach you about what they don’t believe, and they teach you about what they do believe.
And so the process of performing for me, is always a continuous process of reconsidering, and reworking and finding new inspirations. So I really wanted to find the maverick, like Lucy is a maverick. I wanted to find the maverick in my barrister. And of course it’s different to Shakespeare because Shakespeare does all of the work for you.
I remember doing a Simon Gray play in the West End. – Simon taught me so much about acting.- And he said, “Look, it’s okay for you to just sit on the sofa and talk. Don’t forget, the writer has done the work for you.”And those were golden words of advice.
Jonathan: The last thing that I’d caught you in before this show, (I didn’t see you at the Menier) was Scrooge The Musical at Leicester’s Curve in 2017. Before then I hadn’t associated you with musical theatre. Where does that heritage comes from?
Jasper: Right, well, there’s a tale!
My dad was the first person to tour Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady in this country from 1964 to 66 (and I was born in 1962).
Jonathan: Your father is Tony Britton
Jasper: Yes – and he’s enjoyed an extraordinary career.Being Higgins, touring for two years. And then being a household name on television. I mean he is brilliant. He can do anything really. So as I was growing up, my recollection is, that the record of that was always on the record player.
And then in 1972 he was in a musical called No, No, Nanette at Drury Lane and he used to give me his scripts to draw on the back of because in the old days, before we were green, they would only be printed on one side so you could write notes on the facing side. And he’d just give them to me and I’d draw pictures of ships and God knows what.
But one day I took this script with me to school. I’ve no idea why. But I put it in my bag and I took it with me and in a history lesson … I was terrible at history, I found it intensely boring. I took the script out and I started to read it. And very early on in that show is a song called Too Many Rings Around Rosie. And it was sung by Annie Rogers and Teddy Green. And Annie Rogers wore a 1920’s flapper dress, green sequined flapper dress with a big feather in her hair, and Teddy Green was wearing a very stylish cream linen suit and a straw boater.
And I’d seen the show, obviously, but what struck me was the lyrics on the page, when I got to the page. There was just the lyrics in block capitals. There were no stage directions, nothing. And as I read the lyrics, I could see in my minds eye, and hear in my minds ear, Teddy and Annie singing and dancing the song. And I loved it. It was my favourite song in the show. And it’s actually the thing that made me want to be an actor. It was that moment, reading those lyrics.
A few years later I found myself at a different school, and a man called Jeremy James Taylor turned up. He’d been at university with my English teacher. And they decided, because the school play had been defunct for some years, they decided, “Hey why don’t we do a school play.”
Jeremy was an associate director at the Young Vic at the time and he’d had this idea about a boy player in Elizabethan times in London called Salomon Pavey who had sadly died when he was only 12 years old. But he was very famous for playing old men, oddly. So they thought, “Right, why don’t we explore that.” So over nine months they wrote for us, this musical which is now called The Ballad of Salomon Pavey – what they described as a ballad opera.
We performed it in a vast marquee, I mean a really big marquee, on the lawn at my prep school and it was magical. And then we took it to the Edinburgh Festival that summer and we won a Fringe First! The following year we did it at the Young Vic for a fortnight to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and that production turned out to be the first from what is now known as The National Youth Music Theatre that Jeremy subsequently set up.
As time went on I became an actor and I went to the RSC in 1992 where they put me in The Beggars Opera which had 74 songs in that version with the brilliant Ilona Sekacz having done the arrangements. It was mega.
The thing though that I really want to do, is to play Henry Higgins. And I’m going to drop a card to Cameron Macintosh and say, “Next time you do it, would you just put my name in your hat.” I only have two ambitions really in my life. One is to play Henry Higgins. And the other is to play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. I played Willy at the age of 17 at school, and I love that play!
Witness For The Prosecution is booking until March 2020
Photo credit: Ellie Kurtz