The first of a series of National Theatre platform events entitled National Histories saw two superb actors; Nancy Carroll and Alex Jennings share their memories of the National Theatre, as part of the venue’s 50th anniversary celebrations. The format for this series of platforms is simple – each actor is asked to consider the same ten questions, which are then shared with the audience during the event. I would note that this event did run out of time so only nine questions seem to have been discussed.
A strong contender for my favourite actress, Nancy Carroll’s acting career at the National began with Howard Davies’ The Talking Cure in 2003 and since then has seen her take roles in The False Servant, The Voysey Inheritance Man of Mode, The Enchantment, After The Dance and most recently, The Magistrate.
Alex Jennings’s lengthy career with the National Theatre includes Collaborators, The Habit of Art, Present Laughter, The Alchemist, Stuff Happens, His Girl Friday, The Winter’s Tale, The Relapse, Albert Speer, Ghetto, The Recruiting Officer, My Fair Lady (West End) and most recently Cocktail Sticks and Hymn by Alan Bennett, which also transferred to the West End’s Duchess Theatre under the title Untold Stories.
Question 1 & 2 – What were your first memories of the National Theatre and your first National Theatre production?
Nancy’s early memories of the theatre are seeing it as a child when her family drove over the bridges of the Thames and being drawn to it. She spoke of wanting to be on the stage from an early age. Alex’s first memories are of the theatre’s early days at the Old Vic, before its own Southbank home was built.
The first production Nancy saw at the National Theatre was Guys & Dolls, starring Bob Hoskins in 1982. She spoke of the “mesmeric” quality of the production and how before she had mainly seen more commercial theatre. For her, it captured the magic of theatre. Alex was unsure which production had been his first but believes it was during 1972-1973 and was one of Jumpers (with Michael Hordern and Diana Rigg), The Misanthrope or Equus. He spoke fondly of Michael Hordern in Jumpers standing on a tortoise (anyone care to clarify this comment for me?!) and his hero Paul Schofield in Equus.
Question 3 – Who is/are your unsung heroes of the National Theatre?
Nancy’s answer was all encompassing, crediting everyone who works there who isn’t an actor! Everyone from the costume department, to crew, stage management, ushers etc were mentioned and described as being “the best of the best” by a very grateful Nancy. With regards to the stage management team she said how important it is for an actor that the people standing with you in the dark before you enter the stage are calm and steady and make you believe you can do it. Alex agreed with Nancy and spoke of stage management’s key role in the rehearsal room where they have to deal with people’s sometimes volatile egos! Alex also spoke of the crucial role played by Linda on the stage door, who has been at the National a long time and makes it feel like a home away from home, as well as the team of dressers, particularly Ralph.
Question 4 – Which individual performance at the National Theatre has left a lasting impression on you?
For Nancy there were two – for its seamless ensemble she named Howard Davies’ 1997 production of Chips With Everything and as an individual she chose Rory Kinnear’s portrayal of Sir Fopling Flutter in 2007’s The Man of Mode (in which she also starred) and shared with the audience that during every show she used to watch from the wings the scene in which Rory performed a version of a Coldplay song on the piano.
Alex’s choices were Ralph Richardson (whom he said was a “magician”) in Peter Hall’s production of John Gabriel Borkman at the Old Vic and National Theatre in 1975-1976, which he thought was superb. He also referred to Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud in No Man’s Land as very special.
Question 5 – What was the most fulfilling National Theatre production you have been a part of?
Each actor gave two productions in their response. For Nancy it was The Voysey Inheritance, which she described as a happy company, in which she played a strong character. She also spoke of the play introducing her to Harley Granville-Barker’s work. Her second production was Thea Sharrock’s 2010 production of After The Dance (also starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Adrian Scarborough and John Heffernen). The fact it was one of Rattigan’s lesser known plays meant it was thrilling to see the audience go through the different emotions of the play, believing they knew what to expect from the happy beginning before it turns in to a far darker story by the end of the first Act. The success of the production itself was also a reason given by Nancy, as she referred to the atmosphere in the theatre, knowing the audience was excited to be there and wanted to see it. This again was also a happy company and she spoke of how special it is for an actor when there is a spark of chemistry that works, develops and which helps the whole piece catch fire. I was thrilled she chose this production, as it was my first experience of the National Theatre and remains one my top two favourite theatre experiences, in no small part due to Nancy’s performance.
Alex’s choices were 2001’s The Winter’s Tale and he spoke of how much he loved the ideas for the staging as well as the wonderful language from Shakespeare. His second choice was, although not at the Southbank building, the 2002 West End transfer of My Fair Lady, for which he took over from Jonathan Pryce in the role of Henry Higgins. His musical theatre debut was he said absolutely terrifying but was a role he could play forever.
Question 6 – Which production do you most regret missing at the National Theatre?
Nancy’s regrets included The Loft Season, Ghetto (in which Alex starred and had been brought to life for Nancy by her husband Jo Stone-Fewings telling her about it) and finally anything starring Olivier! Alex’s regret was never seeing Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Olivier.
Question 7 – Which of your National Theatre costumes would you choose for a fancy dress party?
Nancy chose her canary yellow dress from The Voysey Experience and Alex chose one of his wonderful costumes from The Relapse (which was green and pink and covered in three-dimensional roses). Alex firmly believed all the wonderful costumes from the production should be in a museum.
Question 8 – Where is your secret / special spot in the building?
Both chose The Quad and spoke fondly of the tradition that has developed for all performers from all three theatres to bang on the walls looking outwards on the first and last night of each production – an experience which they agreed was very special for any actor performing at the National Theatre.
Question 9 – What would be your fantasy programming for a day at the National Theatre?
Alex’s morning production would be Noel Coward’s 1964 production of Hayfever, followed by a matinee of Olivier’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and finally Nicholas Hytner’s Carousel in the evening.
Nancy’s day would start with her first NT production Guys & Dolls, followed by the poignant 1989 production of Hamlet with Ian Charleson in the title role (which he took on to replace Daniel Day-Lewis at a time when he was very ill and near the end of his own life) and ending with Shadow of a Boy from The Loft Season, which starred her husband as a Welsh spaceman!
I thoroughly enjoyed listening to such wonderful actors share their insights and memories of the National Theatre and would encourage anyone interested in theatre to pop along to one of the other scheduled National Histories events. Details can be found on the National Theatre’s website: