London Calling with Champagne Charlie: MAMMA MIA!'s Andrew Hall

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London Calling with Champagne Charlie: MAMMA MIA!'s Andrew Hall

As Andrew Hall stepped out in the role of Bill, leading the cast for the 10th anniversary celebration of MAMMA MIA! at the Prince of Wales Theatre, he, by his own admission, had other things on his mind.

Playing down the road at the Trafalgar Studios is his interpretation of Edward Albee's classic WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? The actor-director took some time off from rehearsing MAMMA MIA! to chat to me about being in this unusual position...

Champagne Charlie

Directing a West End show and starring in another one at the same time is quite something. Was it fluke that it worked out that way or was it planned?

Andrew Hall

Complete fluke! I had already opened in MAMMA MIA! when the Virginia Woolf project came along. It was an unmissable opportunity to work with a company of actors of the highest calibre on a contemporary masterpiece. Who could say no?

Champagne Charlie

Why did you decide to do the Albee play now and how do you feel your approach has been different?

Andrew Hall

Normally the play comes first and the casting second. This time it began with a company of actors who wanted to work together and a search for the right piece to match. I described the play as a masterpiece earlier – it is that in spades. The compassion and humanity that shines through the vicious, scabrous, fabulous wit of the writing is extraordinary. The chance to then take this and mount it in an incredibly intimate space – just 98 seats - made it a no-brainer.

Has my approach been different? I don't know. I have staged it in a 'real' living-room; I have not attempted or seen any justification for a more abstract setting. There is, of course, an allegorical aspect to the piece - not least in the names of the characters, the bankruptcy of the American Dream, the backdrop of the constant threat of imminent Armageddon and the extraordinary timing of the Broadway premiere as the Cuban missile crisis exploded - but my focus has been on the telling of the story that takes place on the stage and the complexity of the relationships, motives and journeys of the very real human beings that populate it.

Champagne Charlie

Do you remember the first production you ever saw of it or did you only know the film?

Andrew Hall

I have never seen it on stage. I was performing myself when the Turner/Irwin production played in London [in 2006] and could not get to see it. I hadn't seen the film either and when I knew I had the opportunity to direct the play I chose not to watch it. I wanted to approach the production without any pre-conceptions.

Champagne Charlie

How do you schedule the process of directing and putting the show together - do you have an ideal cast in your mind or see what's around?

Andrew Hall

For this show, we had three of the actors in place: Matthew Kelly, Tracey Childs and Mark Farrelly, but no Honey. I had a couple of people in mind and a couple of suggestions had been made to me. I wanted to find the perfect Honey so I went through a series of auditions. Louise Kempton came in and nailed it. She is a very talented young actress who will go very far.

The schedule worked backwards from the first performance and is designed to ensure that we open with the actors feeling safe, secure and ready to present the very best work they can. Whether you have three weeks or three months, the target is to bring all the elements to maturity together for press night.

Champagne Charlie

Had you worked with any of the cast before and what was it that made you settle on the choices you did?

Andrew Hall

I had worked with Tracey as an actor – we toured the Middle and Far East together a few years back – and also with Mark, with whom I appeared in Sir Peter Hall's Hay Fever when it toured the UK. I had met Matthew but never worked with him before, but he and Tracey had worked together many times.

Champagne Charlie

Did you have a mentor figure as either an actor or director?

Andrew Hall

I started my professional life as a stagehand and fly man before becoming an ASM in Exeter in the 70s. Jane Howell was the artistic director of the theatre and had assembled an extraordinary company of actors, directors and designers. The programming was adventurous and extraordinary and the work of a very high quality. Those first years had a great effect on my view of theatre.

Champagne Charlie

Can you sense a change in people's tastes with the changing economic climate?

Andrew Hall

It's very hard to tell in MAMMA MIA! We sell out pretty much every night, but clearly a lot of other shows are suffering. If it really is going to be as bad as the Great Depression then history would suggest it will be a golden period for musical theatre. I don't think we'll really know for another six months.

Champagne Charlie

If Broadway World allowed you a magic wand to cast yourself or direct another current work, what would that be and why?

Andrew Hall

I'd love to tell you, but I'm afraid someone will steal the rights! As an actor, I'd love to have another stab at Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, some more Coward and some more Shakespeare – Leontes would be nice.

Champagne Charlie

Things don't always go to plan on stage but casts soon get around these things. Have you ever been in a situation where something could have gone very wrong but swift action saved the day?

Andrew Hall

We opened Hay Fever in Windsor and our second performance took place on Valentine's Day. I played Richard Greatham and was in the middle of the seduction scene with Stephanie Beacham when a naked man suddenly appeared in the third row of the stalls, bellowing happy birthday to someone in the back of the auditorium. Stephanie raised a glass to the birthday belle with great style - and somehow we got back on track as the naked Lothario made his escape!

Champagne Charlie

You are in a hit musical and directing a classic with a terrific cast - what other ambitions do you have?

Andrew Hall

Damn, I feel lucky! Directing a movie would be nice...

Champagne Charlie

How will you stop yourself being nervous about the reaction to the show, or does that just go with the territory?

Andrew Hall

It goes with the territory. On balance, a director's nerves are much, much worse, because at the press night there is nothing you can do but watch. If you're on stage, your destiny is your own hands. As a director, I have to confess I have spent at least one press night out in the bar...

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