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Interview: Hadley Fraser on 2:22 - A GHOST STORY at the Noel Coward Theatre

Hadley Fraser talks Lily Allen, Mel Brooks, 'Les Mis' and more

Interview: Hadley Fraser on 2:22 - A GHOST STORY at the Noel Coward Theatre

Hadley Fraser some while ago established himself as one of the most protean actors around: a talent equally at home both in big-name musicals (Les Mis, Young Frankenstein) and Shakespeare (playing Aufidius to Tom Hiddleston's Coriolanus and Polixenes in The Winter's Tale, alongside Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench). He appeared in The National Theatre premiere of Annie Baker's tantalising The Antipodes and was not far off opening on the West End as Stine in the beloved musical City of Angels when the pandemic struck and London theatreland shut down. Since then, he has kept busy on multiple fronts that include leading master classes and performing alongside his wife, the comparably versatile Rosalie Craig (late of Company), who was part of the City of Angels company, as well: the couple have a 4-year-old daughter, Elvie.

Now, with theatre in the capital kickstarting anew, Fraser is due to open Aug 11 at the Noel Coward Theatre in 2: 22 - A Ghost Story, which is that modern-day rarity - a stage thriller - written by Danny Robins and starring no less a presence than singer-songwriter Lily Allen as Fraser's onstage wife; previews start Aug 3. We caught the ever-amiable Fraser several weeks into rehearsal to sound him out on numerous topics, not least what it's like starring opposite a renowned singing talent who also happens to be a West End newbie.

How does it feel to be part of a brand new play as London theatre comes back into being?

I'm just glad to be back in a rehearsal room! I wonder whether others may have felt as I did that the experience of lockdown clarified and distilled quite a bit about my priorities and about a career that I might sometimes have taken for granted. Now that I'm back doing it, the experience of theatre feels more keen and more intense than ever; it's brought this part of my identity into sharp focus and I don't think I'll ever take it for granted again.

Of course you were in a major production, City of Angels, just as the shutters came down across London stages some 16 months ago.

We were into previews at the Garrick Theatre but hadn't yet opened and were aware the virus was spreading in China but didn't really understand what was coming along for us. And then there we all were that Monday [16 March 2020] after the tech rehearsal being told that we had to go home. We all looked at one another and thought, "We'll be off for the summer and then we'll be back"; little did we know.

Might that production return?

You know, it took us five years to get it from the Donmar [where the director Josie Rourke's production opened at the end of 2014] to the West End, and it felt like such a classy show. We've tried to keep hold of it, and I know that Nica [Burns, the producer] and Josie [Rourke] are keen to see if we can all be engaged again. For the time being, though, it feels like a sad casualty, in a climate where, to be fair, there have been many sadder casualties. We just loved doing it full stop so it would be great if we can find a way of not letting it go fallow.

Does Danny Robins's play feel like recompense, of a sort?

It does I suppose in that it's also a very entertaining and classy piece of writing. I had to go through the process with this as you would with most plays of talking to the director [Matthew Dunster, whose own Broadway run of Hangmen was aborted by COVID-19]. It feels like a scary play but we'll soon put that to the test. I know that Danny has been working on it for 4 or 5 years, roadtesting and workshopping it, and it feels at the moment as if terror is written into its DNA.

Can you scare audiences in the theatre these days? Plays like The Woman in Black, Deathtrap and the like feel as if they belong to a bygone era.

I think so but this isn't just a jump-scare fest. We were working with an illusionist this morning, and the idea is to strike a balance between that sort of thing and a more contemporary psychological disturbance. Shows like Andy Nyman's Ghost Stories suggest that there's still an appetite for people to come to be scared, and our task is to see to what extent we can use psychological drama to scratch that itch.

Can we expect screams from the house?

I would have thought so - I hope so anyway: that's the idea, and gasps, too. It's been a nice thing for me to experiment with something that draws in its influences from Hitchcock, at least to an extent. Lily and I play one of two couples who are constantly shifting alliances and allegiances. My character, Sam, is an academic who's perhaps the most sceptical of the quartet: he represents reason and logic and is the counterbalance to some of the others, who may be into the paranormal a bit more.

Interview: Hadley Fraser on 2:22 - A GHOST STORY at the Noel Coward Theatre
L to R: Julia Chan, Hadley Fraser, Lily Allen, Jake Wood
Photo c. Helen Maybanks

How does something like this compare to putting a musical on its feet?

When you do a musical, it can be physically exhausting but this one is mentally exhausting; our brains are completely fried. We're constantly aware of the shifting sands between four characters put into unfamiliar situations with which they cannot cope. Much of the play is about how the dynamic changes from scene to scene, and it feels like the audience will be very integral to that. The hope is that people may walk off into the night debating their own beliefs in the afterlife and the supernatural and the sorts of topics that excite Danny.

What's it been like working opposite Lily, who is a new to the West End though of course not to live performance?

Lily obviously comes from a family that has a lot of acting experience, so it actually feels as if I'm working with someone who's been acting as long as I have: her instincts are brilliantly real. The play allows Lily to open up a whole new avenue for herself but at the same time it doesn't feel like that much of a leap; she's very used to being on stage.

Given your shared musical gifts, was there ever an attempt made to get the two of you to sing during this, or maybe to record some scene change music or the like?

[Laughs] I don't think so! Lily and I are quite up for the idea of not singing for a bit, and it's actually quite a relief not having to belt something out every night.

Speaking of musicals, do you have any favourite memories of Mel Brooks, for whom you led the West End premiere of Young Frankenstein, taking the title role?

The thing about Mel quite honestly is that I wasn't a particular devotee of his work prior to Young Frankenstein: it wasn't something I grew up watching, which meant in a way that I could detach myself from his aura and fall in love instead with the man I met in the room. He was an inspiration to me at age 92 and still is [Brooks is now 95]. No detail for Mel was too small, nor will it ever be, age 95 or 195! He was always cutting and changing and obsessing, with an eye towards making it better. We managed to record the show over three nights in the theatre, which is really great; you feel as if you are there.

Are you pleased when you consider the breadth of your stage work, from classics to new plays, chamber musicals [Before After, a two-hander livestreamed during lockdown] to Broadway and West End behemoths like The Pirate Queen and Les Mis?

I always hoped and prayed that I would be approached for the variety of work that I've had until now, and it has meant making some tough decisions, and for Rosie [his wife], too. There have been times where we have both said no to a musical in the hope that a play might come along, but the hope has always been that the two can live alongside one another and I've always been conscious of doing both. There are decisions I could have made differently but everything is about context, isn't it? It was a thrill to work with Annie Baker on The Antipodes - she's the voice of a generation and that cast [Arthur Darvill and Conleth Hill included] was something else. But I've spent a fair bit of time, Matt, on the Les Mis turntable as you know, as well, and I absolutely adore that show. It's done wonders for me, and I'm not surprised it's still going.

Throughout it all, you continue to make your own music.

Yes, as much as I've been able to. Joe Stilgoe and I have been working together and I've gone back into the studio with Will Butterworth on an album that's yet to be mixed and mastered but we hope to have it ready by Christmas. But as I say, absolutely none of this, especially now, is something I take for granted, and actually having a child sharpens your instincts, too. There's a multitude of reasons for the places we find ourselves in, and all you can do is respond to each opportunity the very best you can.

Photo of Hadley Fraser c. Olaf Heine

2:22 - A Ghost Story at the Noel Coward Theatre from 3 August

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BWW Interview: Hadley Fraser on 2:22 - A GHOST STORY at the Noel Coward Theatre
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