BWW Interview: Ian Hallard Talks TUMULUS & VAULT Festival 2018
The VAULT Festival 2018 opens next week, running from 24 January through to 18 March. During the three months, 300 shows will be staged, including new thriller and queer noir play Tumulus.
Actor Ian Hallard fills us in on rehearsals so far, looks back on a busy year, and even further back to a performance of his we will (sadly) never see: King Kong!
What is your earliest memory of theatre?
The first thing I ever saw would probably have been a pantomime. Either at the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham or maybe at Solihull. My parents always used to take us to pantos every year, and we actually used to have a scrapbook with all the old programmes in.
And that love of pantomime has obviously stayed with you. You've appeared in a number of pantos, and recently played Widow Twankey in Aladdin.
Yes. And you know, I think sometimes people can be a bit snooty about panto. But you need to be really committed to it for it to be done well, and I think it's really important that it is.
I didn't come from a theatrical background, and my parents didn't really go to the theatre either. So panto was my introduction to theatre and it's the same for an awful lot of kids in similar situations, whose families it wouldn't occur to to take them to see plays or anything.
Going along with a school trip is probably these kids' first and (possibly) only exposure to theatre. So I think it's really important that panto is done well not just for its own sake, but to attract that generation and get kids excited about going to see theatre. And then maybe even go into theatre themselves, if they get those opportunities.
And can you tell us about how you yourself got into acting?
Well, I'd always done it on Saturday drama clubs and things like that. There was Solihull Young Drama, which I used to go to and I'm still in touch with my old drama teacher, a lovely lady called Louise Payne. That was my entry into that world, and then doing bits and pieces at school.
I guess because I was pretty academic, I sort of assumed that drama would continue to be a hobby and I'd probably do amateur stuff. So when I went to university, I did English Literature. And I suppose it's the kind of the thing that actors do if they want to feel that reassurance of "Well, I have got some kind of academic thing to fall back on".
And the course was supposed to have a drama element to it, but the drama element was...not great! I remember one particular thing we did: a theatre version of King Kong, which was one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life.
It ended with this poor girl standing on a chair with a Barbie doll in her hand, while the rest of us flew round as airplanes. So that was a bit excruciating, but it was character building (I suppose).
I ended up spending about 99% of my time doing stuff with the university theatre group instead.
And after you graduated, how did you make the decision to pursue acting?
Well after university, I didn't really know what to do. And it was my dad (bless him), who turned round and said, "Well look: don't end up doing a job you hate. If you want to give acting a go, I think you should." It's kind of an inversion of the way these things are supposed to happen!
So it was with that encouragement and blessing that I came down to London, and did my postgrad at Mountview.
And now you're performing on the London stage. Last year, you appeared in The Boys in the Band.
Yes, that was a dream job. It's one of those special productions that you don't forget at all, really.
And the nine of us in the cast have all stayed in touch; we still regularly communicate via WhatsApp. Actually, we've planned a reunion in the next few weeks, and that will be the first time all nine of us will have been together since we closed at the Vaudeville almost a year ago.
It was a brilliant, important play and such a fantastic part with a gorgeous group of people.
And it seems to be getting a resurgence, with an American production later this year.
It is and that's great, because it's never been on Broadway. I don't know whether some of our cast will get across to see it at some point. But I'm really glad it's come back, because it's come in and out of fashion over the years. And a large part of that is based on gay men's attitudes towards it.
When we did it, there was a whole discussion about whether it was relevant or not. The only slightly infuriating aspect of the whole process was to see male, heterosexual theatre critics praising the production, but if there was ever anything which they nitpicked at it was the relevance. "Is this play relevant?" And it's like, you have no idea about the relevance of it.
Gay men of all ages, young and old, who we spoke to during the run at Park and then the tour and then at Vaudeville said, "This is just what my group of friends is like." And of course, all the mental health issues and addiction and drugs is all supremely relevant still.
And ironically, the show I'm rehearsing for now brings all of that slap-bang up to date, 50 years on, with what gay men are still experiencing in the 21st century. So it's an interesting progression that I'm experiencing in a way.
You're referring to Tumulus. Can you tell us a bit about the play?
So the 'tumulus' is actually a geographical feature on Hampstead Heath - it's a burial mound. That's what the play is named after and the location of a series of murders, which take place in contemporary London. So it's a thriller, a murder mystery set against the backdrop of London's gay scene, and the chemsex scene in particular.
The chemsex scene is this phenomenon that's emerged particularly among gay men in the last six, seven, eight years or so. So it's like the combination of hookups with apps like Grindr, alongside the arrival at the same time of drugs like GHB, GBL, mephedrone, ketamine, and then mental health issues relating to that and people getting into that whole scene.
And we've teamed up with Relate and 56 Dean Street. They're doing a Q&A discussion, after the 5pm performance at on 27 January. 56 Dean Street is the big sexual health clinic for gay men in Soho, and that's with David Stuart who coined the term 'chemsex'. He's been chatting to us, during the research and rehearsals for this show. So hopefully, it's all authentic and people who are involved in that scene in any way will recognise it.
How have rehearsals been going so far?
Well, the work is very exciting and it's from Christopher Adams, who is an up-and-coming playwright. And we're experimenting a lot with this production.
For example, there are only three of us in the cast and there's a whole multitude of different characters that we're playing. So we're having all kinds of technical elements in terms of sound effects and a magic box of tricks. They feed our voices through it and it distorts and differentiates our voices for different characters. So that is great to play with.
And what characters do you play?
Well I've got a whole range of them, really. Ciarán Owens is playing Anthony, who is the protagonist, so he has just the one character to play (I say just, it's a very big part). And then Tom Rhys Harries and myself are playing all the other characters.
So Tom basically plays the young, twinky, gay men and I play all the old ones! It's interesting, as you go through your acting career: you start off and you go from always being the youngest person in the company, to suddenly turning around and going, "Oh, now I'm the oldest!".
Is this your first time performing at the Vaults?
Yes, although I've actually seen a few things at the Vaults over the last few years. But this is the first time I've really become aware of the festival. It's really building a name for itself, and there are a huge amount of productions which go on all the way through to March.
We're right at the beginning of the festival, but there's a stack of stuff I want to see. I've got a couple of friends appearing in other productions, so it'll be interesting to get down and see some of the other stuff while we're on and after that as well.
Have you had a chance to get into your theatre space there, the Cage?
No, we've not got in yet. And with the things I've seen at the Vaults in the past, one was in the bigger theatre space and then I saw the promenade Alice Underground last year and the year before that...I'm sure that took in part of the Cage itself, but I've got no geography of working out where that is (or where I was!)
So until we get there next week, I can't quite envisage what the space will be.
And finally, what can audiences expect from Tumulus?
They can expect little red shorts. We've had our costume fittings, and apparently that's something of a little uniform on the chemsex scene, they all wear these little red shorts. We've embraced that, so we've got the very lovely Tom in a pair of shorts getting his legs out for the whole thing (if that appeals to a certain demographic, which it may or may not do!).
And it's a proper rollercoaster. It's a ride through this adventure, so hopefully it will feel a thrill a minute. So Agatha Christie fans and people who love murder mysteries: there's all that to hook you in, as well.
But it is going to feel very different and quite experimental. And, of course, we're still crafting it really, up until next week. So I'm intrigued to see how it all ends up.
Photo credit: Nick James, Darren Bell, Will Adams