BWW Interview: Mark Umbers On SHE LOVES ME at Menier Chocolate Factory
Mark Umbers' diverse work includes Home Fires and Mistresses on screen and, on stage, The Glass Menagerie at the Apollo Theatre and the acclaimed revival of Merrily We Roll Along at Menier Chocolate Factory. He's returned to the Menier for She Loves Me, whose plot - two feuding employees in a Budapest shop are also, unbeknownst to them, one another's romantic pen pals - also formed the basis for the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan film You've Got Mail. Umbers stars opposite Scarlett Strallen, and the show begins previews tonight.
What was your first theatre experience?
I remember my dad bringing me to London to see a couple of shows when I was about 10 - I think it was Starlight Express and 42nd Street. But the first musical I really remember having a big impact was West Side Story. Even as a child, the score was just thrilling.
Did you do many plays at school?
Yes, lots at school and at university. Part of the deal with my parents is that I was only allowed to be an actor if I had a proper degree first, so I never ended up going to drama school - my university course was four years, so I'd had enough studying after that.
Does that mean you're more instinctual in your approach?
I suppose I am, yes, though it's probably a handicap. But then being at the National for Trevor Nunn's season, that was really my drama school - watching all these incredible people at work in these different plays. I think the most exciting one was The Merchant of Venice - it was amazing being in a play at the Cottesloe that people were queuing round the block for. I have a low boredom threshold but I'm a really hard worker, so that sort of rep system really works for me. And that season led straight into My Fair Lady.
Did you always have ambitions to do musicals?
Not at all. I wasn't brought up in London, and I didn't have a clue what West End musicals were. My agent put me up for an audition for Martin Guerre, and I hadn't seen anything like Les Mis or Miss Saigon, so I wound up singing something from Guys and Dolls, which was terribly inappropriate. Film was what first captured my imagination, but whether it's stage or screen it has to feel like a challenge. Someone told me a good rule of thumb, which is that a project has to tick at least two of these three boxes: will it feed my soul, will it feed my career, or will it feed my bank balance?
Were you ever intimated working with big stars, like Jessica Lange on The Glass Menagerie?
If I meet someone socially I cringe and can't speak to them, especially someone whose work I admire, but actually working with them doesn't bother me. I have the National to thank for that - on my first day, I was too nervous to have lunch in the canteen, so I went to Waterloo station instead! But once I got up the courage, having drinks with these incredibly well-regarded actors in the bar takes the sting out of it. You have to find that even playing field.
What attracted you to Merrily We Roll Along?
I knew it was going to be a massive challenge - it's such a difficult role. Maria Friedman wanted to make it his memory play, as that's the only way of making that character work. The huge response was a real testament to the writing, and it was wonderful for Sondheim to come and be in a commercial theatre and watch an audience just rapt by it.
Were you familiar with She Loves Me?
I knew of it - I was familiar with the story, but I hadn't heard the score. I really wanted to do it because it's a wonderful ensemble piece. No one has to carry it, especially not with our extraordinary cast - we're so lucky to have everyone who's doing it. It's a very Christmassy show, but it's enormous fun to do it in a really intimate theatre where you can have nuance in the acting. I'm singing "She Loves Me" about a foot away from the front row. Most of it takes place in a shop, so it's the perfect space - all quite contained.
Did you see the recent Broadway revival?
I saw little bits of it online, but I had to make a decision to stop. We're doing it in English accents, so I needed to get other versions out of my head.
Can you relate to your character Georg's dilemma?
I think the wonderful thing about this piece is everyone can relate to all the characters. Georg, everything he says and does is informed by a deep-seated loneliness that he manages to cover day to day by working very hard. I know an awful lot of people like that. It's very resonant and very moving, especially in terms of the 1930s context, when you weren't able to say what's on your mind. Georg and Amalia bicker, but what they're not saying is they like each other.
It's also oddly resonant for 2016 dating
It's certainly more topical now than it would have been in 1963 - I can't imagine many people then were familiar with blind dates and lonely hearts clubs. It does seem to relate to dating apps, the pressure to make some perfect choice, and that separation of communicating online and in person. I've never done internet dating or anything like that - I find it hard enough with people I know, let alone those I haven't met!
Was it easy establishing that love/hate dynamic with Scarlett?
Absolutely. When she first comes into the shop, I really feel how irritating she is to Georg. The show takes place in one of the worst recessions ever known. It was disastrous if you lost your job - you'd be starving in a couple of weeks. So Amalia is desperate to get this job, but she goes over Georg's head and won't engage with him. And when she does get it, it's terrible for him. So there's real complexity to what's also a big romance. We have a slight fairy tale aspect to the staging, but the stakes are very high.
There's a definite darkness to the story
In one of the movie versions, The Shop Around The Corner, it's really Frank Morgan's film - his character's wife being unfaithful, him attempting suicide. It's really painful, but that's the beating heart of the story. It gives weight to the search for love and happiness.
What's your favourite number in the show?
"Grand Knowing You" is very, very funny. It's such a witty lyric and Becky Howell's choreography is just brilliant. Most of my favourite songs in this are the ones I get to watch from offstage.
Any future plans?
Well, you can never plan too much - I was actually supposed to be doing another series of Home Fires right now, but that got axed and we all had to quickly find other jobs! It was a shame, as against all expectations we won the audience share every week. And those mainly female ensemble dramas don't come along very often.
Finally, any advice for budding actors?
Fight for roles, not for money. If you fight for good roles and get taken seriously, the money will come.
She Loves Me at Menier Chocolate Factory 25 November-4 March, 2017
Picture credit: Tristram Kenton, Alastair Muir