Hayden Thomas interviews Olivier winner James Dreyfus


This week our Reporter Hayden Thomas (@WestEndReporter) took a trip down to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket to meet Olivier Award winner James Dreyfus. He is currently starring as Elwood P. Dowd in Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy Harvey, alongside fellow Olivier Award winner Maureen Lipman.

Read on to find out James' views on sharing a curtain call with a six-foot, invisible rabbit, avoiding the West End's red carpets and taking a trip down Memory Lane to re-visit landmark productions such as Mel Brooks' The Producers and Kander & Ebb's Cabaret...

HAYDEN THOMAS: James, Thank you for taking the time out to talk to us. As this production of Harvey was originally a National Tour and then turned into a West End engagement, do you find any differences as an actor between performing on tour and performing in the West End?

JAMES DREYFUS: I guess the difference is that on tour it's a lot more forgiving. When you come into the West End it's much harsher.

HT: In terms of critics or audiences?

JD: In terms of audiences. In London people are spoilt for choice. If you go to Birmingham, I think there's only two or three theatres. If you go to Malvern, there's only one. So here (in London) you have choice, where as on tour people tend to be much more accepting of things. That's the only difference I've found. But it was quite good for this show because it was originally coming into town anyway and the short tour before it was all in place and so before you come into the harsh lights of London, we could run it in - not to just use it merely as practice, but to fine-tune it and make it better.

HT: Before the tour, in preparartion for the role of Elwood P. Dowd, which of course was famously portrayed in the 1950 film adaptation by James Stewart, did you watch the film or did you purposefully not watch it, so as not to influence your own interpretation of the character?

JD: For this role, because it was James Stewart and I am sooo not James Stewart, I did watch the film and saw his take on it and mine is a totally different take on it. But you've still got to play that character. James Stewart is very suave and smooth and sophisticated and I don't bring that to the table. So I have to find a different way of doing it. Being live theatre, it has to be slightly more exaggerated than on film. So watching his performance didn't affect mine. But of course you're always going to get people saying: "You're not like James Stewart!" "Well yes, I know." What do you say to that? Every time there's been a film that gets put on stage, people are going to say: "Yes, well you're not like so-and-so!" and that, I think, just comes with the territory.

HT: Speaking of which, the last time I saw you in the West End was in the stage adaptation of 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' in 2009 at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket - this very theatre. Is it strange coming back to the same theatre or does it give you an enormous sense of comfort and well-being?

JD: Yes, I guess there is a sense of comfort. It's funny because when I first walked back into this theatre after doing 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' about six years ago, I kept finding places where I remember I used to keep standing in terror before the opening night. There is that association. And the thing with 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' is that I had a much smaller part, so I had to keep waiting in the wings in terror until I had to go on.

HT: So everywhere you turn and look, you think "Ooh, I had a little 'moment' there"?

JD: Yes! That's exactly it! I had a little moment there... and a little moment there... And a little moment there! (Laughs)

HT: And you've had plenty of West End moments over the years. If I could take a little trip down memory lane and ask about your experiences with a few past shows? How was it for you being part of the London premiere of Mel Brooks' 'The Producers' in 2004, playing Carmen Ghia at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane?

JD: Well, it was amazing to work with Mel Brooks and Lee Evans and all these people. It was slightly marred because we had a cast change right at the last minute. That put everyone on edge a bit, but actually once it had been sorted out and Nathan Lane took over from Richard Dreyfuss, it was pretty amazing to be in Drury Lane every night and watching all those people going crazy over all these outrageous songs and outrageous sets. It was a really wonderful, wonderful time, actually, and there was a lot that was good in it and I really enjoyed it.

HT: Would you ever like to do it again? Do you like the idea of re-visiting particular characters or particular shows?

JD: No. I don't want to re-visit any shows really.

HT: Been there, done that, got the T-Shirt?

JD: Yes! And I did 'The Producers' for a year. It's hard enough getting through a whole year and then the thought of having to go back again. And I get bored quite quickly.

HT: What about 'Cabaret' at the Lyric Theatre in 2006, in which you played the iconic role of the Emcee?

JD: I think that was one of the most fun shows I have ever done! I just thought the way Rufus Norris directed it - it was dark, dark, dark, and also quite controversial - and it had some amazing performances in it. We decided to play the Emcee as an incredibly evil and nasty man and it was nice to get away from playing all those silly, camp characters. So it was actually one of my favourite jobs of all time! Maybe one day that would be one to re-visit, but I'd probably want to re-visit it in Rufus Norris' incarnation and not in a new one, but yes, it was definitely in my Top 3.

HT: You won an Olivier Award in 1998 for Best Supporting Performance in a Musical for the National Theatre's 'The Lady in the Dark.' How would you compare the Oliviers back then to what you see on ITV nowadays?

JD: Back then it was fantastic! It was in a small theatre. Yes, it was filmed, but there was none of this nonsense that goes on now. The whole red carpet thing and lights flashing around like an entertainment show sends a shiver down my spine frankly. Back when I got it, you were just sitting in a theatre, you go up, people clap and then you go home. It seemed to be a very different affair.

HT: So you're not a red carpet fanatic then?

JD: No, I couldn't be worse at it if I tried!

HT: There is a cerain art to it, isn't there?

JD: Well, you've got to be able to talk the talk and walk the walk and know who you're wearing and this, that and the other...

HT: And pratice your over-the-shoulder-look!

JD: (Laughs) That's right! And I tend to feel uncomfortable in crowds too... Not that I've been invited since then! (Laughs again)

HT: So, wrapping up and coming back to Harvey, how would you entice people down to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket to come and see the show?

JD: I think if you're prepared to come, come and watch a heart-warming, innocent, old-fashioned tale. It's not a laugh-a-minute farce - it's a gentle comedy - but it did win the Pulitzer Prize. It's not a superficial tale about a man and an invisible rabbit, there's a lot more than that going on. Audiences who have come have been very quiet to begin with, but by the end, you've totally won them over. If you're an incredibly cynical person, I would suggest giving Harvey a miss, but if you quite like to be won over and to put a big smile on your face and forget about the horrors going on in the world at the moment, then I think this is the play to come to.

HT: And what is it like sharing a curtain call with a six-foot tall, invisible rabbit?

JD: Well, it's infuriating because he gets the biggest applause of the night! I wish we didn't bring him on at all! (Laughs)

Harvey continues performances at the Theatre Royal Haymarket through to 2 May 2015.

- Edited by Tom Millward

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