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Yorkshire born actor Marc Pickering has picked up critical acclaim thanks to his chameleon-like performances in fringe musicals such as The Toxic Avenger at the Southwark Playhouse and The Stripper at The St James Studio. A highly talented comic actor, his next challenge is leading the cast of a new London production of the Tony Award-winning How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying which runs at Wilton's Music Hall this Easter. Playing the lovable rogue J Pierrepont Finch, a part that has previously been associated with Matthew Broderick and Daniel Radcliffe, it's one of the most challenging yet exciting leading male roles in the musical theatre canon.
We caught up with Marc mid-rehearsals to hear about this new production and the challenges of bringing this classic musical to life.
Dom O'Hanlon: Marc, how are rehearsals going for How to Succeed?
Marc Pickering: Good! It's very quick paced and high energy. There's a lot to fit in in that amount of rehearsal time. I had no idea about the show before hand, I knew nothing about it at all. I've worked with the director and choreographer before on The Stripper and The Toxic Avenger, they approached me with it and just said would you mind having a look at it and see what you think. I read through it, saw that Daniel Radcliffe had done it on Broadway and it hadn't been done here for a while. I was really interested in the script – it's finding a piece that you can be a lead role in without being the stereotypical leading man.
DOH: Finch is such a unique musical theatre leading man – what's been the challenge bringing him to life?
MP: We wondered whether Finch is a nice guy or not – whether he is a hero or a villain. When we first read it, because it is quite dated, we realised that it holds up with today's society completely. Rosemary and Finch fall in love straight away, there's no real reason for that to happen. We're finding actually that really you just have to serve the text as is and play it for what it is, find that truth. I don't think Finch is a nasty person, he takes advantage of the opportunities that are presented to him and he does it in just a charming quick-witted way that the audience sort of forgive him for using people. He has a cheeky glint in his eye!
DOH: How do you make that opportunistic character real and likeable?
MP: It's making him have a reality that this might all crumble around him. He certainly doesn't put his morality before his ambition, and I think that gets him into deep water. He's so out of his depths, but I think he plays the game very well. The intensity of rising to power that quickly, the layers start to peel away and he gets a bit over his head. That's what I'm finding with him at the moment – he goes from this quick-witted street smart person to being in over his head. What's great is that he still manages to get himself out of it and turn it around – always!
DOH: It must be quite a refreshing character to bring to life?
MP: He's not a typical leading man - it doesn't matter what he looks like but he has to have the charm and charisma to have the audience on his side. We're still playing around with it. The design is very colourful and very bright, everyone in that world is going to be slightly heightened and tongue in cheek and comic book-esque. He comes in in a white suit then adapts to all the colours of all the people that he is meeting.
DOH: The show won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama back in 1962, but modern productions run the risk of seeming sexist or misogynistic. How are you overcoming those challenges?
MP: To be honest I think it's very relevant to today. The first thing Finch says as he's reading the book, is something like “if you've got intelligence and ability so much the better, but just remember a lot of people don't have any of these qualities”. We have a President in the White House who has just done that. In this day and age it's all about that. If this was happening now, Finch would be the best person on Twitter – he'd get what he wants. He'd play that game perfectly, tagging people, kissing arse, all that kind of stuff. At the end of the day people are opening their eyes to the fact that there is a system and there is a way to play it. I think people are saying sod it – I'm going to play it. For actors they think 'oh I better go on X Factor then to get my name out there', because the way the industry is now people aren't getting into big shows without being a name – so there is a game in it to be played, it is relevant.
DOH: Cinderella Darling for example is a song that some have always struggled with...
MP: We do that as a satire and a piss take. Benji [director] originally did it as a day dream/nightmare of Rosemary. Now he's doing it as though Smitty has rehearsed the whole thing as a company.
DOH: You've worked with director Benji Sperring before on The Toxic Avenger and The Stripper, and it looks like a mini reunion. Is it always nice working with people you already have a relationship with?
MP: Absolutely, that was one of the pulls of doing it, working with those guys again. We're one big family really.
DOH: What do you find thrilling about working on fringe musicals?
MP: I like the fact that it always seems that the best stuff is being done on the fringe, exciting new pieces. I guess it's good to be part of that movement. The thrill is not having the luxury of time as you'd have with big productions. You have to be on the ball and think fast – I kind of like that. I like offering up suggestions in the room, especially when they're taken! In terms of performing in smaller venues it's all about being able to step out of that fourth wall and say to the audience, come with us, and then step back into it. That was great in The Toxic Avenger – this has more license to do that as a character, Finch smiles to the audience, and I'm looking forward to experimenting with that.
DOH: What's keeping you awake at night as previews creep ever closer?
MP: It's the individual track and journey of the character that I'm trying to sort out at the minute, and the last ten pages of the script! It's not a very dance heavy show for me, but it's a bit of a sing. Costumes, props, entrances and exists – that's my biggest worry! This one is bonkers – the stage literally turns into a zoo, random animals on stage running about.
DOH: In the spirit of Finch, what's the shadiest thing you've ever done to succeed?
MP: I was at a party and I overheard someone telling their friend that they were up for a part in Boardwalk Empire, so I rang my agent, asked about it, got an audition and ended up getting the part! Just like Finch....
DOH: And if you were to write a 'How to Succeed in Showbusiness Without Really Trying' book, what would be the top rules?
MP: Number one, be nice. Don't be a diva. Never feel like you've learnt it all. Sleep with the right people, and don't go out with an actress...
Marc stars in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at Wilton's Music Hall from 8 to 22 April 2017.