Peter Forbes interview: 'The phone call to tell me Stephen Sondheim approved me was the most exciting I've ever had'
Peter Forbes is not a household name; but in 2017 he burst unforgettably upon my consciousness when he played Buddy Plummer in the National Theatre's spectacular and shattering new production of Follies, providing rock-solid support (in every sense) to Imelda Staunton playing his wife Sally, a former chorus dancer still pining 30 years later for another man that got away, whom she was in love with then and still is now. Yet Buddy has stuck by her.
And Forbes has stuck by Buddy, returning to play him, now opposite Joanna Riding as Sally, when this sell-out production was revived at the National earlier this year. "I really love him," he says as we chat in a backstage office. "And I'm going to be devastated when it's finished."
The show has brought him back to the National Theatre, a venue he has always loved. "I hate the fact that I have to leave and can't be here forever like Michael Bryant," he says, referencing the late actor who spent the bulk of his career here. "But it's also good for you because it makes you find other challenges and then hopefully you can come back." It was, he says, somewhere he “always aspired to”.
“At the end of school and before going to University in Edinburgh, I came down to London for a summer and I stayed with my uncle, an architect, in Muswell Hill. He was a great theatre lover and he knew I was. I'd work in the library in his office, and in the evening about three times a week, he'd say, come on, let's go see something.
“We'd drive over to the NT, park in the basement, and I remember seeing Paul Schofield play Othello with Michael Bryant, and Warren Mitchell being incredible in Death of a Salesman. That sealed my desire, although I didn't admit it to myself, to be an actor."
He read English at Edinburgh, then applied for drama school, securing a place at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. "I wanted to give it a go, and if not, I'd become a teacher in Fife, running the third year rugby team like my dad did."
He graduated in 1984, and secured his first job working as an acting stage manager at rep in Harrogate. "It gave me my Equity card - I did 17 shows in 14 months there, for £98 a week plus a £12.50 subsistence. I wouldn't have missed it - some of the shows were good, some were terrible, but you just got them on, a new play every two or three weeks."
That experience anchored a career in which theatre has become his principal home: "No matter how hard I try to do other things, I keep coming back, because I did so much theatre early on!"
He first came to the National in 1994 when he appeared in a play called Two Weeks with The Queen, co-produced with Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre where he'd become a company regular for artistic director Alan Ayckbourn (and for whom he also made his West End debut in his play Henceforward at the Vaudeville in a take-over cast).
"I was thrilled to bits - I thought I was going to be the new Michael Bryant!", he says, referring again to the legendary actor he always aspired to be. "But I didn't work here again until 2007 - and every time I crossed over Waterloo Bridge, I'd ask myself, why am I not there?"
Coming back now he's reminded of how and why it's so great to work here. "One of the wonderful things is that you walk in and see Linda and Vince on the stage door and then you walk through the building and see people who you know from working here before; there's an incredible sense of every part of the building supporting the work.
“Follies is a classic example of that - on the first day of rehearsals, the excitement was palpable. And I remember saying to Rufus [Norris, NT artistic director], thank you for taking the risk of doing this."
And, just as importantly, on taking the risk of giving him the role. "When I came into this, I didn't know if I was musically literate enough or had a good enough voice. It was really intimidating, especially when they announced Imelda Staunton and Philip Quast and Janie Dee - but didn't announce a Buddy. I'd auditioned and was recalled but waited weeks and weeks and weeks before I heard.
“Eventually I got the call when I was on a bus and told that Sondheim had approved my casting - it was probably the most exciting phone call I'd ever had."
But it was also the scariest, too: now he had to actually do it. "Nobody made me feel I shouldn't be there - it was my own imposter syndrome making me worried. I was very experienced, but I'd never done a musical on this level or in that company."
Until this, his biggest musical run was a two-year stint in the third and fourth years of the West End run of Mamma Mia!, in which he'd played Harry, one of the dads, which he recalls now both for the fun and practical reasons he did it: "My second son was born in the first year I was in it, so it was a reliable income." (His sons are now 20 and 17). His only previous Sondheim had been a run in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, with Roy Hudd.
Follies, he says, provides "a series of extraordinary challenges - every scene and every number." When he first read the script and heard the songs, he says, "I couldn't believe I was being asked to audition", still less that he then actually went on to secure the role."It's not very often this happens, but I feel like I'm playing this part at exactly the right time. I understand Buddy, and it just fits like a glove - it's a marvellous alchemical thing when an actor and a part come together."
And returning to it now for another run was essential: "I couldn't bear the thought of anyone else playing him! But it's also been fascinating doing it with two very different performers joining us [as well as Riding replacing Staunton, Alexander Hanson has taken over from Philip Quast]. It has shifted the dynamic a bit, they have different qualities and different colours.
“Sometimes when you revive something that was a hit, you're trying to recreate what was there before, but actually this time it feels like the whole thing has moved on and become even richer."
Follies tickets are available now.