West End interview: Charlie Russell - The Comedy About a Bank Robbery

Mischief Theatre are currently preparing for their third West End production in three years, as rehearsals for their new comedy The Comedy about a Bank Robbery come to an end and preview performances begin at the Criterion Theatre.

Hot off the success of their 2015 Olivier Award winning The Play That Goes Wrong, the company were recently nominated once again for their Christmas production Peter Pan Goes Wrong, which returns to London later this year.

We spoke to leading lady Charlie Russell who has performed in all three Mischief Theatre productions at the end of a very exciting rehearsal to hear more about her role in this new production.

DOH: That looked like a very energetic rehearsal - What have you been working on today, Charlie?

CR: There's a little part in the show where my character Caprice is on three different phones having three different conversations at the same time. Without giving too much away it's all part of her trying to con three different people for money. I was working this morning with Mark Bell the director going through that to see if there's a fun way I can handle the phones and also the voices and tones, thinking of different voices for that character. We've got these sequences that hold the piece together which we're calling ‘montage sequences’ using song as well as little funny scenes and sketches. We've been working on those to get the continuity and make them funny – also work on our singing! We require quite a bit of practise and assistance when it comes to using our voices.

DOH: What’s been the greatest challenge in the rehearsal room?

CR: There are quite a few difficult things, especially as it's impossible to have all the necessary set pieces and the mechanics that we're going to have, so not rehearsing with those has been challenging. I'm feeling the pressure because we have a lot of success and a lot of support from the public thanks to the ‘Goes Wrong’ shows. We've got these people that we want to make sure we perform for. We want the show to be as good as the previous two, so that the public will enjoy it when they come and support something new. At the same time you don't want to just do the same thing again – the audiences require something new. You can't just throw the same gag at them and expect them to pay money for that, so you want to make sure you're doing something new. It's that difficult second album – we think it's good and we like it. If we like it, then it generally tends to be alright. I want it to be really good for all of our lovely audiences!

DOH: Have you found it more difficult rehearsing for ‘Bank Robbery’ compared to the other two productions?

CR: It is in that I keep accidently looking out to the audience on the jokes then realising actually that there's supposed to be a fourth wall! So I need to get out of that habit. I remember doing ‘Peter Pan’ which had it's own challenges – part of it was we knew these people and we knew how to do it. We do know how to do shows like ‘Bank Robbery’, because we've all trained, we've all watched those styles of films and obviously we all know each other very well because we've worked together before. Actually that's where we developed a lot of our comic sensibility. So really we can do it – we're just out of practise – we haven't been doing it most recently.

DOH: Was this style of comedy something you always thought you’d be involved in?

CR: I think it was – I was at school and got given the more comedic roles and then at drama school I found myself doing it a lot. A huge part of me thought I'd be doing serious acting at the RSC. There's a slight attitude in theatre that comedy doesn't require good acting, when it truth it really does. You have to work very hard to find the truth in something for an audience to find it funny and I certainly grew up with the idea that comedy is separate and that's ‘messing around’. I've learned now how much skill and practise and determination it takes to make something actually funny, actually make people laugh. Now it's become something that I'm really into because I do find it the most challenging – more challenging that crying or being angry, so I'm really lucky in my job that I get to do that.

DOH: Where does your love of comedy come from? Who are your comedic idols?

CR: Such a huge list! Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Joanna Lumley, Tina Fey, Amy Schumer, Amy Poehler. For me the women are really inspiring. I loved Mel and Sue, growing up, these women I watched them and thought - I can do it, it's not only the boys. I grew up on Fawlty Towers, Dad’s Army, Blackadder that kind of thing and loved it, but sort of got the impression that that wasn't what I would do and I would do another job. I was young and didn’t see it in front of me. The more I watched Dawn French the more I realised there was no need for that pigeon-holing and typecasting.

DOH: Do you think it’s harder for women in comedy?

CR: I don't know if I'm experienced enough to say that as an authority. I think one of the biggest challenges for women in comedy, again speaking for myself, is that we bring ourselves down. You have to be so good – I get so worried that if I'm not being funny I'm bringing women everywhere down because I don't want to play into anyone's hands that say women aren't funny. So you have this added pressure and I think women are very critical and perfectionists which often means great work is created, but also a lot of women including myself stop themselves from even achieving the thing they want to achieve because they've already told themselves they can't do it. It's not necessarily victim blaming in that way but there's a lot of pressure and we maybe need to be a bit more arrogant, a bit more ‘bolshy’ and support each other more. All the wonderful men out there that have no thoughts that women aren't funny, most of the men I know, they know that it’ not true, we all need to hold on to each other and say “keep going”.

DOH: Is it harder working within a company where everyone is so close? It’s like the comedy mafia!

CR: In this group of people you have to put your ego to one side and listen. Everyone has suggestions and everyone has ideas, and you have to take those as gifts and not as criticisms. Sometimes that can be difficult. It's wonderful to be with your mates all the time – I'm normally cackling every day. There's a support network – you can say if you're having a bad day. You don't need to worry about coming across as a strong person to a group of people you don't know, or you don't need to worry about coming across as a Diva, because these people know you're not and that it's genuine, so if you ask for some support or some encouragement they'll be there. But also they give you that honest feedback you need and you feel like you're getting really good work.

DOH: What do you get to do in Bank Robbery that’s different from your past roles?

CR: I get to do an accent! Normally I'm RP and now I'm doing Arkansas, which is Southern American so that's been quite a challenge. I have a lot to do. I don't necessarily have a lot of jokes but I'm onstage a lot trying to work out where I am and my journey and that's really difficult. I suppose there are some moments where I need to do 'proper' acting where I'm in love! I'm also coming down a rope – I've never had the stunts before but this time I do! I'm climbing down a large rope then I fall and get caught. I find it really scary – I have a bit of an issue with heights. I didn't tell anyone because I didn't want it to stop me doing anything! The people we've worked with are so good at their jobs that you feel so comfortable so I got over it quite quickly. I still scream – the other day they said to me oh that scream's really nice Charlie, keep it in. I thought to myself I couldn't take it out – it’s real! It's a genuine scream of terror!

DOH: What’s been the highlight for you throughout this whole journey?

CR: There are so many things. The Royal Vairety Performance was one of the best days of my life, it was so much fun. I remember the first day that I walked into the Duchess Theatre from front of house into the auditorium and I saw the stage and the set up for The Play That Goes wrong, our home for as long as we could last, and I just started to cry. I was so happy – a few happy tears! It was a precious moment. Just being with all my mates when we do the curtain call, standing there with all your friends, that's wonderful…

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery begins performances at the Criterion Theatre on 31 March 2016.

The Play That Goes Wrong continues to run at the Duchess Theatre.

Peter Pan Goes Wrong returns to the Apollo Theatre from 20 October 2016.

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