Post-show talk at the Theatre Royal, Bath for ‘While the Sun Shines’ (2016)

I was delighted to be able to attend the post-show talk this evening, after another hilarious couple of hours with this play – this ‘farce with a heart’. All the cast attended, which was marvellous – very generous of them indeed. I am not sure who the host was, but I assume he was associated with the Theatre Royal. There were plenty of questions from the audience, who seemed really engaged with the whole thing.

Alexandra, Rupert, Tamla, Nicholas, Jonathan and Rob (with apologies to the host on the left, and Michael to the right).
Alexandra, Rupert, Tamla, Nicholas, Jonathan and Rob (with apologies to the host on the left, and Michael to the right).

The first topic raised was the fact that this play is so unfamiliar to us. It was very successful at the time it was first produced, but has virtually disappeared since. This production has been so successful, no one can quite explain why the play has been so neglected – unless it was seen as being too much ‘of its time’. We can’t even say that once the war was over, audiences didn’t want to revisit the subject, because Rattigan’s other war-related plays continued to be produced.

An audience member asked whether it was easy to slip into such ‘antique roles’. Michael Cochrane (the Duke) immediately explained that he was antique himself. Jonathan Dryden Taylor (the Butler) said, somewhat more seriously, that Rattigan was a great writer. The characters are well delineated, and there are clues to the characters throughout the play. It’s all in the writing.

Rob Heaps (the Englishman) said that they’d spent their first rehearsal day actually in The Flat in Albany, where Rattigan had written and set the play. The owner was moving out at the time, so the place was bare, but there were two bottles of wine awaiting them. This all seemed to kick-start the process nicely!

Another audience member said that Rattigan’s plays tend to be known for repressed emotions and sadness. Were these things to be found in this play as well, even if buried deep? It was agreed that there are genuinely touching moments, and given the war-time setting, it was understandable that the characters wanted to make hay while the sun was still shining. It was also suggested that the jokes only work because there is real emotion behind them.

The seven characters are all stereotypes (as I’m indicating, a little facetiously, with my designations), so how do the actors approach making them human? I think it was Nicholas Bishop (the Frenchman) who said that they attempted from the first to rehearse as if the characters were not stereotypes. He said that director Christopher Luscombe was particularly firm on this. However, Nicholas added that farce and satire works on stereotypes, so in some ways you just have to go with it.

Michael said that the Theatre Royal does a lot of the work for them, as it is such a beautiful, classic theatre. (Appreciative murmurs from the audience.) He feels the play wouldn’t work so well in a more modern setting. He also complimented the marvellous set, which was based on The Flat Itself. (Very appreciative murmurs!)

Rupert at the post-show talk.
Rupert at the post-show talk.

Many of the situations in the play feel quite modern, and so the audience laughs in recognition. Rupert (the American) said that he didn’t think we’d really changed all that much. One of the funniest lines in the play is about how the English behave in trains (I won’t spoil it!) – and we still behave the same way. Alexandra Dowling (the Good Girl) said that ‘Brexit’ had happened during rehearsals, and that brought another kind of life into it, and brought home the issues of people united or divided. The whole English approach of ‘muddling through’ remains relevant!

The actors had laughed a lot during rehearsals, but the audience often laughed at completely different things. The overall reactions from the audience have been incredible, but they really vary from night to night.

Because the play was so obscure, audiences hadn’t known what to expect – however, they had enjoyed it right from the first night. During the rehearsals, the actors felt they had an undiscovered gem of a play – but they were worried they were ‘in a bubble’, and fooling themselves. Once it ‘tested’ so well in front of an audience, their confidence was reinforced.

Michael was asked how he manages to do his accent show after show. Rob (I think?) replied that Michael gargled with port every night.

The cast all obviously thought very highly of Christopher. He worked with them through the week of previews, and even gave them more notes after press night. He provided good advice right down to the details of nuances and stresses, to fine-tune their performances. Some of the staging resulted from lucky accidents, but otherwise there was a lot of thought put into it all.

Most of the time, once the director moves on after the previews, the actors enjoy feeling it is now ‘their’ play. However, it was a real testament to Chris that, in this instance, no one wanted him to leave. Tamla Kari (the Trollop) put on a beautiful woebegone face at the very thought of him going.

An audience member said that, while a comedy will generate laughs right from the start, a farce builds slowly while it sets up the characters and the situation. Is it difficult for the actors to wait through that relatively ‘flat’ time?  The consensus seems to be that it’s a necessary part of the process, and in the early parts there are usually comic laughs to be had. Rob suggested (tongue firmly in cheek) that was why Rupert was asked to drop the eiderdown when we first meet his character – so that the audience would have something to laugh at.

Jonathan said that some parts of the audience will be ready to laugh, and will laugh at almost anything, while other parts are more resistant, and are determined to wait for something worth laughing at. Everyone agreed it was the end of the first act that was the highest point in having built up the laughs.

Having blessed us with twenty minutes of supplementary laughs as well as thoughts, the cast received an enthusiastic round of applause. Michael kindly stayed behind to answer an extra couple of questions from an audience member. And the night was done!

Thank you again to everyone involved for an awesome time of it. This show has brought me much joy!