Thursday, 19 April 2018

Ayckbourn farce that was a real ‘pig’ to finish

ACTOR Harry Gostelow has got used to playing vicars lately. He played a “rather ineffectual” clergyman who had a crush

ACTOR Harry Gostelow has got used to playing vicars lately. He played a “rather ineffectual” clergyman who had a crush on Jane Austen in BBC movie Miss Austen Regrets five years ago, and since then he’s played a whole plethora of vicars and registrars, and people who have to marry other people, including a wedding celebrant on EastEnders.

But his latest role is about as far removed from a respectable English priest as you can get. He comes back to the Mill at Sonning as Bainbridge, a builder who’s a bit of a shark, in Alan Ayckbourn’s farce Taking Steps.

As the story goes, Bainbridge is desperately trying to sell an ancient and crumbling three-storey Victorian house, The Pines, to Roland — a character who is of equally dubious reputation. The business deal is interrupted by all sorts of shenanigans, in particular that of Roland’s wife writing him a ‘Dear John’ letter.

Gostelow said: “Ayckbourn described both my character and Roland’s as someone who, if they were in the queue at the post office, would get to the counter and then haggle over the price of the stamps. Then, on the way out, if they saw an old age pensioner also in the queue, would try to sell the stamps to them for a profit.

“They’re not exactly unscrupulous, but they’re a bit sharkish and mercenary.”

The theatre in Sonning is home from home for Gostelow. He made his professional début here straight out of drama school in 1994, with a role in The Reluctant Debutante, and has been back to work here so many times that he’s lost count — though he says the number is definitely in double figures.

He grew up in London in a thespian family — his father was New Zealand actor Gordon Gostelow and his mother actress Vivian Pickles — but he didn’t think of acting as a serious career until he went up to Cambridge University to study Classics. There, he became part of the budgeoning drama scene, rubbing shoulders on stage with the likes of Hugh Bonneville, Sam Mendes and Tom Hollander.

Since then, he has had many roles on stage and screen, including a part in Shakespeare In Love — though he says his favourite roles have been treading the boards at the Globe in London.

“The most exciting role I’ve ever played was Peregrine in The Antipodes, a rediscovered 17th century play, at the Globe in 2000,” he said. “I love playing there. It’s great fun playing on that stage, because you can see the audience all the time and relate to them, rather than being in darkness and just imagining they are there.You are surrounded by the audience, both in front of you and looking down on you from the balconies. Even Shakespeare soliloquys take on a new meaning there, as you are really talking to the audience, rather than just muttering on stage to yourself about how awful life is. It makes it much more relatable.”

It’s for similar reasons that Gostelow enjoys playing at the Mill at Sonning.

“It’s a very intimate venue, and everyone feels very close,” he said. “And there’s always a great audience that’s up for a good time. Everyone is close to the action, and feels very engaged.”

Taking Steps is a bit of a departure from most Ayckbourn plays. The celebrated British writer is known for his gritty comedies — he has written more than 70 plays — such as The Norman Conquests and How The Other Half Loves.

The former artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough is known for his black humour, but he has only written a handful of farces. However, true to form, this play is a bit darker than your average farce, and deals with unhappy marriages and the threat of death.

The Pines is a former Victorian brothel and is reputedly haunted by a prostitute who was murdered in one of its rooms.

Also, one of the characters, Kitty, is in the middle of trying to commit suicide. In fact, according to Gostelow, there are quite a few people walking in on people they think are about to top themselves during the course of the play.

“Ayckbourn called it ‘a pig to finish’, trying to tie up all the loose ends,” he said.

“His comedies always have a slightly darker twist. He doesn’t shy away from that side of life, and his plays are always full of people having terrible problems with relationships.

“This time he has written a farce — but it is still very funny.”

Taking Steps runs at the Mill at Sonning from Thursday, January 31 to Saturday, March 23. Box office: 0118 969 8000 or go to www.millatsonning.com

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