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The Green Room

Michael Hasted brings you News, Views and Interviews from the Everyman Theatre

Tom Conti was recently voted the most popular West End actor alongside Dame Judi Dench who was voted the most popular actress. Mr Conti has been a household name since his first major television part starring in “The Glittering Prizes” in 1976 and he will be appearing at the Everyman in “Rough Justice” in the middle of October.

He took time out from rehearsals to grant me an exclusive interview. Tom is not only starring in “Rough Justice” but he is also the co-producer and I asked him what attracted him to this particular play. ‘Tom Kinninmont and I have co-produced for many years now and we spend a lot of time reading plays, a huge amount of time trying to find something that we think will give the public a good time, that’s the crucial thing.

‘I mentioned to Elizabeth Payne, who plays the prosecution barrister in the play, that it would be nice to do a courtroom drama because people like them. Surprisingly there are precious few but Elizabeth went off and had a look and came up with “Rough Justice” which she thought was excellent.

It’s not a new play. It had an outing in the early nineties but for one reason or another it wasn’t a great success, but nevertheless we decided to go ahead with it. It has turned out to be absolutely terrific. It’s phenomenally gripping; I can’t imagine why it failed before.

‘The hero, James Highwood, is a top flight television journalist, like David Dimbleby or Jeremy Paxman, someone who has been in the public eye for many years. He commits this crime and thinks that because he has confronted politicians and presidents over the years he can handle himself in a court against a fancy silk – he doesn’t have a very high opinion of the law. However the prosecution lawyer, played by Elizabeth Payne, is a tiger.

There is a feeling in the court, from the judge and the QCs, that while maybe they are not out to get him, that they are certainly aware that he has not been entirely complimentary about the British legal system and has a very low opinion of it. Highwood has a line “That was British justice, now for the truth.”’

I wondered, in light of recent stories about leaks to the press and journalists arrested at Heathrow, if the play had a political aspect to it. ‘No, not at all. The only thing under attack is the law. He used to run a television programme about miscarriages of justice, but there isn’t really any political aspect to it.

‘So, because of all this he thinks he can conduct his own defence. However, there are tricks to every trade and the prosecution barrister knows them all, and he doesn’t. He soon finds out that presenting a case in a court of law is quite different to presenting an argument of television.’

Tom Conti was born in Glasgow to an Italian father and a Scottish mother. He trained in Scotland and spent the early days of his career there. ‘Originally I was going to do music and I trained at music college but ended up as a drama student. I started in rep at Dundee and worked at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh but after I came down to London I had many hard years of no work at all. I did other things – I was a tour guide, I played guitar in restaurants, things like that just to pay the rent. I went back to Scotland and did a play at the Traverse in about 1970 which transferred to the Hampstead Theatre in London. I was seen in that and offered something else, that’s how it works in this business - you jump from lily pad to lily pad.

‘As a result the Traverse play transferring to Hampstead I was offered a series for Granada in the God-slot on a Sunday evening. It was a play about a Church of Scotland minister and I was playing an atheist doctor. That was about 1971 I think. My first big break came The Glittering Prizes in 1976.’

So, a treat for us all when Tom Conti appears at the Everyman from 16th October in “Rough Justice”. ‘I have never played Cheltenham before so I am really looking forward to it.’ he says. I think we all are.

“Fallen Angels” was written in 1925 and was Noel Coward’s second big hit. There was a wonderful production of it at the Everyman, in the middle of September. The action took place in a beautiful, sunlit room that looked like a palace but turned out only to be a flat. It was a wonderful set that really put you in the mood the minute the curtain went up. I think the fact that the play was written in the early twenties is significant.

It was a time of hedonism and devil-may-care where people thought if they could survive the First World War they could survive anything. Consequently caution was thrown to the wind and tomorrow was another day.

Two forty-something-plus, contentedly if not happily, married ladies discover that a suave French lover they shared fifteen years earlier, before they were married, is back in town and wants to see them. This naturally puts them in a bit of a tizz and they gradually work themselves up into a frenzy with the aid of a bottle or two of bubbly.

Seeing drunken women is not, as we know from our Friday evening strolls down the Promenade, necessarily the most attractive sight but both Jenny Seagrove and Sara Crowe managed to make the pair’s gradual slide into intoxication hilarious. At times it bordered on farce with lots of falling backwards over the sofa and legs in the air.

The sight of them giggling like teenage pop fans at the prospect of meeting their idols is laugh-out-loud funny – and all that over a Frenchman. We British in those days were known for the stiffness of our upper lip and not the weakness of our knees so the sight of these two women who should have known better risking everything, is doubly rib-tickling.

“Fallen Angels” was a good, old-fashioned drawing room comedy and I enjoyed it more than anything similar I have seen in a long time. There are a couple of decent looking plays coming up in October. One brand new and one with a familiar ring about it.

The new one, “Ciphers” by Dawn King, is presented by Out of Joint, the Bush Theatre and Exeter Northcott Theatre and is a spy story. “Most of what she told me about herself is a cover story. She is a British Intelligence Officer. How far would she go to get information out of me? The answer is, quite far.”

Justine is found dead. Her sister Kerry sets out to find out what happened, and stumbles into a world of secrets and subterfuge that makes her question who Justine really was. How well can you ever know someone who lies for a living?

Time Out said Dawn King’s debut play, “Foxfinder”, was ‘thrillingly original’ Now, in “Ciphers” she has written a smart and provocative thriller about spies, double agents and the opaqueness of the human soul.

Out of Joint is the acclaimed touring company founded and directed by Max Stafford-Clark. Those of you of a certain age will recall a 1967 film, “To Sir With Love”. I certainly remember it as I had a girlfriend in it, but that’s another story. Anyway they have produced a stage version starring Matthew Kelly, so that should be interesting.