Best known for his role as Desk Sergeant Bob Cryer in “The Bill”, Eric Richard is set to star as an underworld boss in “Octopus Soup”, a razor-sharp comedy touring show coming to Darlington Hippodrome in February.
Ahead of his visit, Eric Richard spoke about the difference between acting on stage and on TV, as well as the challenges he faces as an actor.
What attracted you to Octopus Soup!?
Joe Harmston [the director]. I’ve worked with Joe before. He’s a good bloke. We’ve done three shows together now and he is the kind of bloke you want to go back and work with again. It’s that simple.
And then you get offered the play, so I hear from my agent ‘Joe Harmston wants you to do a play with him’ and I’ve almost said yes before I’ve read it. Then I read the play and it’s a diamond little play so, you know, what’s wrong?
What’s in store for audiences who come along to see it?
I don’t know if audiences come to see to a show in the way that they might say “I am going to see a farce”. I think it’s narrowed a bit now. People go to see shows, don’t they? Everything gets called a show now but what we’re offering them is a farce.
It’s in some ways quite dark, certainly very funny, it’s got a lot of pace in it and – which is the major thing – five wonderful characters.
For me that’s the art of what we do for a living: Yes, you can have wonderful, wonderful writing but you’ve got to engage the audience through the storyteller, the character, the actor. And as the actor, if you’re given a wonderful character to play, guess what – the audience are gonna love watching it.
Speaking of which, how would you describe the character of Alan?
He has a line in which he says “I prefer black market entrepreneur” and that’s what he is – a black market entrepreneur who is capable of doing anything he wants.
Can you relate to him in any way? Or is he completely different from you?
He’s certainly completely different from me. The only thing we would have in common is we’re both Londoners, we both come from a working class London background, so how he talks is not terribly difficult and you can pace that as much as you like or where you wanna go with it. That’s kind of the easy bit.
I’ve never been attracted towards the criminal world so I’m not one of these people who says “I know all these gangsters” or “I used to hang out with these people that carried razor blades or whatever”.. So no, we don’t have a lot in common.
What challenges does the play present to you as an actor?
I think because it’s a farce and very funny and there’s a lot of action in it, I’m enjoying the technical aspect of it. I’m not suggesting that playing the character is easy because I’ve got to go into places with the character, even though it’s funny, which aren’t somewhere as a human being I would want to go but that’s again the nature of what we do for a living. So that’s not so testing but I love what we’re having to do technically.
You’ve got to be so precise. This kind of writing is like a piece of music; you can’t blur the notes, you’ve got to be on the note and we have to be on the note all the time.
Have you worked with any of your fellow castmates before?
When Paul [Bradley, who plays Marvin] was a regular on Holby City I went in as a guest and did two episodes back to back. With Paul playing the doctor at the time he and I had quite a bit to do together. But that’s it, no – the others, we’ve never met before, much less worked together.
How is it working with them now?
Terrific. I know actors always wanna say that, like in any other work places. It isn’t always like that but with this company it is – it’s four other really nice people. It’s a joy to work with them.
You mentioned working with Joe Harmston before. What sets him apart as a director?
Without a doubt the bottom line, and it’s true of wherever you go in the world, he’s a good bloke. Joe is a really good bloke and you would wanna spend time in his company. On top of being a good bloke he’s very good at his job. He’s a very good director. He’s very clear about his intention, which is what the actor needs most of all.
And probably equally important, he can interpret that for you so the questions he’s asking you are never blurred. You’re very sure about the question that you’re being asked. And he’s so clever, because I’m passionate about this, about the use of energy.
You do work with some people and – this is through life, not just actors – and they think “Oh, if they work 24 hours a day we’ll get more out of them”. No, we’re not donkeys. Even donkeys fall over if you work them like that. Well, actors fall over if you work them like that. You can’t just push us until we fall over.
What you do is you manage our energy because like all human beings we have a finite amount of energy. You say “OK, that’s what we’re gonna do”. If Joe calls you at 12 you start at 12 and if says we’re gonna finish at four we will finish at four. That kind of precision alongside his directing precision is excellent.
What do you feel makes farce so appealing to theatregoers?
I think the draw of farce is that the characters are real but in an unreal situation. And because the characters are real then I can draw you into my world because you’re a real person, my character’s a real person but we’re in this insane world.
An example I quoted when we were discussing the play is John Cleese with a kipper inside his waistcoat with a dead body in the bed in Fawlty Towers acting as if that was absolutely normal.
After being on The Bill for 17 years, is it nice being able to mix things up?
Yes it is, although when I was on The Bill – and it’s relevant to the kind of actor I am – is that I was there for 17 years and in that 17 years I did four stage plays, I directed three plays, I did a variety of programmes on television, not acting but on television.
I’ve always been someone who doesn’t want to be stuck in just one groove. You add to that if it was the Desert Island Discs question “What is the last performance you would ever give?” for me it would on stage with a small company.
You’ve worked extensively on stage. What do you most enjoy about doing theatre?
It’s the human connection. There was a company called Shared Experience, which was well-known because it was a small-scale touring company, and that says it all – you the performer are sharing the experience.
I did a small play not so long ago at the Finborough, which is a very tiny place, and my character was an old Irish fella. He was gonna die at the end of the play and during the course of that play, with people sitting so close, I would know when they were gonna laugh at his antics and I would hear them cry when they knew he was gonna die. I mean, that’s priceless.
The lens, we love it. Technically you can come in so close but that thing of knowing that you’re doing something that’s directly affecting another human being…
Do you have any pre- or post-show rituals?
I have no superstitions and it kind of varies. It’s a bit like an athlete; you time yourself from the moment you come into the building so by the time you hit the stage you’re really on it. It’s like a 100-metres runner where there’s the warm-up, then there’s that last moment where they’re on the blocks and they might just do that thing of hitching their shorts or they might flex their shoulders and “Go!” It’s a bit like that for us, I think.
And when you’ve finished a performance?
That obviously depends on what you’ve been doing on stage. If you’ve been playing a dark play that can be quite difficult because you’re very into yourself and you might need to just be in your dressing room for ten minutes or so, just to give yourself a bit of time to clear your head.
If you’re on an up and it’s been a great night out you almost can’t get out of your costume quick enough to go and be with your mates or if you’ve got your family or friends in to see the show and rejoice in what you’ve been doing.
What’s the one thing you couldn’t be on tour without?
I don’t know that I have one thing that I can’t be without. I mean, there’s the obvious things like your wallet or your phone but I don’t think I carry anything that’s that personal to me, no.
“Octopus Soup” runs at Darlington Hippodrome from Tuesday, February 26th, 2019 to Saturday, March 2nd, 2019.
For more information or to book, call 01325 405405 or visit the Darlington Hippodrome website.
Source: Darlington Hippodrome