Ahead of the run of What’s in a name? at NST Campus, The Edge managed to speak with Joe Thomas (The Inbetweeners, Fresh Meat) about his upcoming performance and for an insider scoop on his line of work.
Without giving too much away, what is your favourite part of the play?
Well my favourite part of the play actually is a big sort of revelation at the end; it’s kind of about the arguments of this family. It begins with one of the characters, my character, saying he wants to call his new son Adolf, and when I first read it, I kind of thought the play would be all about that, whether you can do that, the sort of moral culpability; I thought it was going to be very, very serious. It doesn’t go down that road at all and actually the play ends with this amazing revelation which I won’t give away, that has absolutely nothing to do with the whole Adolf thing at all, it’s completely separate and it’s a piece of information about the characters in the play and that is a really nice moment. It’s just very funny and it’s very diffident; it just completely changes direction, and it’s very nice, I think, for a comedy and it’s appropriate – it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Oddly, for a play that starts off being spoken about whether you can call a child Adolf, it really doesn’t have an axe to grind about that; that’s not what it’s about. I suppose what I’m really saying is that my favourite part is the end. But not just because I want it to be over. It’s just the nature of the end.
Can you yourself relate to any of the characters as it’s meant to be like a typical family setting that people can relate to?
I suppose in a way the character I play, and actually three characters that I could play; the one that I play is actually the one I relate to the least. He’s very confident and arrogant and brash, and I actually have to play him in a way that kind of makes sense to me. I can see his vulnerability a bit, and with brashness comes a sense of vulnerability. I recognise him, but I can’t relate to him.
I suppose the character I would most relate to is Lizzy; she just wants everybody to get on and have a nice evening. I mean that’s pretty much what I want; I just want everybody to like each other, and in the end they don’t. But I suppose it’s due to the setting; everyone’s guard is down. I think you get your inhibitions lowered twice at a dinner party. I think once by general setting, where you think you’re safe, you’re with your friends, nothing bad is going to happen, and second: the alcohol. And I think that often leads to people saying things they never thought they were going to end up saying, and I think I definitely recognise that in this play. I mean the characters are all really, really close, but they end up really insulting each other and I think they sort of end up passing the point of no return. I think what’s interesting about the play is that it begins with an argument that’s quite intellectual about whether you can call a child Adolf – will it ever be appropriate ever again, what if you spell it differently. I think that at a dinner party, people are up for a sort of ruck, in a civilised way; they are a bit like a fight club, you have turned up for a bit of ding dong sometimes.
What draws me in is this first argument, they have the option of getting out of it, but then, in various ways, it becomes very personal after that, and once it becomes personal, you kind of can’t get out of it; you have to finish what you’ve started. The energy of the party and the way it spirals is something I can recognise. I certainly recognise all of the characters, but in terms of relatability, I think everyone will relate to a different character. Generally, quite surprisingly because my character is, quite frankly, a bit of a dick, but people seem to relate to him just as heavily as everyone else.
There’s always one in the group though, isn’t there?
There is always one, but I feel like you shouldn’t want it to be you.
The British version of this play started in Birmingham and obviously had amazing success. Were you nervous when you started your tour? Did you get a good reception?
Yeah, we got a great reception, but I was really, really nervous. I haven’t done live stuff in years and I was incredibly nervous. It’s funny because you have to get used to the idea of opening yourself up to an audience. I think when you go on stage and you haven’t done it before, or even if you haven’t done it in a long time, you think the audience is this kind of threat, they’re this kind of enemy, but what you actually realise is that they’re your friend: all they want is for you to open yourself up to them and be comfortable. I think once you realise that it becomes much more about focus than it does about nerves; it becomes more about just concentrating and focusing, and it becomes a bit like doing sports; it’s not so much about your emotions, it’s more about concentrating.
It’s a really great play, but because it’s French, sort of unknown in England. It’s basically like having a well-known play that everyone knows is funny, like art, something that people knows works, but the point is nobody really knows of it because its just been in French, and, to be fair, lots of other languages, but never in English before now. So, it does have that benefit of being a bit like new writing but without the risk that it might be terrible. We know it works and it’s beautifully structured, I mean it’s sort of tight; it’s just about 90 minutes long and everything is seeded very well, it’s obviously been through endless edits, all the prompts in the writing have been completely ironed out. Once it starts, you realise it’s just going to work – like getting into a really nice car and driving, everything just works.
And yet I would say that I definitely was really nervous; I just haven’t been in theatre for such a long time. It’s weird because I think that everyone who does television should do theatre. Everything you do in television or film you do for the benefit of an audience who are never actually physically there.
Is that the main difference between live theatre and television work?
What I’ve realised is that there isn’t one special sort of acting for TV or film, there’s one sort of acting and it’s what you do in the theatre and it’s what you do when there’s another person. If there weren’t any other people in the world, then you can’t perform because there’d be no audience. There’s one thing you do, and if you do it in TV or film, then they film it and that’s it. It’s a bit like if you were a football player, you don’t play a different type of football just because it’s being televised, you just play football. And I think the original version of performing is live performing, and that’s the reason why anyone performed at all, because there was someone else there.
But that’s been the main sort of revelation. Basically, the audiences really like it and it’s really well-written and, to be fair, I think we’ve got a great cast as well. Everything is there, it’s a really great piece of work, it’s never really failed to deliver as it’s just so well put together. I’m not much nervous now, it’s just a sense of wanting it to be better and better, focused and concentrated.
So, you say it’s well-received by audiences, but do you ever get differences between where you’ve been so far, and where do you think Southampton will rate on this? Do you this it will be one of the best audiences?
I mean, yeah, I think Southampton will be a great audience and I hope some students come to see it; theatre audiences tend to be quite old and it’s really nice to have a mixture. Ideally, you want a mixed audience because you want just different sorts of people in every respect. The play just has something for everyone and I think that’s one of its real strengths actually; you’ve got these characters who are all very different. You’ve got some who are a bit more cerebral, some of them are sweet, others are more cynical. I am hoping that Southampton is going to be great. I think it’s really nice to have a student audience; they can be a bit more out there sometimes in their taste which is quite nice, a bit more drawn to stuff that is a bit more experimental and I think that’s really nice. We did it in Glasgow and there is some stuff about Glasgow in the script that isn’t entirely suitable, and that was my fear, but they didn’t seem to mind at all. I think you can tell with some jokes, you get more of a response with them. It’s not generalised, to be honest, and I think Southampton is going to be a great audience – I’m really optimistic about it.
Yeah, you’ve got the benefit of it being right by the bus interchange, and then obviously it being a campus theatre; hopefully you’ll get a good turnout from a student base.
I think students are often into comedy and it is a really funny play. It’s like a sitcom, or even, I always compare it to an intelligent sketch comedy; I think they way it’s put together, it’s quite wordy, but it has a really nice swag, it’s witty and fun and it’s good for people who like that kind of intelligent sketch comedy/sitcom writing. But yeah, I think it’ll be a great audience, well I hope so.
It always makes it better if an audience is more receptive!
Well it does, yeah. Interestingly, we do have quieter and louder ones; matinees tend to be quieter where you do still get a little bit out of it. What’s interesting is that you get a benefit by doing it to a quieter audience, you get a sense that they’re really really listening, as long as it doesn’t throw you. I think one of the biggest mistakes to make with a quiet audience is to make everything bigger and really try and chase the laughs; it can actually be an opportunity to observe it a bit more and a quiet audience isn’t necessarily a bad thing – they’re engaged and they’re listening – and that can make it just as enjoyable as a really raucous one. I mean you are always really insecure and hope an audience likes what you’re doing.
So, obviously, you’re known very well for playing Simon. For me, it feels like it would draw people to come and watch it because the students will have seen you in The Inbetweeners and be like, ‘Oh it’s that guy, I know him and know he’s funny,’ but do you often find that it’s difficult for an audience to see you in a different light, and do you yourself find it difficult to view yourself in a way that people aren’t always imagining?
I feel like, yeah, it can be difficult as people know you, sort of the same way as they know one of their friends. I think if you have a friend who starts acting slightly differently, you never start thinking, ‘Oh, they’re not my friend anymore,’ you’re still like, ‘it’s basically them,’ but things have shifted a little bit, but you can still basically connect with that person. I think you have to do something utterly different; you have to do something where people go, ‘I know for a fact that my friend would never do that.’ It makes me wonder if I have to play a serial killer or something like that so people are like, ‘Well I know he wouldn’t do that, so I now have to accept that that cannot be Simon.’ I just think that people are so sociable, they see these characters as they see their friends. Basically, if they were your friends they’d have to start acting out to quite an extreme extent for you to be like, ‘that’s just not them anymore, the person I knew doesn’t exist anymore’.
But I think that’s why it can be difficult for people to see you other than a character you’ve played, but I don’t really mind that; it’s just because how people are, how we recognise each other, and how we store an idea of how other people are like in our heads. I mean my character is a lot more different than the stuff I’ve done before; he’s a much more brass character. He’s not, well I suppose I try and find a bit more vulnerability towards the end, but he hasn’t got that vulnerable quality. He’s doesn’t particularly care what other people think of him, whereas normally I play characters who are the opposite of that. I think there’s a string of British male comedy acting which is entirely thinking you’ve offended someone or put your foot in your mouth and having to apologise and try to explain, but oh no, the explanations making it even worse, maybe I should just leave. But he’s not like that at all, which actually is really really refreshing and really nice, and I think it’s really nice to have a character who sort of delights in the profanity. I think that is a bit of comedy that can get lost sometimes, without characters who are trying to be provocative – that is part of a comedy character. I think there’s often just been such a desire to portray weak male characters so there ends up being lots and lots of performances that end up being somewhere on that spectrum. Whereas my character isn’t like that at all. He’s always trying to wind Peter up and kind of get a reaction and I mean it’s interesting as against the kind of thing that I normally show.
It’s very different from what I normally do, but I think often you have to do something that is so wildly different to completely break the connection to a previous character. But, I mean, I never really mind, especially in comedy, you kind of know the actor. Like, for example, Will Ferrell; you always know it’s him. Comedy acting is weird because it’s much less method than other forms of acting. Nobody ever truly believes that a comedic performance is absolutely immersed in a situation because, I think, if it was, it kind of wouldn’t be a comedic performance anymore. I think there is that intrinsic idea where the audience knows you’re trying to do an impression of the character, and no matter how into the impression you are, there’s still that bit where they know that what you’re doing. That’s what I think anyway, just that you need to completely remove what they think they already know about you, which would be quite challenging. And I also can’t do it.
Earlier you mentioned that it is a really good cast, do you find it more or less difficult working with such a small number as there are only the five of you?
Yeah, to be honest, it’s just tiredness; we get tired. Like I’m on stage for the entire play, and on days where we have two shows, it’s quite knackering. I’m not very good at sleeping during the day. Some of the other actors have naps and it’s frustrating because I can never do it; all I end up doing is lying down for 45 minutes while I don’t go to sleep, and then at the end of it, I’m always really angry because I’ve failed to have a nap. I suppose this once it was just terrible because I was just furious that I hadn’t had a nap and it was completely ineffective. But, yeah, you definitely get more tired with a small cast.
I think in terms of comedic energy, the whole thing is about the group. For me particularly, the play is my character at his sister’s house, his friend is there and his girlfriend is there, and that’s a sort of nice number to carry in your head. It’s nice to be able to think that the energy in this room is that I am predominately comfortable, I’m with a group of people that I know really well, I’m relaxed, I’m not really expecting anything bad to happen, I’m confident. I mean ideally if you’re in a group, then you should be thinking, ‘oh I know exactly what every member of this group is thinking about me and what I’m thinking about them at this moment,’ and if there’s four of them, that’s sort of relatively to the ball. I’m always trying to think like what’s he thinking at the moment about his sister, ‘ oh she’s always been really annoying, why doesn’t she shut up’; what he’s thinking about his friend, does he think that maybe he thinks he’s stupid; if he’s angry at his girlfriend because she’s embarrassing him in front of his friends. You can keep those kinds of balls in the air as it’s doable when there’s four people. Well, I suppose I kind of like that group because it’s quite easy to retain a sense of like what’s happening at that moment. I suppose in that, what you would call an ensemble comedy, that’s really important; it’s all about the reactions, where everyone is in term of each other.
I think the other thing I like about it is that it’s the kind of group that you get in a sketch comedy which I know quite a lot about because I did sketch comedy at the beginning of my career, when I was a student, or shortly after being a student. I was in various sort of sketch groups, they were with two or three actually but five is uncanny. It’s quite a nice number for comedy because once you get much bigger than that, it sort of stops being a group; it’s too big to be just one social group – it would split off into other bits. Yeah, I think it suits comedy, and I mean, they are just a really good cast as well, they’re all very different styles. That’s really nice because it means that I know they’re all really good. But, yeah, I like the number. In a way, it’s sort of the perfect number; it’s small enough to be a comedy sketch group, but there’s also quite a lot of them so I don’t have to do as much – I want it as big as possible so that the work is shared without becoming too big. A bit like a band. Maybe in a band with like six people in, it’s a bit big, isn’t it? Like, six? Really? It’s not really a band, is it? Maybe five. Five is like an acceptable size for a band, so I think that’s basically my rule of thumb.
Last question, can you sum up, What’s in a name?, in five words?
See, I did write this down but it’s not very impressive. I’m going to say ‘funny, clever, silly, family fight’. Very concise, I think that’s my most concise answer.
What’s In A Name? will be playing at NST Campus from the 19th – 23rd November.
You can catch the trailer below.