Writer and performer Sean Foley is best known as one half (with Hamish McColl) of the long-running comedy/theatre duo The Right Size, whose shows include The Play What I Wrote, Ducktastic!, Bewilderness, Stop Calling Me Vernon, Do You Come Here Often?, Mr Puntila and His Man Matti, Hold Me Down, Moose and Flight to Finland.
The Right Size has won Laurence Olivier Awards for Best Comedy/Entertainment for Do You Come Here Often?, The Play What I Wrote and Ducktastic!, while Foley received a further Olivier nomination as Best Actor for The Play What I Wrote. The Play What I Wrote also won the Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Awards for Best Ensemble Performance. Flight to Finland won the Prato D’Or Award for Best Performance at the International Comedy Festival in Lille.
On film, Foley has appeared in Morality Play, Jimmy Spud and Act Without Words, and his television credits include Spine Chillers, Wild West, Happiness, People Like Us, The Fitz and Brass Eye. He has been heard on the radio in The Remains of Foley and McColl, and Goldfish Bowl.
Foley is now making his directorial debut, staging Pinter's People - a series of 13 Pinter sketches and monologues dating from 1958 up to 2002 and never before performed together – at the West End’s Theatre Royal Haymarket. The sketches star fellow comic actors Bill Bailey, Sally Phillips, Geraldine McNulty and Kevin Eldon, and include Night (1969), The New World Order (1991) and the world premiere of Apart from That.
Prior to its London season, Pinter's People, earlier referred to simply as The Harold Pinter Sketches, had an out-of-town tryout for two nights in December at the 480-seat Landmark Theatre in Ilfracombe, north Devon, near Bill Bailey’s home in the village of Combe Martin. Pinter himself attended rehearsals before giving his blessing, and suggesting the new title.
Date & place of birth
Born 21 November 1964 in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire.
I trained with a guy called Philippe Gaulier in Paris, but I’ll be honest, I was only there for six weeks. I learned mostly by creating and performing my own shows.
Lives now in
London. I live in Stoke Newington and I’ve been around here for over a decade, with my family.
What made you want to become involved in theatre?
I think what happened to me was that I went along to youth theatre and did some workshops run by these guys - who were only a few years older than me actually – who had just come back from a strange theatre school in Paris. They turned out to be Complicite, before anyone had even heard of them. They really inspired me, and so that’s kind of what got me into it.
First big break
I don’t know. If I’ve had it yet, I don’t know what it was. I’m really looking forward to it when it comes.
Working as part of The Right Size with Stop Calling Me Vernon. And the opening night of The Play What I Wrote and working with all the people we worked with on that show was a definite highlight. And I have to say, more recently, meeting and working with Harold Pinter. Awards are great, too, I suppose the best thing about them is they mean other people working in your business think you’ve done something quite good and that’s nice. But apart from that I don’t really need them that much.
I’ve loved working on this, Pinter's People, because it’s my directorial debut and we’re going into the Theatre Royal Haymarket with four extremely fine actor/comedians and with Britain’s greatest dramatist, so that’s one of the best thing’s I’ve ever done… in terms of enjoyment. Whether it will be the greatest thing I’ve actually ever done remains to be seen!
Aside from Pinter, which other playwrights do you particularly admire?
Samuel Beckett is another of my absolute favourites. What does everyone else say? Are you supposed to say Shakespeare?! I’m going to stick with Pinter and Beckett. I think they are similar in that quite often what they wrote was extremely funny, but they’re not often produced that way. And that’s sort of a sad really because both have an undeserved reputation for being a bit weighty, when in fact they are very darkly funny.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
Frost/Nixon. I thought it was great acting and a very contemporary piece of theatre.
What would you advise would the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Take out massive advertising?! That may be a question that is completely beyond me, to be honest. Although I think the single most important thing the government could do is help make tickets cheaper so that more people can afford to go and see shows.
One of my favourites is The Collected Journalism of George Orwell. Even though that sounds really egghead, it’s a great read. That, along with anything by PG Wodehouse, is my favourite.
Favourite holiday destinations
Portugal. I love Lisbon, I think it’s a fantastic city. I was there at New Year. I have some friends there, so that works well as I can go and visit them when I go out there.
Favourite after-show haunts
I like to go to a very, very famous actress’ house… but who she is will remain a secret.
How did Pinter's People come about? Why did you want to direct it?
Bill Bailey had wanted to do these sketches - he says for many years but maybe he’s lying and has actually wanted to do them for the last couple of weeks – but he wanted to do these sketches which are really very funny. Most of them were written early in Pinter’s career and were written for variety evenings and revues in the late 1950s. They are very rarely performed yet extremely funny. I got involved because Bill Bailey kidnapped me and took me to a lock-up garage just outside London and made me sign a contract. That’s a lie. He got in contact with the producer of our show, Mick Perrin, who got me on board because we just met up and completely agreed that Pinter is fantastic and worth making a show about. Pinter’s one of my heroes, I’ve always loved his stuff. And when someone offers you the chance to direct Bill Bailey in Harold Pinter’s sketches, what are you going to say? I jumped at it. Then it was a case of putting together the evening in a way that didn’t feel like it was a case of do a sketch, walk off, and then do a sketch, walk off, and so on. My job is to make the evening its own show.
How did you choose the sketches to include? Do you have a favourite?
We actually didn’t choose because Pinter's People includes all the sketches he ever wrote. He even gave us one that has never been performed in public before, Apart from That, which has its premiere in our production. Which one is my favourite? Absolutely, genuinely, every day in rehearsals we might do three or four of them, and every time I work on them the one I’m working on is my favourite. And then we move to the next one and I think, no actually this is my favourite. Quite apart from being very funny, the show provides - as you would expect with Pinter - some fantastic characters and some brilliant situations that are played out. Always underneath it all is this Pinter-esqe theme of how are these people communicating.
How involved was Pinter in the production?
Since he came to one of our rehearsals very early on in the process, he has become incredibly supportive, even up to the point of giving us this piece that’s never been performed in public before. He has kept in contact via telephone calls throughout the rehearsals.
Why do you admire Pinter’s work so much?
He’s just a unique writer in that he combines comedy with menace and terror and feelings of loneliness. I think it’s because you can’t put your finger on what his writing is that he has become so famous. He has even become his own adjective, as people say things are Pinter-esque when they combine comedy with menace. Some of his early sketches that were written for variety shows could almost have been early Monty Python, they are so surreal and bizarrely humorous.
Where do you think the line, if any, is between comedy & theatre?
I myself, trying to make extremely funny comedy shows in the West End, think comedy in Theatreland as it were never gets the critical respect really that perhaps it’s due because for some reason people think it is somehow less worthwhile than serious drama. Comedy is drama, with laughs. I don’t think you can make really good comedy unless you have believable characters and well-developed situations. Working with a bunch of comedians and Britain’s greatest living dramatist, I couldn’t be better placed to see how the two go together.
What’s the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that’s happened during rehearsals for Pinter's People?
One of the most terrifying things was when Harold Pinter came along after four days and demanded to see what we’d done. Thankfully for us, we showed him what we had been doing and he called us all together into a room - like going up to see the headmaster – and he said “I think what you’re doing is absolutely…” and there was a Pinter-esque pause, and he said “riveting and bold.” I was so thrilled I considered retiring on the spot! So I think if we can make Pinter riveted and thrilled then I think we’ll have done a good job.
What are your future plans?
I do have some plans, which may or may not involve the Right Size. But I can’t reveal them.
- Sean Foley was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
Pinter's People runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket from 30 January to 27 February 2007.