Brief Encounter With ... Ecstasy's Sinead Matthews
The production marks the first time that the director and filmmaker has returned to one of his works - a marked change from the director's actor-led improvised development process. Leigh suggested - during the Whatsonstage.com Outing to the show last week - that this may be the only one of his plays he ever revisits, and the harrowing depiction of loneliness amongst friends in a squalid 1979 Kilburn bed-sit is well worth seeing helmed by its creator.
The play's six-strong cast of Sinead Matthews, Sian Brooke, Daniel Coonan, Claire-Louise Cordwell, Allen Leech and Craig Parkinson transferred with the production from Hampstead and I spoke to Matthews (who has worked with Leigh on films Vera Drake and Happy-Go-Lucky) about the play and her role.
I play Dawn, a 30-year-old mother of three, who is married to Mick (played by Allen Leech) and is best friends with Jean (Sian Brooke). Having both grown up in Birmingham, Jean and Dawn escape their families and move down to London in 1968. We meet them 11 years later in the play.
What is obvious is that Jean and Dawn's lives have drifted in somewhat different directions, Dawn now has her own family and domestic life, and Jean is living in incredible loneliness and solitude and is keeping secrets from Dawn.
I would describe Dawn as a force of nature, she has a passion for life, she likes a drink, is feisty, a mother hen type woman, and is always encouraging Jean to get a man. Dawn is very much a product of that time, her views on other nationalities and cultures are from a place of naivety and fear.
Ecstasy deals with loneliness, poverty, family, parenthood, friendship as well as hopes and dreams. The second act of the play is one night with Jean, Dawn, Mick and Len getting together in Jean's bedsit to have party. It's a special night as it's their first reunion for a very long time.
Working with Mike Leigh on this particular project has been a completely unique experience. This is the first time he has directed one of his own plays from a script, and when we started rehearsals he made a point of saying that this was new to him as well. It's exciting in a way, as he was learning from us just as we were learning from him.
In the seven-week rehearsal process we spent two weeks creating our versions of these brilliantly written characters, researching their lives, going on trips to Birmingham to fill out their lives and creating a strong foundation to begin working on the play. The rest of the time was working on the piece. There was no real need to spend the time doing improvisations just for the sake of it, as there was a play there. That is the big difference with this experience to how Mike normally works.
It was incredible to discover was how well he still knew these characters after all these years, almost more than us! He knows who these people are, what makes them tick, he knows the world that these people live in, so we all felt in very safe hands, It has been a real privaledge to do this play with him.
Whether you do a play or a film with Mike you do exactly the same rehearsal process, this is the only play I have done with him but I know that it's the same as doing a film, as in there is no script at all, and the play is created with the actors, doing improvisations over many many weeks.
Playing at Hampstead theatre was an absolute joy from start to finish. We were incredibly lucky to be playing to full houses every night and it is a very beautiful space to perform in. You feel like the audience are right there with you, almost in the room, and we sometimes felt like they part of the play some nights, like another character, was a very special time.
Moving to the Duchess has been a bit of a change, but the good thing is we moved straight in, give or take two days, so people who couldn't get tickets at the Hampstead could come immediately. The fact that Ecstasy has even transferred to the West End is a great achievement as its not a obvious choice, and there is nothing else like it in the West End at the moment. The voices you hear on that stage, the lives you are witnessing in Ecstasy, are so authentic and specific, you certainly don't see characters like these on the London stage very often.
We get through rather a lot of drink on stage every night, the first problem is actually very basic - we all need the toilet all the time. All the times that the characters leave to go to the toilet, we as the actors get to go, which is fantastic. Many a time in rehearsals, in the second half, when Dawn is supposed to be sleeping on the bed towards the end of the play, things came to grinding halt as I just couldn't hold it in any longer. Then you would see all four of us leg it out to the loo.
These characters drink a lot! Dawn's husband Mick drinks a lot and so does Dawn its part of their culture. It's how they have good time, it's all they know really, and it has become part of their relationship. Through the course of the second act Dawn passes various stages in her drunkenness. She has her argumentative stage, sentimental stage and more.
People's personalities tend to change when they are drunk, and Dawn becomes even more sentimental, and argumentative with Mick. You also get to see how much they love each other and how much they rely on each other. The banter between them is just how communicate, but there is a deep love and passion there. It's rather handy in a way too, that our set is so small because having that tiny space to manoeuvre my way round, which helps with playing drunk. You do have to be very disciplined and thorough in making it look like you're drunk, so I would agree with the idea that it is a skill and it is definitely a challenge every night.
I also don't like to do exactly the same every night, in terms of Dawn's drunken falls or stumbles round the flat. It's hard for me to talk about what I actually do, because the truth of it is, I am always trying to do it better and am very critical of myself. Just like most actors I suspect.
Following its Hampstead Theatre run from 15 March 2011 (previews from 10 March) to 9 April Ecstasy opened at the Duchess Theatre on 12 April where it continues until 28 May.