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Brief Encounter With … Gareth Hale

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Actor and comedian Gareth Hale is currently starring as Scrooge in Susie McKenna and Steve Edis' adaptation of A Christmas Carol at the Arts Theatre, which opens this week (25 November 2009, previews from 11 November).

Hale is best known for his work with comedy partner Norman Pace, with whom he formed double act Hale & Pace after they met at college. They rose to prominence in the 80s acting in TV series including The Entertainers, Pushing Up Daisies and The Young Ones, before they're own self-titled sketch show began its ten-year association with ITV in 1989.

More recently, Hale was a cast member of Channel 5 soap Family Affairs, and in 2008 he joined the cast of The Royal. On stage he has toured the UK as Lucky Eric in John Godber’s Bouncers and Alfred P Doolittle in Trevor Nunn’s production of My Fair Lady

What defines this production of A Christmas Carol?
It's got so many different elements - there’s a lot of comedy, but also many different styles of music and also puppets and shadow puppets. It retains a real veracity though, partly because a lot of the dialogue is lifted straight from the original Dickens. So it maintains that flavour and weightiness, but hopefully it’s a lot more accessible. Structurally, it's a play within a play, as it starts in an empty theatre with a disparate group of characters who are kind of cornered into telling the Christmas Carol story by one of the puppets.

Would you describe it as a panto?
I'd say it's more a musical play, though there are elements of audience participation in it, and there’s quite a lot of comedy. Obviously it's quite hard to 'funny-up' a character like the ghost of Christmas yet-to-come, who's a bit like the Grim Reaper stalking about! But then there's this whole musical celebration at the end after Scrooge has his revelation, so there's a lot of joy there too.

What's your take on Scrooge?
Well obviously some tenets about him aren’t really changeable. But when you read it and you put yourself in the story, you find that there’s different ways of expressing his coldness without having to look too much at what other people have done with the part. It's possible to make it your own, and there's a musical element to our show that certainly helps with that. And the financial crisis perhaps lends the story an added resonance, so it's interesting playing Scrooge at this particular time.

How's your singing voice?
Hopefully improving! No, it's not too bad really. I had my christening about three years ago in My Fair Lady, which was very fun to do. The rest of the cast have been fantastic; they give you as much time as you need and most of them have great voices themselves, which kind of drags you along.

Are you still trying to keep a balance of TV and stage work?
I like to move between the two ideally, although theatre is the most exciting because your homework is marked immediately. A live audience gives you instant feedback – whether you like it or not! It's thrilling, and live performance is a drug.

Do you think your style of comedy has become outdated?
It’s interesting because if you look at things like Little Britain or Catherine Tate, the words and characters have changed a bit, but they're continuing a tradition of sketch shows that's been going for years. The fundamentals are the same; people enjoy seeing an inflated version of familiar characters, and seeing their foibles. That’s what comedy is about, holding a microscope up to the things that people do that usually go unnoticed.

Are you planning more work with Norman?
Well we just recently got back from Australia, where we toured for about seven weeks. It’s an amazing place to go and it was great fun to go and work together again. We've done some amazing stuff together, like Jobs for the Boys, in which we had to learn a range of new skills in a short period of time. The point is we like to take on new challenges, and that's as true now as it ever was.

You hear about some comedy pairings with fractious off-screen relationships. Do you get on well personally as well as professionally?
Absolutely - we were mates before we worked together. We met at college, and it’s been a very long-standing relationship, coming up on 40 years which is rather frightening. We’ll always be friends - we live half a mile apart so we'd better be!

- Gareth Hale was speaking to Theo Bosanquet

A Christmas Carol, which co-stars Simon Lipkin, Rebecca Thornhill and Michael Matus, continues at the Arts Theatre until 10 January 2010.


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