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Brief Encounter With ... The Railway Children’s Marcus Brigstocke

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Damian Cruden’s production of E Nesbit’s classic 1906 novel The Railway Children opened last Tuesday (28 June, previews from 18 June) for another summer at the Waterloo Station Theatre. This year comedian and broadcaster Marcus Brigstocke joins the cast as Station Master Perks.

The Railway Children follows three young children as they investigate the mysterious disappearance of their father. The Whatsonstage.com Award-winning production has been hailed for its epic, nostalgic set featuring a full-size period steam train – the Stirling Single – and its transformation of the former Eurostar terminal into a 1000-seat auditorium.

Brigstocke was recently seen as King Arthur in the national tour of Spamalot and The School for Scandal at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe in addition to his multiple stand-up, sit-com, radio and panel show appearances. His new book God Collar, based on his stand-up show of the same name, was recently released by Bantam Press.

You’re most well-known for your stand-up and sitcoms. How does doing a play differ?

If you’re used to writing your own scripts, which I am, you kind of already know it by the time rehearsals start. Doing Spamalot last year was a little bit of a shock. I got a week into rehearsals and thought, “Why aren’t these lines going into my head? I usually know everything by now!” It’s a very different experience saying somebody else’s lines, but it just takes a little more discipline. And doing Spamalot was the best seven months of my working life. It was amazing, absolutely brilliant. It’s a real treat for a comedian to get to play around with Monty Python stuff, and I thought the cast of that particular tour was fantastic. They taught me to sing and dance, and it was great as a stand-up just to be on the stage with other people. Less lonely. I loved it.

So The Railway Children is a rare “straight” part for you?

Yes, in general it’s a straight part. There are a few times when I actually find the script quite funny, but mostly it’s a dramatic part. I was in A School for Scandal a few years back, and that was the first straight bit of acting I had done since my university days. It was doing that part that reminded me how much I loved doing that kind of acting, and that was the intention when I began; I began writing comedy because it meant that I could work and perform all of the time. Haven’t been out of work since 1996: every time it seems to be slowing down I just write a new show! But being handed a really brilliant piece of writing by someone else and being directed is a real treat. It takes some of the pressure off, working with other people.

Do you think most of the audience will be surprised at your performance in such a role?

Well, I have to be careful what I say here, but I sort of don’t think or care about what the audience is thinking. I love doing what I do, going on the radio or television and getting angry about things that I genuinely care about, but I also love working with a really good script and being on stage. Of course I hope that people will understand, but it’s okay if they don’t. Maybe this all sounds like false modesty mashed in with arrogance, but it’s not about me. The Railway Children is a fantastic story, and this production in particular blew me away when I saw it at Christmas.

The story behind the former Eurostar terminal almost sounds like something you would rant about on the radio, as well.

Exactly! I can’t believe we spent X million quid building the thing while we built the real thing. Why not just build the real thing to start with? But now we’re doing theatre there, so it’s our gain.

Are you a and your family big fans of The Railway Children film?

I watched it again recently. There’s a wonderful scene at the end of the film where the entire cast is standing on the railway line waving and saying “Thanks for coming! Hope you enjoyed the film!” And then Jenny Agutter turns over this chalkboard that says "THE END" on it and just beams right into the camera. That’s the kind of sensibility we’ve got with this production: telling the story straight to the audience. That’s what really grabbed me when I saw it. My kids are thrilled that I’m in the play, too.

Should we expect to see you in more theatre roles after The Railway Children?

You’d have to ask those clever and wonderful people involved in casting, but if I have anything to do with it then yes, definitely. I’ve sort of promised my agent that I won’t fill up my entire diary with the same kind of stuff that I’ve filled it up with for the last few years. I certainly hope more good theatre roles present themselves and I want to be available to do them. Like I said, the reason I started writing comedy in the first place was because I really enjoyed performing and I wanted to be able to do that for work. I’ve since developed a love for stand-up; it’s a fantastic way to communicate with people. But I hope that doing Spamalot and The Railway Children will kind of let casting directors know that I’m not just fooling around when I sign up for an audition. As a comic there are times when people wonder if you really mean it when you say you’re serious about a role, or if your agent forced you to be there or something.

Any roles in particular that you’ve had your eye on?

I really loved singing in Spamalot, having been so frightened of it before. They really helped me through that and I’d definitely look to do another musical, but it would have to be something that can be carried along by a good character rather than just the singing standing on its own. Frankenfurter in Rocky Horror is a great role. I fear I’m too old, too hairy and too flabby for that part, but it doesn’t stop a chap from dreaming. Or dressing up as a transvestite. A lot of my purist comedy friends have a go at me, but the roles I’ve taken on so far have really worked out. It’s a lot of hard work. The Railway Children coincides with the release of my new book God Collar, and it’s nice being finished with that incredibly solitary process, soul-searching and tearing your hair out trying to make something honest and funny. To be able to go from that into The Railway Children was really fantastic.

You’ve referred to stand-up as a way to communicate with large groups of people and also as a very solitary process. Do you find that an interesting contradiction?

For a stand-up show, I conceive of the idea, I write it, I plan it out, I tell them where and how I want the lights, the intro music, etc. When the audience likes it, you know immediately – by their laughter. You know while you’re doing it whether it’s good or not. I really like that simple trade-off. But then after talking to a thousand people for two hours you go to your dressing room and pack away your things and go to your hotel and it’s table for one for the rest of the day. And then you go and receive the love of another thousand people the next night. It’s very weird, but very addictive and enjoyable. I’ve got a brand new show at the beginning of next year that I’m really looking forward to.

You brought your last show to the Vaudeville Theatre. How did you find London audiences?

I’ve have been a bit wary having done stand-up in London before. The club scene is the envy of the world, and so it should be, but for some reason I was a bit wary. The run at the Vaudeville was amazing though. The audiences who showed up were really engaged and switched on. It’s sort of understood that London audiences have sort of been everywhere and seen everything, so it might take four-fifths of the show to warm them up before they show you they like it. Thankfully that wasn’t my experience. I liked them and they seemed to like me.

- Andrew Girvan & Matt Hannigan


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