Not singing


For the first time since my Sixth Form days (way back in the 20th century!), I am acting in a play. True, in this century, I have played a whole host of characters in a pantomime, five operas and over two dozen musicals, but a play really does feel like a very different thing.  Some of my characters in these shows were non-singing, but I still added vocals to ensemble numbers, sometimes from the wings. I have always said that I approach a musical from the perspective of the words and the character, believing that if these are not in place, the music means nothing. But doing a play forces me to put my money where my mouth is. Can I act without music?

The play is The Year of the Hiker by John B. Keane. An Irish play first performed in 1963, it wasn’t one I’d ever heard of before. But I have grown to love it, as the characters have gradually revealed themselves during our rehearsal period. I am playing Joe Lacey, a young farmer who is forced to deal with some very complicated feelings. His father left 20 years ago, but returns in the play’s second scene. Joe has to work out how he feels about this and what to do when the reasons for his father’s return are revealed. He also has to negotiate a stormy relationship with his younger brother, and the conflicting demands of his other family members.

For the first act, Joe’s true feelings remain unseen. We see some flashes of anger, but not the reasons for them. We see that he doesn’t smile or laugh as much as his relatives, but we don’t find out why. This all comes out in a flood during the final scene, in one of the most emotional moments I have ever had to play. There is some resonance with characters I played in Footloose and When Midnight Strikes, dealing as they did with suppressed emotion in one case and serious daddy issues in the other. The balancing act of portraying a character who has all of this underneath the surface is hard – his eventual outburst needs to be surprising, yet not come out of nowhere.

When I do a musical, I can come offstage aching and sweaty. With the play, neither of these are true, yet I am still exhausted. Playing Joe is emotionally draining. And there are times during the play (particularly in the second act) when I don’t dare go back to the dressing room and sit down, despite having long periods offstage. To do that would break the spell – standing alone in the darkness backstage helps maintain my mood and focus. A musical requires a great deal of concentration too, but the need to stay in my character’s world here has a different quality to it, is more intense. I’m sure the professionals could cope much better, and snap into character in a moment, but I can’t, not for this. I need a bit of a run up!

Some audience members have told me that the show, and particularly one of my moments, has made them cry. I can’t remember anyone saying that since Footloose back in 2010. And there are times – not every time – when I really feel it, like a punch to the gut. I feel his hurt and anger, his bitterness, his incomprehension, his fortitude and later his lack of it. Some actors say they always experience this, that if they don’t feel the character’s emotions themselves, they can’t portray them. I don’t hold with that, but it is a powerful and somewhat frightening thing when it does happen to me.

It is often said of musicals that characters sing when words alone aren’t enough. Joe is a character who metaphorically can’t sing. He can hardly express himself in speech, and if an underscore were to start, I believe that there would be no melody, no harmony, no dance steps for him. His ability to sing and dance left him when his father walked out. He had to grow up overnight, and for Joe, part of that was leaving anything fun behind him. We get a hint that he had a social life, even a love life, once upon a time, but even that would have been a quiet, unemotional thing. As he puts it (speaking of filial affection) when he finally allows himself to sit down and talk to his father, “that kind of feeling isn’t in me.”

With two performances left, I am proud of what I have achieved here. I have proved to myself that I can act, not sing or perform (though I can do those things), but act. Take on a character and move an audience without the aid of music. And even when I’ve tied myself in knots with the script once or twice, I have been able to extricate myself and my fellow actors while remaining in character.

Will I do a play again? Absolutely. And hopefully it won’t be another 22 year gap between The Year of the Hiker and the next one, as there was between A Doll’s House and this. But I’m not going to give up musicals. Each is deeply challenging, each is deeply rewarding. The processes are much the same, but they feel so different and give differing qualities of satisfaction. I suspect I will remain a musicals man primarily, but now I know that I can be happy not singing.

The Year of the Hiker - flyer

  1. If there’s anyone out there who has been desperately waiting for another post from me (this does seem unlikely), I can only apologise for the almost five year gap!

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