This week, we’re talking to Actor and Director John Myhill
Tell us a bit about what you do in theatre
I’m involved with a few groups in different capacities – my original group was Duston Players and for them I’m Treasurer as well as acting, writing and directing, though not at the same time. I also act and direct for Masque Theatre. White Cobra and have acted (just the once so far) for The Playhouse.
What first inspired you to get involved in theatre?
I was always the first to volunteer for nativity plays (a shepherd one year, the Angel Gabriel another), and in a higher year we had a great English teacher (and sometime Masque Theatre member, I believe) who did a drama session once a week, where we improvised an ongoing play. A friend of my mum who lived in our street was involved with Duston Players and heard about how much I loved doing school plays, at a time when the group was planning their very first pantomime, a production of Cinderella.
I was 13 when I played a non-speaking page boy, standing very seriously on stage while the two ugly sisters (played by the brilliant Roger Hill and Mike Meade) and loved being on stage while they improvised like mad and got huge laughs from the audience. I wanted more of that – but because of school and exams it wasn’t possible to do more the next time they put on a panto, so I went away to university and did some comedy and drama there (sharing a stage with Stewart Lee, Richard Herring, Armando Ianucci, Emma Kennedy and Al Murray to name drop just a few) and when I came back I ran into the same lady who had talent spotted me at 13, the fantastic Glenda Allcock (who taught me so much about direction), and she mentioned that Duston were holding auditions for another panto soon, 1991’s “Little Jack Horner”, I rejoined and have never left since!
What shows have you worked on?
As a writer I’ve written original pantomimes and adapted things for the stage, such as the Blackadder TV shows and recently my first Dickens adaptation (Oliver Twist), as well as editing Shakespeare and other classic plays for modern audiences. I’ve directed pantomimes, comedies like “Allo Allo” and a Restoration comedy (The Country Wife), the American classic “Our Town”, Shakespeare plays including “Antony & Cleopatra” for Masque’s summer show and “Twelfth Night” for a White Cobra open air tour, and the Jacobean tragedy “The Duchess of Malfi”.
I’ve acted with Duston for nearly 40 years, starting as a non-speaking page boy in “Cinderella” and I’ve played so many panto roles in that time I often forget some –comedy sidekick, principal boy, dame, and villain! I’ve been comedy leads in “Run for Your Wife” and “Doctor In The House”, Laurie in “Little Women”, and various murderers, police officers, tramps and waiters. I played Baldrick in the Elizabethan Blackadder, and Edmund himself in the Great War version, and played that comedy legend Frankie Howerd (as Lurcio) when we did “Up Pompeii”. I’ve even been one of the leads in a musical when we did “Salad Days”!
For Masque Theatre my first role was ten years ago as Toad in The Wind in the Willows, moving on to the Friar in “Romeo & Juliet”, The Player in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”, the title role in “The Hypochondriac”, the Beggar and Mrs Trapes in “The Beggar’s Operas”, Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing”, Salieri in “Amadeus”, Banquo in “Macbeth”, various characters in “It’s A Wonderful Life”, the doctor in “Woman in Mind”, Claudius in “Hamlet”, and Ed in “Defying Gravity”.
For White Cobra I played Fred in “Hi-De-Hi” and bit parts in my own production of “Twelfth Night”, and played Will Shakespeare himself in “Big Bard Dream” which I also wrote and directed. For The Playhouse I was Harry Secombe in “Ying Tong – A Walk With The Goons”.
Which productions have you most enjoyed being part of?
As an actor it was hands down “Amadeus”, both because the character of Salieri plays with the audience so much and that feeling of having them in your power was extraordinary, and also playing opposite Gary Amos who’s a professional actor (I’m strictly amateur) who was so full of energy and with whom I think I had a rare stage chemistry that meant we both felt secure taking risks with the play, knowing the other would be able to follow and respond.
As a director, it’s a tough one to choose but probably “Antony & Cleopatra” as I had so much fun with the gender blind casting and using all the experience from my English degree to inform what we did, actually felt like I knew what I was talking about for once! I love directing big cast plays as I’ve seen lasting friendships formed by them, and I always love when someone comes back again for another audition because that means they enjoyed working with me enough to want to do it again.
If you could direct any play, what would it be?
Well, there is a Shakespeare I may well be directing when things get back to normal but that’s hush-hush for now. I’d really like to do a stage version of Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, and at some point would love to adapt “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes, about a man with a very low IQ receiving a revolutionary treatment that makes him super-intelligent, and the fallout from that. And then there’s always a proper gothic horror.
Do you a memorable story about theatre you can share with us?
I think the the most memorable, challenging and funniest role was when I played Mrs Trapes in “The Beggar’s Opera”, who had to be played as a real woman, not a “dame” role, but being played by a man gave her a slightly sinister edge which the director liked. I loved being made up and dressed by Tamsyn Payne, and having to be as genuinely feminine as possible was a really tough acting workout. The funny part was that I had a scene with Fraser Haines and Richard Walker, who as directed were supposed to “salute” me which was interpreted as a light peck on the cheek. As rehearsals progressed the pair of them decided to make the scene a competition to see who could be the most outrageous with me and I think we ended up just short of snogging with tongues, although it may have crossed that line at least once.
What’s the best thing you’ve seen on stage?
On the amateur stage there’s been a few real highlights. Years ago I saw an all-girls school production of “Hobson’s Choice” (with Lucy Fletcher who I’ve worked with since) and it was so engaging. More recently (but sticking with the school theme) Gary Amos’s production of “The History Boys” at The Playhouse was perfect. Beverley Webster’s “Love’s Labours Lost” last summer has stayed with me as one of my favourite summer Shakespeares. On the professional stage I’d have to mention the 1996 revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” with Steve Balsamo as Jesus, I went with a group from Duston Players and we discovered we had seats on stage, behind the action and we became part of the play, being appealed to in the trial scene, for example. We were all in floods of tears when it ended. On the Royal and Derngate stages I’d have to include seeing Count Arthur Strong live (best on the Royal stage), the beautiful “Flying Lovers of Vitebsk” which was total theatre, “The Pope”, and most recently the last thing I saw which was “The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel”. Enchanting. I’d also have to squeeze in seeing Ian McKellen live on the same stage, just brilliant.
What do you love about your local theatre community?
I love that there doesn’t seem to be a vast divide between the professional and amateur scene – the Royal & Derngate in particular has been key in bringing amateurs in to experience what it’s like to be in more professional shows, and that’s helped a few people I know take their first steps into paid acting and tech roles. And I love that people from different groups are willing to mix it up and work with each other, it feels like a supportive rather than competitive environment, although we really do need to sort out the clash of production dates that we keep getting!
What have you been doing theatrically during lockdown?
I’ve been doing some online play readings with friends, getting to play roles I’d never get to do on stage any more (like Jack in “The Importance of Being Earnest”); going through the Duston Players’ archives to revive our “Flashback Friday” on Facebook, sharing old programmes and photos, some back to the 1940s, and transferring videos of our productions on line (where there’s no copyright issues); and working with some very funny people on planning a comedy evening that has been hysterical and in no way self-indulgent (ha!).
In these dark times for theatre, who would you like to encourage people to support with a donation if they’re able?
Of course I’d support Royal & Derngate – I was planning to see “The Strange Case of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel” a second time and never got the chance – so I donated the price of the ticket I would have bought. It’s what makes me proud to live in Northampton. That and our fantastic local breweries – do whatever you can to support Phipps NBC, Potbelly and Great Oakley breweries (and many others) which luckily you can do by buying their beers. I associate theatre and beer, so I’ve always got one to hand during the on line readings!