I’ve been cast as a bitchy theatre critic – it’s a role I couldn’t turn down | Michael Billington

Starring in a Zoom production of the play Masks and Faces tested my acting skills – not to mention my singing

About six weeks ago a small bombshell landed in my inbox. Headed “A Job Offer”, it was an email from Neil McPherson, director of the Finborough theatre in London, asking if I would like to play the role of a theatre critic in a Zoom recording of a Victorian play, Masks and Faces, by Tom Taylor and Charles Reade. I hesitated for a while (don’t real actors need the work?) but eventually accepted, deciding it would be cowardly to chicken out. And I’m glad I did as the experience was an eye-opener.

One good reason for saying yes was the play itself: a hidden gem that I had seen at the Finborough in 2004. The play, which was first performed in 1852, is a paean to Peg Woffington, the Dublin-born actor who conquered the London stage in the 18th century. During the action we see her returning an infatuated admirer to his rustic wife and rescuing an impoverished dramatist from penury. But there is much wit in this Woffington: when the dramatist claims that his wife laughs at nothing, Peg replies: “Try her with one of your tragedies.” The play also contains an intriguing debate about illusion and reality with Peg concluding: “We oft confound the actor with the part” – as true now as when the play was written?

But what on earth could I bring to the role? For a start, there are two critics in the play – the waspish Mr Snarl and the oily Mr Soaper – and it was left to me and my colleague Fiona Mountford to decide who was to play which. Fiona generously ceded to me the role of Mr Snarl, who bitches about the players with whom he hobnobs and who is given to loftily sententious remarks about art. As a critic, I may be prone to the latter, but I hope not the former. Early in our two-day rehearsal period, I said to our director, Matthew Iliffe, that I was going to model my performance on that of George Sanders as Addison DeWitt in All About Eve. I don’t come within spitting distance of Sanders’s supercilious arrogance but that, at least, was my inspiration.

George Sanders, right, with Anne Baxter, Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe in All About Eve (1950).
George Sanders as Addison DeWitt, far right, with Anne Baxter, Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe in All About Eve (1950). Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/20th Century Fox

But the real discovery lay in what it is like to do a play via Zoom. The big advantage is that you can rehearse and record it from a room at home: in my case, a huge benefit since just before we started I suffered a swelling on my right foot that made movement painful. I was also left in admiration for the professional actors who knew instinctively how to use the camera. Our calm, composed director encouraged us to think of it as an audio play. But actors also naturally employ face and gesture and, just to pick out three, Amy McAllister brought out all Peg’s animated vivacity, Sophie Melville the wide-eyed astonishment of the country wife and Matthew Ashforde the desperate anxiety of the penurious dramatist.

The hardest part for me was that we were asked to join in a final song with each verse assigned to specific characters. Our composer, Lydia Barton Lovett, came up with a lovely tune but I had two problems. One is that I’m no singer: a music teacher once told me I had a voice like “a constipated bullfrog”. I’m also the least tech-savvy person, so the process of singing to a piano track, recording myself on a digital machine and then emailing the result to Lydia was a tough ask. That aside, it was a pleasure to work on a play this good with an ace cast. Would I do it again? Absolutely – unless it were a musical.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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