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The Green Room: Which would you choose, comic or tragic acting roles?

The Seagull at Regent’s Park: panelist Peter admires Chekhov for straddling comedy and tragedy. Photo: Tristram Kenton The Seagull at Regent’s Park: panelist Peter admires Chekhov for straddling comedy and tragedy. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…​​​​​​​​​​

Dicky Benfield is in his 40s and has worked in the West End, at the National, the Globe and in theatres around the country, as well as appearing on TV

Abi Egerman is in her 20s and has appeared at the Old Vic, the National Theatre, and in regional rep

Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA-winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

Peter Quince is a 72-year-old actor working in theatre and television

Jenny Talbot, 39, has nearly 20 years of experience in West End and touring musical theatre with forays into TV, film and plays


JonAnd don’t do the ‘I’d like three more wishes!’ answer of ‘both’.

Dicky My comedy is tragic.

JonAnd is your tragedy comic?

Dicky Always. But in answer to the question – I choose comedy.

Peter False distinction. Is Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s line ‘I was adored once too’ comic or tragic?

JonDepends on how it’s played. But it’s not a false distinction to say that Mrs Alving is a tragic part and that Dogberry is a comic one.

Albert I think great comedy shows humanity more than tragedy does, and that the laugh of self-recognition is such a gorgeous thing to hear.

PeterChekhov’s brilliance is treading the tightrope between the two.

Dicky It’s hard to think of a comic part that doesn’t have at least some tragic elements connected to it.

Peter Comedy is harder because you know whether you’re succeeding. You can always kid yourself you’re being moving, but if you’re doing comedy and aren’t getting laughs you’ve failed.

Albert And in tragedy, if you aren’t getting some laughs you might be in danger of self-indulging…

Peter Easy to be self-indulgent in tragedy.

Albert …and if you are getting laughs, you’re probably off the mark.

Peter I love being made to laugh, but I need to be made to cry too.

Jenny I’ve mainly done comic and light-hearted roles throughout my career, and the few times I have done tragic roles they have made me feel totally miserable. I much prefer making people smile.

JonI’m not sure I take on moods to that extent. But I certainly love the feeling of walking home after making an audience laugh their heads off. It’s a kind of euphoria.

I find it terrifying how instant and obvious laughter is as a barometer of success in comedy

Abi Am I weird to say I prefer playing tragic parts? It can be so cathartic. And exactly as Peter said, I find it terrifying how instant and obvious laughter is as a barometer of success in comedy.

Albert Cathartic for you or the audience, Abi?

Abi Both, I guess. I like watching tragedy for the same reason I think.

Dicky A friend of mine said actors in a musical are the happiest of all, just by dint of singing every night.

JonI’m sure there’s some truth in that. I did a musical once where the juve leading lady and I used to bump into each other backstage after the first number and we’d always be beaming like ‘we get to do this show!’

Abi That sounds like a lovely one. However, if you are in a rubbish mood, having to go out and sing something frothy can be miserable.

Peter My singing is tragic.

JonI will be very pleased if the answer to the question ‘Do you prefer comedy or tragedy?’ turns out to be ‘musicals’.

Dicky That said, I’m not sure I’d want to do 10 years in Phantom.

Jenny There was a piece of research recently which was about how singing increases serotonin. As someone who does a lot of singing I know it definitely cheers me up on a bad day.

Albert I can well believe it. I do singing lessons, but just for my own pleasure. I’d hate to have to sing in public. But I do feel better after an hour of song.

JonAudience reaction is an interesting one. When a comedy is going well it’s lovely to ride that wave of increasing laughter, but there’s something amazing if the audience just goes bonkers at the end of a tragedy.

Albert Yes. The fact that the reaction has been held in.

Peter The best actors can go from making you laugh to making you cry in a twinkling.

Jenny There’s also the absolute crap of being on stage with someone who’s so desperate for laughs that all the truth and storytelling goes out of the window. That’s depressing to be alongside.

Albert But also someone who is milking their big speech for tears and taking hours to get through it, Jenny. That’s no fun either.

JonI think people reaching and pushing in tragic shows or at dramatic moments happens just as much, to be honest. As a student I was in a production of La Cage aux Folles. Our Albin liked to… let’s say ‘milk it’. In one performance, he left the pause between “I am what I am” and “I am my own special creation” for so long, he forgot what key he was in, and when the band came back in he’d changed.

Abi Phenomenal.

Jenny Oh god yes… even more painful!

Dicky Actoplasm – just excruciating.

Jenny Actoplasm! Brilliant!

Dicky It’s from a brilliant book I, an Actor by Nicholas Craig, Christopher Douglas and Nigel Planer. My favourite line in it – “Rose Bruford and E15 will never be considered in the top division of drama schools, as they are too far from the zoo.”

JonThat book should be required reading at every drama school.

Jenny I haven’t read it for years… I need to revisit it!

The Green Room: If you could perform in only one writer’s work, whose would it be?

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