One of the most sought-after comedy directors for the stage, Sean Foley is bringing an Ealing comedy to the West End before taking over as artistic director of the Birmingham Rep. He tells Tim Bano about his mission to reclaim the word ‘popular’, trying – and failing – to train 40 ducks for a show and nearly killing Roger Moore
Over the past decade, Sean Foley has become the country’s most in-demand comedy director. His credits include major successes – The Play What I Wrote, The Miser, The Ladykillers and Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense – though it hasn’t all been plain sailing; he also suffered a catastrophic flop with X Factor musical I Can’t Sing!.
“Although I count myself a clown,” he jokes, “I don’t want to make a fool of myself.” He’s mostly avoided doing so, during a career of acting, writing and directing in which he has received numerous Olivier nominations. But maybe it hasn’t been entirely avoidable. After all, it’s a career that has also seen him almost kill Roger Moore and fail to train 40 ducks to perform for the stage.
We meet in a cafe in the West End, on the alleyway that hides the stage doors of the Wyndham’s and the Noel Coward theatres. It’s a spot that’s familiar to Foley. Not only has he had plays on both stages, including The Play What I Wrote – his biggest success – but his latest production is about to open at Wyndham’s too: an adaptation of Ealing comedy The Man in the White Suit.
And in a surprising move, after an extensive freelance career in commercial theatre, he has just started a new job as artistic director of Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
He knows Britain’s second city well. His parents met there, his mum a Brummie and his dad an Irish immigrant. His dad’s career as a salesman took them to Cleethorpes in Lincolnshire as well as Kent and Slough. But theatre didn’t feature in his childhood at all, save the odd panto.
It was when he started at Oxford University that he developed an itch to get involved with drama. The university groups seemed exclusive and cliquey, but he found a company working out of the Pegasus Theatre on the edge of the city, called Oxford Youth Theatre. “There were these guys who had been to this weird theatre school in Paris called Jacques Lecoq. And to get free rehearsal rooms at Pegasus Theatre they offered workshops. And this bunch of idiots were called Théâtre de Complicité. I did these workshops and immediately thought: ‘This is it, this is for me.’ ”
Foley couldn’t afford to do two years at Lecoq, so Complicité recommended its clown teacher Philippe Gaulier. “I went off to Paris and had enough money to stay for six weeks, during which time I met Hamish McColl, romantically enough. We came back and started our own company and started making stupid shows.”
The company was called the Right Size and it took off quickly, propelled by Foley and McColl’s fantastic execution of absurd ideas. Stop Calling Me Vernon in 1994 was about a past-it vaudeville duo who refused to leave the stage – three years later they won an Olivier for Do You Come Here Often?, about two people who had been locked in a bathroom for 25 years.
“It was a weird slog, but all of it happy. You’re young and you’re doing what you want to. It was a combination of improvising, devising and writing. We made the shows, put them in the back of a van and went and did them, becoming relatively more successful for about 10 years until we ended up in that theatre there,” – he points to the Wyndham’s – “doing a big hit show.” That was The Play What I Wrote, and it’s a play that Foley and McColl were reluctant to ‘wrote’ at all. When producer David Pugh approached them with the idea of a Morecambe and Wise tribute, they turned it down.
They eventually agreed when Pugh gave them £500 to mess around in a church hall one weekend, and they hit upon the idea of not being Morecambe and Wise, but being themselves. “The idea was we would never say we were Morecambe and Wise – we were a terrible double act trying to be as good as Morecambe and Wise.”
It’s a framing device that has now become familiar: hapless performers poorly executing a show. Foley reprised it for his adaptation of Ben Hur with Patrick Barlow in 2012, and indeed Barlow was doing similarly with his National Theatre of Brent conceit. Along came Mischief Theatre, too, and its Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society.“You can strike this from the record, but Mischief Theatre owe me a lot of money,” Foley deadpans.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Barman at the HenekeyInn in Windsor.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Creating and performing in a show based on Chinese picture-story cartoons. We did it for a schools’ audience. It was chaos.
What is your next job?
Artistic director, Birmingham Repertory Theatre; directing Upstart Crow at the Gielgud as a freelance.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Things may be desperate, but they’re not serious.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
What’s your best advice for auditions?
You’re there because they genuinely want to see you. Believe me, the director is desperate to find the right person. Always go in believing that it’s you. Sometimes, it is.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
I’d be taking the advice above and going to auditions.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
As well as starring Toby Jones, every show of The Play What I Wrote featured a celebrity guest, including Ralph Fiennes, Ewan McGregor, Cilla Black, Bob Geldof, Jerry Hall, Kylie Minogue and Sting. Even the show’s director, Kenneth Branagh, took to the stage – and provided one of Foley and McColl’s favourite moments when he forgot his first line: “I am Ken Branagh.”
That’s also how they ended up almost killing Roger Moore. Slipping into Moore’s unmistakeable tones, Foley tells how the actor came to them and said: “ ‘I wonder, boys, could I come to Broadway with you and do a couple of shows? I want to break my Broadway record. The last time I was on Broadway was in 1953 in a show that literally closed after one night.’ So he wanted to come back and do two shows.” The length of Moore’s 1953 Broadway run is absolutely true, by the way. A Pin to See the Peepshow opened – and closed – on September 17, 1953.
Roger Moore insisted on finishing the show. The minute it ended, a huge medical team whisked him away and Hamish and I just burst into tears
Moore ended up doing several more shows of The Play What I Wrote, and one night they got to a point where Foley, McColl and Moore all did a dance. “There was a round of applause. We were all standing there, the three of us. And he literally did a timber fall straight backwards, bang on to the floor.” Foley hits the table with his palm. “Hamish and I went over to him. His eyes were open, completely still, looking up at the ceiling. I thought: ‘We’ve killed Roger Moore.’ ” The curtain came down, but the show was such an absurd comedy that it prompted a huge laugh from the audience. Foley went to the front of the stage and said: “Mr Moore is indisposed.” Another big laugh.
Foley was about to cancel the show when Moore came round. “He sat up and he said: ‘Why is the curtain in?’ ” He insisted on finishing the show. The minute it ended, a huge medical team that had amassed backstage whisked Moore off the back. “And both Hamish and I just burst into tears.”
The Right Size followed up its smash hit with Ducktastic, in which Foley and McColl played a spoof Siegfried and Roy duo who, instead of having white tigers at their beck and call, had a duck. A few days before press night there was a news story that Daphne, their prize Indian Runner duck, had been stolen from the theatre. Was it true? “Well, the thing is,” he says, “there’s an even better story.”
When they had the idea, they contacted an animal handler called Dave, who did animal work on the Harry Potter films. “We said: ‘Can a duck be trained?’ Dave would just sit there, saying” – Foley puts on a monotone American drawl – “ ‘Yes, a duck can be trained.’ And then we’d ask: ‘Oh great, can a duck be trained to pick a tissue out of a box?’ ‘Yes, a duck can be trained to do that.’ ‘Oh, marvellous Dave, can a duck be trained to come on stage and peck at your foot?’ Dave would say: ‘Yes, a duck can be trained to do that.’ We went through this list of about 20 things we wanted this duck to do, and said: ‘Great, find us this duck.’ And he went: ‘Oh no. A single duck can be trained to do one thing.’ ”
Foley and McColl realised they would need at least 20 ducks for the show. Then Dave threw another spanner into the works. “‘We’ll get these ducks,’ he said, ‘but they’ve got to be trained from birth. When they come out of the egg, they’ve got to see you. You’ve got to be their mother.’ And so literally for the three months before the rehearsal, we were up at a farm being the mother to 20 ducks and having to train them ourselves under the tutelage of Dave.
I’ve come to think there is a comedy gene. Put it this way: there are some brilliant actors who can’t do comedy. And there are some brilliant actors who can do comedy and the difference is like night and day. It’s the comic instincts, the imp on your shoulder, the playfulness, the ability to look foolish in front of an audience. It’s the gift of the gods. But it’s not given to everyone.
“But here’s the kicker. We got to that stage and someone said: ‘Well, what if a duck is sick and can’t go on? We’ve got to have an understudy.’ And so, I kid you not, we ended up with 40 ducks backstage at the Noel Coward. And by the way, they had number one dressing room, they got paid far more than we did, and they never did a damn thing we asked them to.”
The costs involved in wrangling 40 ducks sunk the show, but it’s one of Foley’s proudest achievements. And, after all that, was Daphne the duck actually stolen? Well, yes, but she was just “number 17 understudy duck”, Foley says, “and she was tracked down somewhere. She was trying to join the Chinese circus.”
Foley says the episode is the epitome of “a career of utter ridiculousness. But the high seriousness with which Hamish and I took that ridiculousness was the key to the castle.”
The Right Size came to an end. A “long and sustained attempt” to get on TV failed, and the two of them drifted apart. McColl now has a successful career as a screenwriter, including the two Paddington films, while Foley became a freelance director and writer.
There were stand-up shows, including Armstrong and Miller’s live tour, as well as a play by Joan Rivers in 2008, but his first big success as a director was an adaptation of The Ladykillers in 2012. “The Ladykillers was a big hit, so somebody was bound to come out of the woodwork and say: ‘Hey, do another Ealing comedy’.” Now he’s about to open The Man in the White Suit, starring Stephen Mangan, and this time he’s adapted it himself.
“It takes quite a long time to find the pathway, the entry point. What am I going to do with it theatrically? It would be totally inert on the stage if you just did the film. But the beguiling thing about those Ealing comedies is the storytelling,” Foley says. “They’re actually quite theatrical films. The style of comedy is a mixture of slapstick and character comedy. The particular thing I loved about this story was that it was an amazing comic fable and so can exist on a theatrical level.” In adapting it, Foley has majored on its 1950s setting, adding a live skiffle band.
He’s full of praise for Mangan, with whom he worked on Perfect Nonsense in 2013. “He’s fantastic. Somebody I would always want to work with, every few years hopefully, because it’s such an enjoyable process. We get each other’s sense of humour. I would definitely call him a comic actor, but take away the word ‘comic’ and he’s also just a great actor.”
Interestingly, Foley’s also moving into a building as artistic director of Birmingham Rep. How did that happen? “Like everybody in this business, to some extent you become typecast – not that I’m complaining: I love doing comedy and I will to the day I die – but I felt it would be great for me to have the opportunity to do different types of shows. Which is a very selfish answer, I guess.”
From early next year he’ll be fully in the building. It’s a blank slate. His predecessor Roxana Silbert hasn’t left much hanging over from her tenure. “It’s like the bloody Mary Celeste,” he jokes. “Roxana did an amazing job. The handover lasted about three minutes. She went: ‘There’s your office, off you go.’ ”
Foley’s mission at the Rep is to reclaim the word ‘popular’, “which for all sorts of very good reasons has a bad rap at the moment.” He continues: “But if you’re saying: ‘I want the shows put on in Birmingham to be enjoyable for all its communities, I want it to be embraced by a much wider general population than most theatre’ – which is essentially seen as sort of a middle-class sport – then that to me is popular.”
That means representing the diversity of the city. “It is a city that is 48% non-white British. And the multiplicity of voices and the stories that you want to tell are going to fill your theatres. In the end it’s a virtuous circle.”
Foley has made a name working with names – Rob Brydon, Peter Capaldi, Branagh. The West End stage is one thing, but how will he get them to do a run in Birmingham? He uses The Man in the White Suit as an example: it had an out-of-town tryout in Bath. “It was wonderful. But if I’d been appointed at Birmingham six months before, we would’ve been playing this show at Birmingham Rep. So that is a model that works. Then there’s also the Chichester model: come and do a great play in wonderful surroundings and it’s a short run, four or five weeks. So that’s another model that we will definitely have.”
And as co-producing becomes financially necessary, the sea change in artistic directors across the country means new connections are being made between theatres. The old lines are being redrawn. One of the first things Foley did was call Lynette Linton at the Bush, and now they’re co-producing a new play by Temi Wilkey called The High Table.
Foley knows that he’s a different beast from most other artistic directors in the country. “Weirdly, as a director, I’ve almost exclusively worked in the commercial theatre and most UK directors come up through subsidised theatre. The sort of platonic ideal of most UK directors is, I don’t know, a hit upstairs at the Royal Court. That’s fantastic. The platonic ideal for me is a hit at the Palladium – which, by the way, I didn’t have.”
• Choose the right actors: They come in all shapes, sizes and abilities. But what you really need is openness and a playful quality. Did I mention they should be funny too?
• Play the situation: Find the jokes and gags; play it for all it’s worth. Comedy is already a heightened level of drama, so don’t be afraid of pushing beyond what people like to call ‘reality’. Because, in reality, people do the most extraordinary things when pushed to it.
• Quality control: Don’t kid yourself it’s funny if it isn’t. The audience will tell you – they laugh or they don’t. If they don’t – cut it. Also, there’s a rule to never allow a gag to stay unless it advances the plot, tells us something about character, or clarifies the situation. The only time to ignore this rule is if it’s a very, very, very good gag.
• Then: Study all forms of comedy, eat a lot of bananas, work hard and cross your fingers…
He’s referring to X Factor musical I Can’t Sing!. Written by Harry Hill, it opened at the Palladium in March 2014. And closed six weeks later. Earlier that year, both Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Stephen Ward and Tim Rice’s From Here to Eternity had closed after disappointing runs. At the time, when asked on BBC Radio 4 whether it was worrying to be opening a new musical in that climate, Foley said cockily: “Well it would be if I was paying for it.”
Now, however, he looks back on the experience with sadness. “I remember hearing Gene Wilder on Desert Island Discs. Sue Lawley asked him: ‘What advice would you give to someone coming into your business?’ And he said: ‘Get used to disappointment.’ It’s another one of those shows, the same with Ducktastic, which was a great disappointment. Some critics didn’t like it, but overall it was the best reviewed, big new musical of that season by a country mile. I know it was a good show. I know it was a fantastically entertaining show. But we couldn’t sell a ticket.”
I Can’t Sing! was a rare blip on Foley’s CV. The rest has been garlanded absurdity – he reckons he’s the only artistic director with Olivier nominations for best actor, writer and director. Even though he thinks “comedy isn’t taken seriously” in the UK, he loves the challenge that the art form gives him.
In rehearsals the other day, an actor reminded him of a saying. “With tragedy you can fool the town, but comedy will find you out.” Well, Foley’s fooling has served him well so far.
Born: 1964, Cleethorpes
Training: Oxford University; École Philippe Gaulier et Monika Pagneaux, Paris; Pierre Byland Clown Masterclass
• Do You Come Here Often?, Edinburgh Fringe (1997)
• The Play What I Wrote, Wyndham’s Theatre, London (2001)
• The Ladykillers, Gielgud Theatre, London (2012)
• The Painkiller, Garrick Theatre, London (2016)
• The Miser, Garrick Theatre, London (2017)
• Olivier for best comedy for The Play What I Wrote, 2002
Agent: The Agency
The Man in the White Suit runs at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until January 11. wyndhamstheatre.co.uk