It was in the original company of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys that Jamie Parker first made his mark, just two years after graduating from RADA. The production premiered at the National in 2004, before going on to be made into a feature film and then transferring to Broadway. Parker found himself among a company that included other then-unknowns such as Dominic Cooper, Russell Tovey, Samuel Barnett, Sacha Dhawan and James Corden, with subsequent casts including Matt Smith and Ben Barnes, to name a few.
It became that generation’s Another Country – a play that, two decades earlier, had launched Kenneth Branagh and Rupert Everett in its original cast, with takeovers by Colin Firth and Daniel Day-Lewis. “I’m not sure who my opposite number in that list would be, if any of them,” quips Parker as we chat in the empty upper circle bar area of the Palace Theatre during previews for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
But the experience of doing The History Boys is similar for Parker, in at least one respect, to that of now appearing in Harry Potter, in which he is playing the eponymous wizard.
“That was the last time I worked on a project that sold out before we started rehearsals. Though, of course, that had nothing to do with me, that’s one less thing you have to worry about when you turn up for work in the morning. But it’s also great, because theatres are supposed to be full,” he says. “Theatres that are stuffed to the gunnels leave me feeling rather peaceful – that’s when things are going right. When you’re playing to 40% and trying to make the budget, it’s more difficult.”
The play has since opened to the critics, but when we meet he is going straight on to a rehearsal before another preview performance that night.
“We’re still working during the day and performing at night,” he tells me. “But our hours with the creative team are starting to lessen off as we get into a full performance schedule of eight shows a week. The company is feeling really good – Steven [Hoggett, the movement director] has prepped us properly to be in the right physical shape. Working with him, you’ve got to be in shape. And John [Tiffany, the director] has kept up our spirits with his relentless positivity and trust in his company.”
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a massive project, creating the eighth and entirely original Harry Potter story as a two-part theatrical experience that continues where the seventh book ended. “The last moment of the last book is called 19 years later, and we pick up from that point,” he tells me.
And how many years forward to do you go from that? “I can’t tell you,” he admits. The show is urging fans and audiences alike to keep the plot secret. Quite properly, they don’t want to have its surprises and revelations spoilt for future audiences. What he can say is that Harry Potter is now grown up and has three children, “and specifically the relationship between Harry and his son Albus is a large part of the meal”.
Parker himself admits of the book series: “I was familiar with the books and read some of them, but I wasn’t a Potterhead. But it’s been great now to immerse myself in it – I’ve gone through all of them several times now, and I’m going to go through them again. I won’t stop making notes, and every day I am finding out exactly how detailed Jack [Thorne, the playwright] and John’s work on it has been with Jo [JK Rowling]. In any decent play there’s an unspoken script going on underneath the actual script – like Woody Allen’s subtitles, whether they’re serious or funny – and that’s absolutely the case here. The play is perfectly clear to anyone who doesn’t know anything about Harry Potter – it’s just a very good play on that level. But for those who are immersed in it, there are Easter eggs hidden in every scene. There’s a lot that goes unspoken, and that’s fertile ground for being able to talk to each other onstage.”
From the moment the show was announced, it has been the subject of intense media interest and speculation. How was he cast to follow in Daniel Radcliffe’s very significant footprints? Was it a long process? “Because of the nature of the beast, not that much,” he recalls. “They couldn’t spread the script around to cast the net especially wide, so they were quite particular about who they had on the list in the first place, though I never saw who else was on it. But they asked themselves before they got in touch with people if they really wanted to have that conversation.”
He was touring in Guys and Dolls ahead of its opening at the Savoy Theatre last Christmas when he got a call to read the script: “I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement and go to the office of Sonia [Friedman, co-producer of the stage show] to sit and read the script there. I was back home for the weekend off the tour, so I did. But the reason I engaged with it and went through that first door in the first place was because it was Sonia, and one glance at the creative team she’d put together – Jack and John and Steven and Neil Austin on lights and Martin Lowe supervising the music. Anyone and everyone on that list are people you’d give your eye teeth to work with.
“The fact that it is on a project that already has a gigantic audience who are desperately hungry to hear the story is obviously nothing but a bonus. But, honestly, I would have gone into a completely unknown project totally blind if it was with this team. They are all people I wanted to work with, and I wouldn’t have minded what it was, I would have trusted them to make something out of it.”
What about the responsibility, though, of playing such a beloved character and giving flesh and blood to him? “It’s not my responsibility solely. I know I’m only as good as the material I’ve got to work with. I’m not an alchemist, not when it comes to writing or production. You could argue that alchemy is part and parcel of what we do, but that responsibility is shared with the audience, and putting it on in the first place was Jack and John drawing from the wealth of Jo’s back catalogue and the layer upon layer of detail in there to create something that has its own emotional trajectory and its own legs. If I hadn’t thought that was apparent, even in that early draft, I wouldn’t have put myself in the position of taking on the amount of responsibility I do have – that would be a suicide mission.”
Harry Potter reunites him with Noma Dumezweni, who is now playing Hermione, as well as Paul Bentall and Barry McCarthy, from the second professional theatre job he ever had: a play called The Coffee House at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre in 2003. “I was fucking dreadful in that,” he says. “The only redeeming factor was we had a gigantic food fight in the second half, and when it was John Marquez’s birthday we sank a brick of chocolate gateau and a vat of red wine in the interval, so the food fight was absolutely hilarious. Happy memories came out of it, partly because it was so bad.” Even more happily, he met his wife Deborah Crowe during that Chichester season, when they appeared in The Gondoliers together.
Harry Potter is proving to be a happy experience already. He says of the fans: “They’ve been glorious – you spend a certain portion of every theatre performance convincing people they’ve done the right thing in buying a ticket. But this is a story they want to hear, so all of that’s done in advance in our case. There’s been nothing but goodwill in the room – the story starts and they want to hear it. They seem to be happy to see us and want us to succeed.” So does the original Harry Potter, Radcliffe. “He’s been very classy and gentlemanly – he sent me his best wishes before our first preview. I’m under no illusions the role belongs to me, I’m just glad to be in on the ground floor.”
What of the controversy, in some quarters, surrounding the casting of Dumezweni, which was only silenced when JK Rowling publicly tweeted her support, noting that Hermione’s skin colour is not specified in her books? “These are the times that try men’s souls,” he says, quoting Thomas Paine (he once appeared in a play about Paine at Shakespeare’s Globe called A New World). “But as soon as you see the show, the conversation is over. It’s a work of fiction. It is still a default that fictional characters are white, and that’s bollocks. If you’ve seen Olivier playing Henry V and you don’t go see Adrian Lester do it [because of his skin colour], that’s your loss.”
They’ve had a comparatively long rehearsal period to get it right. “It is and it isn’t,” he says. “On the one hand, we’ve had 100 days from the first day of rehearsals to the end of the second dress rehearsal; but that really pans out as five weeks in the room on each play and two weeks of tech on each. That’s a long tech, but it’s a big show.”
The show has had an usually long preview period of nearly two months in front of audiences, before its official opening on July 30 (though critics have been let in earlier), which has been criticised by Guardian critic Michael Billington.
“There’s nothing in that other than Sonia and Colin [Callender, co-producer] doing the smart thing, which is giving their team room to put together the show we all wanted it to be. The alternative is that we’re all scrabbling to get it on by a deadline, and it not being as good as any of us know that it could be. So I’ll take Michael Billington’s point on board, but I think this has all round been the sensible, healthiest, most productive way of working on it. And we’re comfortable now bringing the date forward and having the press come in with real audiences rather than a self-consciously supportive one.”
It’s certainly the biggest career moment for Parker since The History Boys launched him and took him to Broadway. “The machine was up and running long before we got there. New York really does know how to welcome you through its gates, if they decide that’s what they want to do. We’d been doing it for a long time at that point – a lot of accolades came index-linked to it by that time, so to be honest anything less than a stonking seven-star hit would have been disastrous.”
But if there was any danger of the return home afterwards being an anticlimax, it was offset by the timing of the film version’s West End cinema premiere. “We filmed it over a year before we finished performing the play, so after our final performance on Broadway in October 2006, we literally did the curtain call in New York, stepped out of the stage door into a coach and went to JFK, flew back and landed at Heathrow, went to a hotel to change, and went to Leicester Square for the premiere. Besides being jetlagged, I sat there thinking, ‘I don’t do it like that anymore, we’ve moved on from this draft.’ ”
Parker’s career since then has progressed through Shakespeare at the Globe (he’s played Prince Hal in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and the title role in Henry V) to being reunited with Barnett for a revival of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (first at Chichester, then transferring to the West End) and musicals at Chichester, the Menier and the Old Vic.
“You make it sound like there was a plan – there isn’t. I’m making it up as I go along, like everyone else. There probably are some actors who are quite methodical or at least take their time about what particular footholds to find on the rocks next. There are always choices, even when you’re not getting seen, for how to spend your time. It’s only after 10 years that I got any kind of traction at all. In my case, I’m quite picky and I’ve been as snobbish as I can afford to be. Of course I’ve done plenty of work because I needed to work – I’ve been quite lucky in that some of the jobs I’ve taken on in theatre, especially before I had any choice at all, turned out to be the jobs they were. I didn’t have any ambition to play Oliver in As You Like It, but that got me on Bankside for the first time, and that happened to lead on to playing Hal, again at the Globe. You’re just throwing stones in the pond and seeing where the ripples go and you never know. I’ve definitely made some bad ripples here and there. Everybody does.”
Prior to Harry Potter, he had a run of musicals, and it surprised many, including me, just how accomplished and natural he was for them. It turns out that it was with musicals that his pre-RADA training began.
“I grew up doing them – I came up through National Youth Music Theatre, not the National Youth Theatre – and there was a time when I’d done many more musicals than straight plays. But by the time I got to college, my priorities had changed a little bit and I was very angry at the way that particular sector seemed to have become more representative of our rapacious, neo-liberal, Thatcherite entrepreneurialism, and I didn’t stop being angry at how the battle between art and commerce seemed to have become totally lost by musical theatre. So I was pretty snotty about actively wanting to pursue it. Of course, I still loved everyone from Bernstein and Sondheim to Rodgers and Hammerstein, but if I was going to do it I wanted to know that I was doing it with the right people for the right reasons in the right places for the right audiences.”
One of his roles was Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, first at Chichester in 2014 (for which he won that year’s UK Theatre Award for best performance in a musical), then 18 months later in the West End. “If you get a chance to play Sky Masterson, why would you say no?,” he says simply now. Another was Oswald and the Balladeer in Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory. “It’s a place that has managed to catch the wind when it comes to putting teams together for stuff they want to work on. We were all there because of each other. I loved the challenge of being the Balladeer and accompanying myself on guitar throughout – although it was also quite stressful, as we had so little rehearsal time.”
He’s also done occasional cabarets, teaming up again with Barnett. “I’m always aware about what I hate about a particular oeuvre (and words like that, for example) as much as I am about what I love about it. I do love it when I see someone who stands and sings in all simplicity so I can hear what they are singing about. But I get easily confused and lost watching a lot of modern musical performances – all I can hear is ‘I can sing’. And I see the trappings of their performances, rather than listening to what is being communicated. So our shows are always a complete mess, but deliberately so.”
Q&A: Jamie Parker
What was your first professional theatre job? I played Peter in After the Dance for Oxford Stage Company in 2002.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Try not to grip too hard. With the Henrys, it was so important to me personally that I ‘got it right’ that I couldn’t let go of it. I wish I’d remained simpler, looking back. But you can only learn these things by doing it.
Who or what is your biggest influence? Like a lot of actors, I’m a magpie. Jack Lemmon was a big one, John Mills another. I like actors who can turn their hands to different things – who are empty suits waiting to be put on.
What is your best advice for auditions? Accept the things you cannot change, change the things you can, and know the difference.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have done? I shudder to think.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? If I do, I’m probably becoming too routine and rigid in my thinking, so it’s a warning sign that I should deliberately do something different to loosen things up again.
So he does like to let his hair down (now dyed black for Harry Potter). Interestingly, he tells me how naturally he believes singing comes to him, but not dancing. “I don’t see there being a demarcation line between speaking and singing; I do between walking and dancing. The thought of being asked to dance in front of people turns me into a puddle. I find it incredibly exposing. But with speaking and singing, at what point do you say I’ve stopped speaking and I’m now singing? What is it that gets an eight-year-old entranced by Shakespeare? It’s nothing to do with the meaning of words, it’s the music of the words.”
What got the young Parker entranced by theatre? “I was very young, maybe four or five, when the rest of my family were involved in an amateur production of The Music Man. I’ve been remembering that here, when the audience is sitting out in plush seats, but you go through the access doors on either side of the pros arch and you’re into grotty backstage. In amateur theatre, we still had three hemp ropes attached to each bar, and four of you had to pull it, and it’s where I learnt to throw a cleat line – how could that not be romantic? It’s like The Red Shoes – backstage is where you have conviviality and collaboration and hysteria and nerves.”
Parker is clearly a romantic about the theatre. That, more than anything, is what is thrilling him about Harry Potter. “In Romeo and Juliet, you get audible gasps when Juliet comes back to life out of her potion. And that is what we are getting in this through the release of information – it’s wonder. There’s actual audible wonder to the experience of going to the theatre, which is what it fucking should be. It’s very rare and precious – the only frustration is that we can’t bring it to more people at the same time, but the production will, over time, do so.”
CV: Jamie Parker
Born: 1979, Middlesbrough
Landmark productions: The History Boys (National Theatre in 2004, then Hong Kong, Sydney, Wellington and Broadway), The Revenger’s Tragedy (National Theatre, 2008), As You Like It (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2009), Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2010), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Chichester, 2011, then Theatre Royal, Haymarket), Henry V (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2012), Guys and Dolls (Chichester, 2014, then West End, 2015), Assassins (Menier Chocolate Factory, 2014), High Society (Old Vic, 2015)
Awards: Best performance in a musical for Guys and Dolls, UK Theatre Awards 2014
Agent: Independent Talent Group
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is now in previews at the Palace Theatre London  and officially opens on July 30
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