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Matthew Parker- interview

Back for another London run, The Play With Speeches is just as it says on the tin, except a comedy. Using audition pieces to create the 'play-within-a-play' concept, the show features two characters - exes, in fact - who are working together on a production, where the actors too come with plenty of emotional baggage of their own. Tension in the dressing room makes for entertaining writing taking place this month at Upstairs at the Gatehouse Theatre.

Starring as a leading role, as well as having other fantastic ventures in the arts industry, Matthew Parker speaks about the show and his theatrical knowledge beyond.


Please can you tell us a bit about the production, and who you are starring as?

The Play With Speeches is a brand new comedy written by James Woolf and produced by award-nominated Olive & Stavros Theatre. It’s tells the story of a playwright (‘Anthony’) and a Director (‘Penny') who are auditioning actors for their Off West End show. And someone at the theatre seems to have sold tickets to their auditions so now there’s a real life audience sat there watching the whole thing unfold. The ‘actors’ arriving bring their own particular and personal baggage to the proceedings and, all the while, a back story of the relationship between Anthony and Penny is revealed. Full of bitterness, unrequited feelings and downright ridiculousness. As Anthony and Penny bicker the auditions go off the rails. It’s a fast paced, farcical fun-fest now on its fourth run in London having gathered fab reviews and sold out houses of audiences guffawing away.

I play Anthony (“with a Tee Aitch, NOT a Tee!”) the playwright.

What drew you to the role, and which of their characteristics do you find the most interesting to perform?

As a theatre maker and mainly known as a Director I have sat behind that audition table a lot over my career. So I was immediately attracted to the idea of playing someone auditioning actors. But Anthony is…. How can I put this? An idiot. I’d like to think I’m better at hiding my thoughts and feelings in auditions than he is though. And also I’d really like to think I am much more supportive of auditioning actors than him. Some of his behaviour is not ideal, let’s put it that way!

He’s an unpublished playwright (something which he very much wants to change!). He’s written a play he is very proud of; The Play With Speeches and is excited to be auditioning actors for it. But once he finds out that someone has sold tickets to the auditions and is presented with a live audience, he steps up to the plate and brings them all along for the ride. He’s a showman and loves the audience’s attention. He’s inexperienced as a playwright and theatre maker so has a tendency to put his foot in it, with the actors and sometimes the audience. He’s prone to over-the top emotions and gestures, quite highly-strung, very finicky and just wants everything to be ‘right’. Oh and yes, he’s single. Very unhappily so. The play follows his journey from fear of the audience being there into really enjoying himself chatting to them and enjoying some of the actors’ auditions that take place within the play. But he cannot hide his feelings very well and soon the wheels start to wobble and perhaps even come off….

I absolutely love playing comedy and to get a lead role in a comedy is a true gift as an actor. It’s my first lead role in almost twenty years so it certainly came with some challenges - not least the sheer amount of lines. Anthony really enjoys the sound of his own voice! But it’s the opportunity to be outrageous and physically OTT that really floats my boat. Anthony is described as having gestures that are “too much”. Any opportunity for physical comedy or clowning is always attractive to me as my actor training (last century!) had a lot of clowning, Commedia Del Arte, Lazzi and mime content in it. Love it.

What do you think appeals to audiences, and means the production can keep returning?

I think lots of people interested in the backstage antics of theatre makers. Everyone loves seeing the wheels of the machine - to be the one who lifts the cloth on the magician’s table and sees what’s underneath. So I think that appeals. And it has a cast of truly gifted and funny performers. I’m so lucky to be acting alongside eight other brilliant artists who all bring such detail and skill to their roles. It’s a big cast so there’s lots of different performances there to enjoy. But the main appeal I think is that it truly is funny. It’s been a tough old time of late so it’s great to be a part of a show whose entire modus operandi is to entertain and make people laugh. It’s a comedy with some real farcical elements. And the comedy is varied; wordplay, rhythmical gags, comedy from situations, comedy from the characters’ interactions and misunderstandings plus some physical comedy and clowning as mentioned above. Very funny. And we all need a good laugh, right?

Can you discuss a little about your previous and current roles as director and PR consultant, as well as being an actor - what do each of these jobs mean to you, and how do you balance each element?

I’ve been involved in theatre and the performing arts for 42 years now. I started when I was five years old as a dancer and also some roles on TV and in theatre as a kid. I then joined youth theatre which led to training as an actor in the 90s. During my actor training I started directing and found a real love of it but didn’t really have the confidence to pursue it. I think I thought that someone from a Northern working-class background couldn’t really become a Theatre Director. ‘Imposter Syndrome’ running through my veins. After a short stint of professional acting down here in London (which I found really tough to sustain acting work and also pay my rent!) I gave up on professional theatre entirely. Took a job as a PA to the CEO of a Housing Association - a job I loved and one where I learned so many valuable skills of organisational administration - and joined an amateur theatre company to help me scratch that theatre itch. Whilst there I started directing and from there I was convinced by my partner and friends to apply for a Director training course. So in my mid-thirties I went to Drama Studio London to train on their (brilliant) Postgraduate Directing Course. Graduating in 2009 I have been a professional Director ever since - so lucky. My directing career also included five years as Artistic Director of The Hope Theatre; a 50-seat studio theatre above a pub in Islington. It was whilst at The Hope that I started to gather fantastic contacts with press and publications that review shows on our glorious Off West End. So when I left The Hope one of the ways I thought I might be able to stay connected to the Off West End world and to increase and sustain my collaboration with new and emerging theatre makers and companies (which was always my favourite bit of being an Artistic Director) was to offer help to other theatre makers to manage the process of engaging with the press.

Acting came back into my life Christmas 2019. I was lucky enough to be cast in The Invisible Man directed by the brilliant Kate Bannister, Artistic Director of The Jack Studio Theatre. That show led to me being taken on by my wonderful agents, Savages Personal Management, and since then I have appeared in various theatre productions around the UK including Peter Pan, The Comedy of Errors and for the past year I have been playing Anthony in The Play With Speeches at its various appearances on stages around London.

And so since 2019 I have balanced what I believe people call a ‘portfolio career’; as a Director, Actor and Press & PR Representative. I love theatre. I love being busy. And I love collaborating with other artists. Plus, as I approach the age of 50, I want to keep pushing myself and testing my limits. Lots of the stuff I do frightens me but I am determined to face the fear and give it a go. I feel so very lucky to have this career and spent a lot of the first half of my life being too scared to pursue it. So now I relish and celebrate every opportunity that comes my way.

How does it feel to have received the recent awards for your work?

So lovely. I’m so proud but also still pretty shocked, especially at the recent win as Best Director of a Musical at the 2023 OFFIE Awards for my work on Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story at the Jermyn Street Theatre. A show and team that meant the world to me.

Last year, for its Autumn run at The Jack Studio, I was nominated for Best Lead Performance, again at the OFFIE Awards, for my role as Anthony in The Play With Speeches. I was thrilled to be recognised as an actor by the OFFIES, who have been very kind to my work as a Director and Artistic Director over the years.

I’m also very proud of the awards won by The Hope Theatre whilst I was Artistic Director there. As I know those wins really helped put The Hope on the ‘map’ which in turns helps out the artists who are bringing their work there as it increases audiences and reach. So it’s a win-win. Magic!

If you could go to dinner with any three people in the arts industry (past or present), who would you choose and why?

Oooh, good question. Honestly I love spending time with anyone in the arts industry. I love artists and I love meeting new people and hearing about their work etc. But if I have to choose three I will go with first: Emma Thompson. Everything she does as an actor and human being is wonderful. She is basically my favourite person on the planet (that’s not a friend or family member of course!); next, Eugene Ionesco (my favourite playwright) and finally Jim Henson. My lifelong Muppet obsession knows no bounds and I would absolutely love to hear all of his stories about creating this beloved ‘brand’. The Muppet Show (did you know it was filmed in the UK?) was all set backstage at a theatre, of course. No coincidence that I became obsessed with The Muppet Show as it screened in the late 70s and 80s. Colourful, silly and funny characters whom we witness onstage performing and also backstage personas when it all always goes wrong with hilarious consequences. My lifelong love of theatre began there and then and now, more than forty years later, I get to play a colourful, silly and fun character performing for his ‘audience’ and slowly unravelling as the wheels come off backstage as all goes wrong. I believe in fate. (and The Muppet Show!)


Huge thanks to lovely Matthew for telling us more about his wonderful work - it is always such a privilege to support what you do. Best of wishes for the run!

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