Kate Copstick joins rehearsals for The Shawshank Redemption and finds the funny men have become prisoners of conscience
“Just get out at Bethnal Green and walk up Roman Road,” says the cheery email from The Shawshank Redemption’s PR lady.
Three policemen, two delivery men, several Buddhists and a woman with a pram later I find the rehearsal room. A Buddhist Centre with (strangely) a bar downstairs. Upstairs I find a fascinating melange of sweaty thesps and funnymen hunched on tired looking chairs. Dave Johns puts down his biscuit and introduces me. Omid Djalili bounces out of one corner while a huge, threatening-looking man with shaven head is muttering darkly to himself in another. Ian Lavender is essaying a particularly troublesome sandwich so we smile and nod and bump elbows by way of hello. Then there is a chunky bloke with exuberant hair and a face that makes Audrey Hepburn look like Sylvester Stallone. This is Enzo. “I’m the rapist!” he smiles, extending a paw.
I am barred from the rehearsal room till after 1pm as the cast are going through a couple of sequences to show to the Sky TV crew arriving at noon. Omid and the rapist join the scene and I chat to Dave, who confides his relief that I wasn’t here yesterday when they did their first run through. “Bag of shite,” he says. “It was a basically a lot of blokes looking at each other, mouthing ‘is it me now?’” They have another two weeks, although Dave is already a wreck, having injured his shoulder rehearsing a fight scene the previous day and done something terminal to his knee during the physical rigours of Sean Lock’s recent birthday party. The door opens and Owen O’Neill comes out. “You not comin’ in,” he says cheerily. Dave and I whisper an explanation. “That’s ridiculous,” he says. “There’s three massive fans on the go in there, you can’t hear a f***in’ thing anyone is saying.”
I am in the rehearsal room behind one of the massive fans. I can barely hear a thing anyone is saying. The director is a tiny woman called Lucy Pitman-Wallace who has an Olivier Award and a little bell that is rung to call the cast to attention. “OK chaps,” she cries, “Can we run the rock hammer scene?” As the “chaps” assume the position, I ask if she has worked with comedians before. She has not. I ask how she is finding the experience. There is a long pause. “It is... an adventure,” she says.
Dave lets me play with the little models of the set. Towering double-decker cells will slide and spin around the stage to change scenes. For rehearsal purposes the “chaps” are using the big cages on wheels used to carry stock about in large stores. “Good thing is, if it all goes wrong we can get a job in Tesco,” says Dave, as he rumbles past with Cell Block 1.
One of the actors is playing 12 bar blues on a beaten up guitar as the Sky crew set up. He won Celebrity Come Dine With Me in Ireland, whispers the PR. As others join in, Omid beats out a percussive accompaniment by slapping his head and tapping his belly. How very Glee, I think. Turns out it is a rehearsal for part of the scene. Omid drifts past. “It might help if you were to laugh spontaneously at that bit when they are filming,” he murmurs. He is playing Red, the Morgan Freeman part. “Every actor likes a role that gives him something he doesn’t have,” he says gravely. “Gir-avitassss” he lisps, placing hands on hips, tossing imaginary curls and mincing off.
Sky are filming. I laugh spontaneously. To make filming easier they are doing a scene where Andy and Red are seated. Kyle Secor, who is playing Andy, is so tall they added a line to the script about it at the read through. He auditioned on Skype so no one realised how tall he was till he arrived. His head is not even in the same time zone as Omid’s. He is irresistibly watchable and gently reminiscent of James Stewart. While Sky do interviews, Simon, the “movement director”, rehearses “Bogs’ Beating” – a moment of breathtakingly vicious, stylised violence, the soundtrack to the guards’ kicks and baton strikes beaten out by the watching prisoners on their cell bars. Enzo’s body contorts and jerks in time. It is impressively, unsettlingly visceral. At the end he lies, quasi-lifeless, on the ground. Simon nods approval. “That’s our Le Coq moment,” he murmurs to me. Enzo springs lightly to his feet and pirouettes. “Five years at the Rambert, love... never leaves you.” He clutches imaginary pearls and sweeps out.
Omid is learning lines with the help of a production runner with award-winning shoulders who turns out to be his son. Ian is off doing an interview and Kyle is happy eating a sandwich leftover from breakfast. The rest of us troop to a veggie place round the corner. Dave has found a copy of an ancient Dad’s Army album in a charity shop. He wants to put it in Ian Lavender’s onstage library trolley. A quite astoundingly pretty young man joins us at the table. Face of a choirboy, voice marinaded in testosterone and danger, this is Jack who is playing one of the guards. “He was in War Horse and is in the new Richard Curtis film,” whispers the PR lady, rustling her biographical notes. Kyle joins us for a coffee, at which point what appears to be smoke starts billowing from the building opposite. Kyle shakes his head, smiling. “You know this is always happening to me,” which is something of a conversation stopper. According to Kyle, since childhood, fires have a habit of breaking out when he is in the vicinity. He and Jack stride towards the clouds of smoke. Turns out the clouds are dust, not smoke. But I wonder if the fire officer at the Assembly Rooms has been alerted to Kyle’s “special talent”.
Back in the rehearsal room, Kyle’s braces barely reach up the length of his wiry torso, let alone down his back. “Last time I saw a pair of legs like that, they had a message strapped to them,” I say. “You see,” he rounds on me, “that’s the difference here. You are all so f***ing funny.” I sense irony. “No one is funny in America. Not even the comedians. These guys are hilarious.” He is, it seems, enjoying his first Fringe experience. He is next in line for his cast photo and photographer. Omid is being parted from his own black cap and given one from Wardrobe that, I mention, makes him look like one of the little men out of the Tetley Tea advert. The exquisitely moustachioed costume designer raises warning eyebrows at me and sets about creatively distressing it.
We are running the library scene while the photographer crawls around getting “action shots”. Easier said than done, thanks to the cast’s inability to stick to the script. “Where’s Brooksie?” asks Kyle/Andy anxiously. “He is being taken in the ass in the showers,” comes Omid’s deadpan reply. “You know, I always thought that black people never gave slavery a real chance,” muses Kyle. Lucy sighs. “This is what I am afraid will happen when I’m not here.”
Owen appears, looking dapperly menacing, suited and booted as the prison governor. Why, I wonder, given that this show is his and Dave Johns’ thespian lovechild (conceived ten years ago, even before their Twelve Angry Men adaptation shot the Comedian’s Theatre Company to fame) and that they co-wrote the script (approved by Stephen King himself), don’t they take the lead roles? Especially as the character of Red was originally Irish American. Owen didn’t feel he had the gravitas for Red, apparently. “Although now I’m sittin’ here watching Omid slapping his baldy head and rubbing his stomach and I think... that’s not it...” Dave simply never accepts any part that involves more than 20 lines.
“Oh oh oh oh!” The cry comes from Omid, who has noticed all the close-ups of himself and Kyle in earnest conversation have been done with them wearing wedding rings and watches so they all have to get done again before the cast assemble to run through the cinema scene
The little bell rings. “OK chaps,” cries Lucy, “We are going to run the library scene.” It is a sad, scary scene, beautifully played by Ian Lavender as Brooksie, the old librarian lag. In this instance it is made slightly scarier by the fact that, as he tips the prop can of kerosene over his head, some actual turpentine comes out over his head. The smell is overpowering. There are gasps of shock. Ian disappears to the kitchen, eye streaming. There is understandable consternation. The cans had been carefully washed out by stage management. Omid goes past to check on Ian. “I think it might have been my son who didn’t drain the can out fully,” he mutters. “I’m keeping a low profile.”
Ian is back, pink-eyed but a trouper. Stage management has substituted an Evian bottle for the canister and got a bottle of eyewash from a nearby chemist. “At the risk of sounding a bit wanky,” says Lucy, “maybe we can look on what happened as a bit of Method rehearsal. I think we can all now see how shocking a moment it is when the kerosene goes over Brooksie’s head.” We can. And we run the scene again. It is powerful, touching and I can’t wait to watch it hold an entire audience in its grasp.
The Shawshank Redemption, Assembly Rooms, Thursday until 25 August.