Alex revels in the storyteller's craft

For Alex Caine storytelling is at the heart of the actor's craft.

Andrew Clarke

For Alex Caine storytelling is at the heart of the actor's craft. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to him about his journey across Suffolk with Three Men In A Boat.

When an actor is also a writer then he brings with him a completely different perspective on theatre and the way that a story is told.

Alex Caine is currently playing the role of J in Bury Theatre Royal's touring production of Three Men In A Boat. J is essentially the alter ego of author Jerome K Jerome and the story is seen through his eyes.


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For Alex, the play is an opportunity to explore a different form of theatre while the tour is a fantastic opportunity to get to see audiences close up.

“The village hall tour is a marvellous way to bring theatre to places which perhaps don't get to see much in the way of live performances and for us it's a chance to play with audiences close at hand. We're not on a stage, hidden behind a pros arch and footlights - we're right there with our audience all around us. It's an exhilarating experience.”

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The play is an adaptation of a treasured Victorian comic gem - the tale of three friends and a dog who go sailing up the River Thames one summer. Originally designed to be a travel guide, pointing out points of interest and potential pitfalls on a journey up the Thames, Jerome's witty writing style and his decision to include the information in a fictionalised narrative meant that he had a huge comic hit on his hands.

At first it was a serial, then a novel and now it has been turned into a play. Directed by Abigail Anderson, assistant director of London's Globe Theatre, currently working at the Bury Theatre Royal, the staging of the play is imaginative and at times slightly surreal.

“We're having huge fun. I can't remember being in a production where I have laughed quite so much. We are playing it quite straight - it's a comedy but we are letting the laughter come out of the situation and the writing. It is written so well that you don't have to put on a Victorian performance. The language speaks for itself and we use so many theatrical conceits from music hall and from the comedy of the period that we sit very naturally in that time.

“A lot of the fun is in the ingenious staging. We all play about half-a-dozen parts and for us it's a huge exercise in concentration because we've got to remember not only where we are in the story but who we are.

“I think it is a real joy to see how so much can be created in front of an audience's eyes just out of a few props and some imagination but that has always been part of the wonder of theatre.”

He said that the trick to making a production like Three Men In A Boat work was engaging the audience's imagination and persuading them to accompany the actors on a journey.

“If you can harness the collective imagination of an audience then you can create all sorts of wonderful scenes and don't require a huge budget or lots moving scenery or special effects to do it. An audience's imagination is the best special effect of all but in order to utilise it you have to persuade them that it will be fun to go with you to this place that you are trying to create and be a part of the story that you are trying to tell. And I think that is far more rewarding.”

As far their props are concerned he said that all they are touring with are a few benches, some strands of material but with those items they can transport everyone back in time to 1888.

He said that an aspect of this tour that thrills him both as an actor and as a writer is that it is bringing back into sharp focus, the joys of storytelling.

“It's something we love to do as kids but as we grow up, it seems to get forgotten somehow. And yet with this we get a group of people together, sit them down and tell a really good yarn. It's marvellous. Storytelling is a very important part of how a society works, how it keeps its history alive but also help maintain a sense of identity.

“But, beyond the joy of theatre, just to sit down and be told an entertaining story is a really special thing.”

He said that his role as J, who is not only a member of the boating party but as Jerome K Jerome's alter ego is also the narrator gives him that added bonus of being to look at the story as a whole and take the audience into his confidence.

“It's lovely to play a guy who was real and for me a guy who was a writer and an actor - and God bless him, not the most successful of actors either, he says in his autobiography that he decided to give up his life on stage when he nearly contracted rickets because he was so hungry - I think work was quite elusive for him at some point.”

Fortunately, for him, and for us, Jerome K Jerome found that he had much more of a talent for writing. Alex describes both the book and the play as English humour at its very best.

“It is written with real love and affection for the characters and is written with genuine wit. It's very funny and you warm to these people. Funnily enough, the further away from that period we get the funnier it becomes. It allows us to have some perspective on our past and although it very much celebrates our Englishness, it also highlights the quirks and eccentricities which define our national character and proves just how perceptive Jerome was. He was obviously a keen observer of life.

“But at the same time, it displays a gloriously silly humour which has also been a part of the British character down through the ages. It has a beautiful sense of absurdity about it which is a real delight.”

He said that although it is a period piece it still feels very contemporary because it is being played straight. “Also the sharpness of the dialogue and the wit that these characters display means that it never feels like a pastiche or a send-up. In fact there are several turns of phrase, which I wish were still in use now - simply because they are so witty, so clever. There is an inherent love of language which I find so appealing.”

He said that the adaptation by director Abigail Anderson and Daniel O'Brien, has been cleverly done to keep all the best elements of the story while making it practical to be staged in a variety of different venues.

“When you are adapting something, it's a tricky thing because you always have got to leave something by the wayside but this version has been done very cleverly and sensitively and I think that people who know the book will be surprised, and quite pleased, by what we have managed to retain - particularly when you compare it with versions that have gone before.

“For example we have managed to retain the dog, which has always proved a difficulty for other stage productions and we are able to conjure up a whole variety of different locations, so you do get this feeling of going on a journey.

“The other thing is that this adaptation has given the story some real narrative drive. It's not just a travelogue, it's not just an account of a group of friends stopping off at various places, one of its strengths is that it now also explores what the various characters gain from this experience. It focuses attention more on the individual people than previous versions have done.

“It picks up on character traits. For example if J doesn't like the weather forecast, he won't just grumble about it, he will blow it up out of all proportion and proclaim his vexation that the news that this news of the weather is the most aggravating thing I have ever had to endure my entire life.”

For Alex actor, writer and storyteller part of the fun of the piece is Jerome's portrayal of the strange locals that the three men meet in various pubs and places along the river. “He obviously loved eccentrics and he has a playful jibe at all these people - and what we see in the play is the rise of the middle classes.”

Alex is no stranger to work at the Bury Theatre Royal having appeared as Sir George Evelyn in the 2008 production of Wives as They Were, and Maids as They Are and has played Jeffrey and La Fleur in two productions of Animal Magnetism at the theatre. He also took part in the recent rehearsed readings of The Heir at Law, The Fair Penitent, St Patrick's Day/The Mogul Tale, He's Much to Blame and Which is the Man?

“I love the opportunity to play not only a variety of different parts but also act in a variety of different styles. The Theatre Royal is doing a fantastic job in bringing back these marvellous plays which have lain forgotten. As I said before it's all about storytelling. It's about putting across a good yarn and capturing the imagination of your audience.”

Telling a good story is also at the centre of Alex's other career as a writer. His first book Fynoderee, is an adventure written for young adults based on the folklore of the Isle of Man, where he was born and grew up.

“I started writing because I was a huge reader. I love all sorts of writing and I have always written but this book sort of grew up because of my love of the folklore from my home.

“I suppose what started as a hobby became an obsession and having written a book I then set about getting it published. I originally wrote that first book for my own pleasure and I suspect that's true of most writers. When I started it in 2002 I never dreamt that five years later it would be in print and available in Waterstones.”

He said he would love to see the book adapted as a play in much the same way that Three Men In A Boat has been simply because he feels it would give people a fresh insight on the richness of the stories.

“I wouldn't be precious about the adaptation because I know that the stage is a very different to the page. It would be just lovely to see.”

Three Men In A Boat, by Jerome K Jerome, staged by Bury Theatre Royal, is on tour throughout Suffolk until May 30. Tonight they are in Hartest and during the next week they will be visiting Lavenham, Charsfield and Newmarket. Dates, tickets and further information can be obtained from www.theatreroyal.org

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