What Katy did next....

Katy Secombe is having a great time working on a new production of Alan Ayckbourn's A Chorus of Disapproval.

Andrew Clarke

Katy Secombe is having a great time working on a new production of Alan Ayckbourn's A Chorus of Disapproval. She has her father's sunny outlook on life as Arts Editor Andrew Clarke discovered when he met her.

Katy Secombe considers herself to be a very fortunate individual. Not only is she earning a living doing a job she loves but she wakes every morning to the sound of her father's infectious laughter. Dad was Harry Secombe, better known to fans of The Goon Show as Neddie Seagoon - the incredibly naive and relentlessly optimistic foil to arch-scoundrel Hercules Grytpype-Thynne.

As Katy explains she is roused from her slumbers by her father's maniacal giggle as her radio-alarm clock is set to BBC Radio 7 which broadcasts The Goon Show every morning just as she is surfacing.

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“I am very lucky to have that connection with my father. It's wonderful that the shows are still as popular as they ever were, they are still referenced in contemporary comedy. I am very proud of what my father, Spike and Peter did all those years ago. How amazing that I still get to hear them every morning.”

Still, however, proud Katy is of her Dad she is equally determined to carve out a career which is based on her own name and achievements not those of her famous father.

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“You will always get some carping and snide comments,” she says with a resigned sigh, “But I just get on with life. I know what I can do and so do the theatres and companies that employ me. I'm not going to reject my family and my background just to please some rather bitter people. When I was at drama school there was one (pause) bugger who kept saying to me: 'You only got here because of your Dad' which was just not true. The problem was that I was in a year that also contained Dariel Pertwee and Lucy Briers, so it rather focussed attention on us.”

But Katy is not one to bear grudges. She'd much rather get on with the job in hand and even in our brief encounter it is easy to spot that she has inherited her father's friendly, out-going personality. Her sunny disposition is also down to the fact that she is having a ball appearing the Alan Ayckbourn satire A Chorus of Disapproval which is currently at the New Wolsey Theatre but will then transfer to the Mercury Theatre at Colchester.

It's the first official co-production between the two East Anglian theatres. The New Wolsey Theatre associate director Peter Rowe is directing while the bulk of the cast is being supplied by the Mercury's stock company with leading roles being taken by Eastern Angles regular Julian Harries and Ayckbourn aficionado Katy Secombe.

Katy is clearly delighted to be back working in an Ayckbourn play having spent time working in the playwright's own company at Scarborough. “Chorus was a play that I didn't know until I went into rehearsal here but it's classic Ayckbourn. It's fast, funny but it's also got something to say. It's very well observed.”

The play follows the fortunes of the Pendon Amateur Dramatic Society as they stage a production of The Beggar's Opera. It's a character-led comedy with the focus falling on the hapless Guy Jones, played by Julian Harries, a widower, who stumbles into the amateur company and immediately finds himself being used as a pawn by the egotistic director, courted by his fragile co-stars and recruited by a pair of swingers keen to add him to their circle.

“I am having a real hoot. Alan's plays are rather like a piece of music. There is rhythm to the words but there is also a definite rhythm to the action as well and Pete (Rowe) gets that and is very keen to pick up on the highs and lows of the piece. When the action happens it goes like a rocket but there are times when it reigns things back, so audiences have a chance to get a feel for the characters as people, so they can hear the dialogue and connect to the situation. Pete is a very intelligent director.”

The rehearsals, she admits, have been aided by after hours visits to the local pub. “It's a case of life imitating art I think. We finish rehearsals and we all nip round the corner to the pub and it's just as our characters would do in the play. It's certainly helped in developing friendships between the company and it shows when we are playing together on stage.

“It's a really friendly company.. We spend most of our time laughing.”

She said that developing friendships between the actors was important because playing Ayckbourn can be very demanding. “Having worked with Ayckbourn, having been directed by him (Katy was in Bedroom Farce at Scarborough for its 20th anniversary production), I know how exacting he can be. Having written a play, he likes it performed just so - just as it is written on the page. He knows what works, it has been worked out during rehearsal and during the opening weeks of the original production and when it is set down in a published playscript, then it is set in stone. As I have said in many ways he sees his work very much like pieces of music with changes of mood and tempo.

“That's why he's such a genius because everything he writes plays out beautifully, if you do it as he set it out on the page - if you try and paraphrase it, it's always wrong.”

She said that the secret of Ayckbourn's popularity is that - although his plays are very entertaining, he is really interested in the eternal conflicts between people and within society. “He's really interested in the painful stuff that goes on in daily life. The seemingly little things that crop up in everyday, that don't appear to be big issues in themselves and yet can destroy lives and certainly relationships if they aren't dealt with. That's his genius, that is able to identify and deal with issues that are eternal. They are part of all our lives.

“The other thing that makes his work different and highly appealing - to both actors and audiences - is that he uses different styles in his writing. There are moments of high farce, then we are treated to a domestic drama - even material approaching the old kitchen sink drama of the '60s in some cases - then its Cowardesque dialogue driven comedy. He uses bits and pieces, which are then blended together to make a whole. His plays are always more than the sum of their parts.”

She said that working with Ayckbourn at his own theatre at Scarborough has given her a unique opportunity to experience the man at work. She worked on Bedroom Farce at Scarborough with Ayckbourn and says it was an experience she will never forget.

“Having his own theatre allows him to refine his work before he unleashes it upon the world at large. He can fine tune it, experiment with the direction and the way the different elements work within the script. He has an amazing capacity for work. While we were rehearsing and playing Bedroom Farce he was also busy writing Private Fears in Public Places - a triumvirate of three short plays. The idea of juggling all those things is just incredible.”

She said that despite her father's success and her own love of the theatre, in the beginning, she had no ambitions to follow her Dad into showbusiness.

“Until I was 16, I harboured dreams of becoming an archaeologist. That's what I wanted to do more than anything else. I still know too much about Roman remains for it to be good for me. But what put me off was the fact that I needed maths A Level and that was never going to happen.

“I hadn't really thought of following me Dad into the theatre until we were on holiday in Fiji one year in the early '70s. While we were there we were invited to go the local am dram panto. The theatre was a hut in the middle of the rain forest. It was full of ex-pats, all drinking gin and tonic, all absolutely plastered and they are doing Dick Whittington. Let's just say my Dad left discreetly at the interval but I wanted to stay. So my poor mother had to sit for three hours in the heat in this tin hut because I was completely entranced by this wonderful spectacle happening on stage.

“Afterwards I told Dad that this is what I wanted to do and he never put me off. My older brother and sister saw more of him on stage in the theatre. By the time I came along he was doing more TV and concert tours, so I never got that buzz you get from being backstage when you are in a long running show in a theatre. I did hang out backstage and in the wings but these tended to be concert venues, so it wasn't quite the same and obviously didn't other actors waiting to go on.

“But it was seeing Judi Dench play Lady Macbeth when I was 16 that really spurred me on. I thought if she can play Lady Macbeth so can I - I was very arrogant at 16 - so it was Fiji and Judi Dench that directly inspired me to be an actor rather than my Dad because I didn't see him as an actor. My Dad was very supportive but he didn't push into an acting career. He just told me: 'Do what you want to do - just do it well.' And I've always tried to follow his advice.”

She said that joy of working in the acting profession meant that when society is suffering in the bad times - theatre can bring relief. “Theatre is great at lifting the spirits - entertaining people and making the world a better place to be.”

A Chorus of Disapproval is on at the New Wolsey Theatre until February 28 and at the Colchester Mercury from March 5-21.

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