Like a number of shows in the West End these days, the route 46 Beacon took to Theatreland began in a much smaller space outside central London. After rehearsed readings at Above The Stag, the two-person play about coming of age and coming out enjoyed a run at Islington’s Hope Theatre in 2015.
While director Alexander Lass was involved at the start, he missed out on the chance to direct Bill Rosenfield’s play at the rising off-West End venue. So he was delighted when the show was granted a West End run and he could get to grips with it again.
As the show begins its season at Trafalgar Studios 2, Lass tells us about the play, working with actors Oliver Coopersmith and Jay Taylor, and also which drink makes the perfect theatre trip.
How would you describe 46 Beacon?
46 Beacon is a semi-autobiographical memory play by Bill Rosenfield about a young man’s first experiences of coming out. Set in a room in an apartment-hotel in 1970s Boston, it centres on a British actor called Robert and a young American boy called Alan. Robert invites Alan over for post-show drinks one evening – Alan is ushering at the theatre where they work – and Alan’s life is changed forever. The play is an insightful and witty meditation on identity, acceptance, difference, attraction and hope for the future.
Why did you want to direct it?
Funnily enough, I have been involved with this play since its very first outing as a rehearsed reading at Above The Stag. I directed that around four years ago. I was attracted to the script for its complex characters, compelling dialogue and timely universal themes. It has had a journey through the world of London fringe theatre without my involvement, but I was thrilled to be asked by the playwright and the producer Oli Sones to direct a fully realised version at Trafalgar Studios 2 this year.
Is there an audience who would particularly enjoy this show?
There’s no denying that the play will appeal to a crowd savvy in musical theatre and 1970s Americana. They will relish the multiple references peppered through the dialogue. Yet as the world seems increasingly beset by close-mindedness and intolerance, 46 Beacon is a play with something to say to everyone in 2017. The insights into heartbreak, self-acceptance, the dignity of otherness, and the humour of the play should speak to a diverse audience.
What do Oliver Coopersmith and Jay Taylor bring to the piece?
It is a pleasure to work with these two fine actors, who are incredibly talented performers. They both bring sensitivity, rigour and honesty to the characters of Alan (Oliver) and Robert (Jay). The play is a gin-soaked two-hander, running at 85 minutes with no break. It presents a challenge with regards to energy, focus, stamina and (of course) bladder control. Oliver brings youthful exuberance and wide-eyed naiveté to the character of Alan. And Jay brings a devilish charm combined with deeply felt inner turmoil to Robert. Also, they are both very funny gents, which makes rehearsals an utter joy. On any given day there are a plethora of hilarious anecdotes flying around the rehearsal room.
What has surprised you most during pre-production and rehearsals?
How horrible some 1970s American interior design and clothing really was.
How would you describe Trafalgar Studios 2?
Intimate and atmospheric. There couldn’t be a better room in London for this play.
Apart from Trafalgar Studios, what’s your favourite London theatre and why?
It’s got to be Wyndham’s. Last year I was Associate Director for Sean Mathias on No Man’s Land, starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. As a lifelong Harold Pinter obsessive, it was a rare privilege to work on that production. Our three months at Wyndham’s – where Peter Hall’s original 1975 production of No Man’s Land played after its start at the Old Vic – were the highlight of my professional life so far.
What was your first experience of theatre?
I remember being in the nativity play one year at prep school as a Wise Man. My first experience of theatre as an audience member that I remember vividly was seeing Hugh Jackman as Curly in Trevor Nunn’s Oklahoma! at the National Theatre in the 1990s. Next I saw Simon Russell Beale’s Hamlet, directed by John Caird. After that, I wanted to learn how to make such delicate magic happen on stage myself.
Why is live performance so special?
There is something increasingly rare about a group of people, many of whom are strangers to each other, coming together for a shared communal experience, performed by other real people only a few feet away, that takes place over a fixed period of time. We laugh, we cry, we think, we feel. We don’t have our eyes fixed to a screen. Our imaginations are activated. We (hopefully) learn something new about ourselves, each other and the world around us. It’s different every night and stuff can (and does) go wrong, which is incredibly exciting.
Live theatre also reflects and refracts world events. I remember seeing Stephen Daldry’s The Audience with Helen Mirren a few years ago, on the night Margaret Thatcher died. I’ll never forget the atmosphere in the auditorium when Haydn Gwynne came out for the first time as the Iron Lady. It was totally thrilling and that was largely because it was live.
What one piece of advice would you give aspiring theatremakers?
Punctuality is very important. I do my best to be on time but I find it difficult. Time is the most valuable resource in the theatre. I struggle with time management. I think it is form of practical dyslexia. The 46 Beacon stage manager, Sarah Seymour, does a wondrous job of helping me stay on schedule.
What’s your top tip for a trip to the theatre?
A large whiskey usually does the trick.