Matthew Needham: 11 questions

Actor Matthew Needham tells us about starring in Summer And Smoke at Almeida Theatre and how a trouserless toad might have influenced his acting career.

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To describe actor Matthew Needham as a regular at north London’s Almeida Theatre is a bit like saying Donald Trump is sometimes in the news. Though he has racked up numerous credits with Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company, since last April he has performed in three shows at the Islington venue.

The latest production is Tennessee Williams’ Summer And Smoke. Set in the early 1900s, it’s the story of Alma and John, who grew up next to each other in a Mississippi town.

Matthew Needham tells us more:

How would you describe Summer And Smoke?

Summer And Smoke is a Tennessee Williams play about a young woman called Alma Winemiller who lives in a suffocatingly small town in Mississippi. It follows the strange relationship that blossoms between her and a young doctor called John Buchanan. It’s a sort of rom-com gone wrong about two misfits in a town where things that don’t fit get thrown away. At the risk of sounding unremittingly bleak, it has a lot to do with loneliness and the traps we can find ourselves [in] when we act the way we think we should act rather than how we actually are.

Why did you want to appear in the production?

I loved the play. I had never read it before and I thought it was so funny and sad and beautiful. And meeting the director, Rebecca Frecknall, was very exciting. As much as I admired Tennessee Williams, I tended to think of his work aesthetically – lots of billowy dresses and men in vests and everyone fanning themselves going, “I do declare.” But the way Rebecca described it was just brilliant. She cut through all the iconography straight to the heart of it. Her ideas were fantastic and evocative and really keyed in to what a quietly devastating writer Williams could be.

How would you describe your character, John Buchanan?

Well, there’s an ambiguity to him that I still haven’t got my head round yet, to be honest. You could say he’s a bit of a hedonist. His father is a doctor, so he has known death from a young age and has a rather finite view of the world. He’s a stark contrast to Alma. She’s a preacher’s daughter who believes in eternity and a person’s soul existing long after death. It’s a point of contention between them. But they do see something in each other. They’re kindred spirits, I suppose. Both find themselves in moulds they aren’t comfortable with, and John is battling to break his.

What has surprised you most during rehearsals?

The rehearsal goat.

This will be your third show in 10 months at Almeida Theatre. What makes keeps you coming back?

A giddy combination of luck and blackmail! No, it’s just a ludicrously exciting place to work. I did a Martin Crimp play there called The Treatment last year and had a great time, so I was eager to come back at some point. It turned out that The Twilight Zone and Summer And Smoke came along at roughly the same time. I couldn’t think of three more different shows to be a part of, which is a testament to the Almeida’s programming. It’s a very daring theatre and that’s inspiring to be around. I’ve done other stuff in between, so it’s not like I live in the basement or something. But I do think if I’m lucky enough to do another show here, they’ll start charging me rent.

Matthew Needham and Patsy Ferran in rehearsals for Summer And Smoke at Almeida Theatre (Image: Marc Brenner)
Matthew Needham and Patsy Ferran in rehearsals for Summer And Smoke at Almeida Theatre (Image: Marc Brenner)

What was your first experience of theatre?

I’m sure it was a panto of some description, but the first I remember is The Wind In The Willows at the National Theatre. I must have been about six. I remember these huge sets and this incredible revolve revealing a huge portrait of Toad with his trousers down. All the weasels were laughing at it. It blew my little six-year-old mind.

Why is watching a live performance so special?

It’s different for everyone, but it must be something to do with being a part of it, surely? It is happening right there with you.

What one piece of advice would you give aspiring performers/directors?

I’m crap at advice. Don’t come to me for advice is my advice… oh, and be nice to people.

Apart from the Almeida, which is your favourite London theatre?

Contractually, I’m not allowed to acknowledge that there are any other London theatres.

Where is your favourite place to visit in London?

Borough Market, probably. I’ve spent so long around there and have lots of happy memories of it.

What’s your top tip for a trip to the theatre?

Definitely to go in and see a show. A trip to the theatre is fine by itself, but unless you actually go in and see something, you just aren’t getting the full experience.

Matthew Needham stars in Summer And Smoke at Almeida Theatre from 24 February to 7 April.