Actor Steven Webb wasn’t in much of Show 2, the Lyric Hammersmith’s recent staging of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire as part of its ongoing Secret Theatre season. (It’s OK to name the play now – the production’s finished.) But his brief appearance as the young collector hit on by Blanche DuBois was a comic master class in flustered awkwardness, in a scene not usually played for laughs. It perfectly reflected the Secret Theatre ensemble’s twinkly-eyed disregard of convention and epitomised a quality of Webb’s that reviews consistently pick up on: his ability – whatever the role – to draw audiences in and carry them along with him.
When we meet in the Lyric’s bustling café on a bright and chilly Friday, a boyish and buoyant Webb, 29, tells me that “going on a journey with the entire audience is something I absolutely revel in.” It’s something he’ll get to do every night in Jack and the Beanstalk, which opens at the Lyric this week. It marks his fourth panto in a row at the theatre. Before his first, where he starred as Dick Whittington, he was a panto virgin: “It was just something that hadn’t come up.” Now, he’s creative associate on Jack and has briefly stepped away from his Secret Theatre crowd to play Sprout, a new character and audience ‘friend’ devised for him by playwright Tom Wells.
Webb was never “a panto snob”, but he was blown away by how different the Lyric’s approach was to the cheap innuendo, celebrity casting and of it “being utterly for kids” of the pantos he remembers as a young boy. “It had traditional elements, but really modern humour. Sort of like The Office – my kind of humour,” he recalls. Sean Holmes, the Lyric’s artistic director, reintroduced the annual pantomime to the theatre in 2009 because “he felt it was vital to the community.” Since then, Webb says, the likes of last year’s hugely acclaimed Cinderella have successfully catered for the “gap in the middle, between the kids and the slightly older people who know all the cheeky jokes.”
What Webb characterises as the Lyric’s “Hammersmith lick” mixes magic – “to keep the kids interested” – with a modern vibe and a fresh approach to the traditional tales and characters. In Cinderella, Buttons got an entirely new storyline; this time, Sprout replaces Jack’s traditional friend, Simple Simon, who Webb describes as “a bit limiting: he’s quite a dopey character really.” Also this year, expect twerking. “There may be a few Miley Cyrus references,” Webb concedes. “Lots of tongues out.” It’s the anarchic spirit that attracts him to panto. Some of his favourite scenes are with Howard Ward’s Dame, “where we’re given a few key elements of script and then told to do whatever comes to mind. The first time was nerve-wracking but if you relax, it just comes to you.”
For Webb, it all comes back to being able to spark off an audience. “Rehearsing a panto is like rehearsing a comedy,” he says, wryly describing the latter as “one of the most miserable processes,” because, by the fourth run, “everyone in the room has seen it and they’re not finding the jokes fresh or funny.” That’s when risky changes to things that don’t actually need fixing happen. And just as it can take the electric jolt of a packed auditorium on opening night to rejuvenate the cast of a comedy and put them back in touch with the wit of their show, the same, Webb believes, is true of panto.
“You may be as knackered as fuck after warm-ups,” he reveals, “but when you’re waiting in the wings and you can hear excited kids screaming and jumping in their seats, it makes you step up.” The adrenalin rush produced by this burst of energy is, he says, with a grin, unlike any other feeling. “And especially with Jack, the opening is just me improvising for eight minutes on stage – talking to the audience and teaching them the rules, the callbacks and stuff. I love it.” And he’s not fussed if he gets that kick from playing the title role, the best friend, the Dame or the villain.
It was his comfort with – and aptitude for – this style of performing that Webb says probably got him the part of the young collector in Show 2: “Streetcar is incredibly heavy and depressing, so you need some light things. Sean kind of said, ‘Do your thing with that.’ So I got to mess around a bit.” But there were some restrictions. “Especially with something like that, you can go too far.” Webb laughs. “Sean was careful to make sure I wasn’t like, ‘Hellooo, boys and girls!’ when I came on stage.”
What grabs him most about panto’s early history is the camaraderie, the notion that “a group of travelling players of the Commedia dell’Arte all got drunk in a pub one time and said, ‘Hey, shall we put something on?” For Webb, “proper theatre” is about a company of creative people coming together with a common purpose and a fresh approach. It’s what keeps him coming back to the Lyric panto and why he jumped at Holmes’s offer earlier this year to become part of Secret Theatre. “I was hungry for it,” he says. “I wanted to be in those rehearsals that you hear about, where people are fighting and punching each other, and crying. It sounded so appealing to me!” He laughs, before continuing more seriously: “Because everyone has a voice and everyone’s so passionate about what they’re doing.”
Secret Theatre was born out of practical and artistic imperatives: to utilise the Lyric’s stage during a major, year-long refurbishment and Holmes’s desire to push the envelope of British theatre-making after his revelatory experience of Simon Stephens’s Three Kingdoms, produced at the Lyric last year and heavily informed by the very different disciplines of European theatre. In April, a 20-strong repertory company of actors, writers, directors and designers began collaborating on a season of new and radically adapted work. Since then, three shows have been staged in the partially closed auditorium, with more on the way.
Being offered a role in Secret Theatre felt like a creative olive branch to Webb, who was far from blind to the number of times he seemed to be playing the role of “the gay best friend or singy-dancey one” in shows. From performing in ‘straight’ plays like Alan Bennett’s The History Boys – where he replaced Samuel Barnett as Posner in the second casting – or Simon Stephens’s On the Shore of the Wide World, he had become entrenched in musical theatre by that point. “I love musicals,” he tells me, “but it reached a stage where I’d just done so many, I felt like I was missing something.”
For Webb, who’s performed professionally since his youth, Secret Theatre has been as much about challenging his perceptions of himself as an actor as upending the expectations of others. Holmes’s “gift” to him was the promise of cross-casting, and that it would be “fucking hard.” He’s already stepped outside his comfort zone with the first three plays, tackling several very different parts, of varying sizes. “I want that,” he stresses. “I don’t want anything to be a breeze. I want to struggle, to actually go through that process.” It’s paying off: in the next few shows, he’ll be playing roles that, he believes, he’d never be seen for normally.
The claims of elitism that greeted Secret Theatre in some corners of the press – particularly in response to the decision not to disclose the titles of the plays being performed – frustrated Webb. “It made a name for itself in a way that we didn’t plan for or expect,” he says. “Being elitist was the last thing we wanted; Secret Theatre is all about being inclusive.” After all, not knowing what you’re going to see turns a trip to the theatre into an adventure. And, Webb points out, a play like Streetcar – a permanent fixture of school syllabuses and stamped in celluloid by Brando and Leigh – arrives with a lot of baggage. Dropping the title was a way to get people into the Lyric who might otherwise give it a miss, put off by its status as a ‘classic’ and all that entailed.
Passion is the key word here, not reverence. Webb sees Secret Theatre as levelling the field – treating all plays, whatever their prior reputation, simply as works to be staged as imaginatively as possible. Show 2, which opened the season, was a declaration of intent. It ditched Streetcar’s usual Deep South setting for white-walled minimalism and saw the cast speak in their native accents rather than the ubiquitous drawl. “The point of that,” Webb says, “was that it’s always done the same way, with star casting and with the same set and the same feel and the same comedy to it.” Secret Theatre chipped way the accretions of past productions and shed a quite different light on the play, finding new shades of pain and humour.
The show wasn’t perfect, but then Webb wouldn’t claim it was. Theatrical experimentation inevitably comes with risk, and this is integral to the Secret Theatre project. “Part of our manifesto is that we’re not afraid of failure,” he says decisively. “It takes the pressure off. There are flaws in all three of our first shows, but we completely embrace that.” Some things fly loose when you shake them up, and acknowledging that can be as freeing and invigorating for an audience as it is on stage. “It’s great if a show gets people going away and talking about it,” says Webb.
He’s fascinated by how Secret Theatre has laid bare some of the differences between “bloggers” and mainstream critics in terms of how they’ve responded to its principles and written about the shows. He sees it as contributing to the debate over the benefits of digital criticism versus mainstream, print-based models. “There’s been lots of talk about where theatre criticism is headed,” he observes, “and this has been a great outing for that. It’s created this little hum between people about where, in the future, they’d go to find out about a show.”
Webb’s enthusiasm for Secret Theatre is infectious as he argues that, with it, the Lyric has tapped into the same cultural zeitgeist as the Royal Court’s recent programming under Vicky Featherstone’s artistic directorship. “When shows 1 and 2 opened, it was when The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas opened at the Court. Those productions were the talking point of that moment,” he enthuses. The response he’s had from people who’ve been to Secret Theatre convinces him that “there’s a real hunger” for what it represents. “There’s a younger generation, who don’t go to the theatre that much, who’ve just been completely blown away by it.”
In the end, Webb’s love of Secret Theatre stems from the audience’s response and the buzz of collaboration. “People often ask about roles and whether everyone gets a lead part at some point, and we really don’t care,” he says. “I was only in Streetcar for a few minutes, but I was so proud of it. We were all on stage, all of the time, because all of our ideas were up there. We created it. It was our baby.” And he’s reluctant to let go of that. While he’s cagey about Secret Theatre’s future beyond the next few shows, he says there are no plans for the company to end. Then he looks mischievous. “Let’s bring back the travelling players,” he says.
Read the Exeunt interview with Secret Theatre’s Cara Horgan.
Jack and the Beanstalk is at the Lyric Hammersmith from 23 November 2013 – 4 January 2014. Secret Theatre’s Show 4 opens soon.