“I was a rehearsal room baby,” Ché Walker, says with a characteristic laugh. “I grew up watching my mum and dad rehearsing. My dad ran the original Half Moon Theatre in east London and my mum [the actress, Ann Mitchell] was in Monstrous Regiment.”
The first Half Moon (before it moved to bigger premises in a disused Methodist chapel in 1979) was housed in a rented synagogue near Aldgate. The building was “really battered. It had a rough-hewn, found-space quality, much like this,” he gestures at our surroundings. “I really respond to these kinds of spaces.” We are sitting in a corner of the Southwark Playhouse bar, with its exposed brickwork and vaulted ceiling, its well-worn and faintly shabby sofas; the quiet punctuated by the trains passing overhead. Walker is taking a brief break from rehearsals for his forthcoming production of John Patrick Shanley’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. It’s a play he clearly, passionately loves. He first saw it back in 1994 and went on to star in it early in his career, playing Danny in a mid-1990s production at the Interchange Studios. Now he’s returned to it again, this time as a director, with Clare Latham (who starred in Walker’s production of Blue Surge at the Finborough earlier this year) and Jonathan Chambers taking the title role.
In Shanley’s 1983 two-hander, a man and a woman, both lonely, both accustomed to living on the fringes, meet in a Bronx dive bar. He is volatile and quick-tempered, violence is like a wave within him, a constant swell; she is tormented by her past, damaged, fragile and yet tough, hardened by life. It is a play of transformation; these two bruised people both find solace in the other, salvation of sorts. “I love the humour of it,” Walker explains,” I think it’s a funny play. It’s a rare gift to take something that bleak and make it funny. It’s brave, balls-out writing.”
A lot of Walker’s work, as a playwright at least, is concerned with the urban and contemporary, the noise and pulse of life in London, its patterns, its people. “I work to a city rhythm as a writer,” he admits. His best known play, The Frontline – a large-canvas work of urban celebration written specifically for the Globe and the first play with a contemporary setting to be staged there – encapsulates this. So what is it about the play from the early 1980s that speaks to him? “I think it’s both timeless and epic in its way. As we’ve gone along we’ve come to find it a very spiritual play. It’s extraordinary to have a two-hander which is some ways so local, set in a bar and a bedroom, which has such vast resonance. Sin, transgression, redemption. It’s about that feeling of being out of control, of being stained by past crimes and what you do to get rid of that feeling.” And while it’s a very contained, intimate piece, the outside world keeps seeping in; the unseen characters are very present – and the occasional lumbering rumble of a train overhead is almost an asset. Which is a good thing as the play is being staged in the Vault, Southwark Playhouse’s more unfinished, second space. “It’s a challenging space to work in, but I love it, I think it’s magic. I think the outside noise enhances our play. I like the rawness of it.”