“I believe there was a conversation at a bar about who should play this part. My name came up. Sometimes it’s really that simple.” With this as the explanation for how Stephen Jubber landed a role in the SA return season of The Play That Goes Wrong – now on at Theatre on the Bay until 18 November 2017 – we simply could not pass on the opportunity to find out more about his new farce-adventure.
In the South African staging of the West End sensation, The Play That Goes Wrong (PTGW), Jubber “plays Robert, who in turn plays Thomas Collymoore in the amateur dramatic society's production of Murder at Haversham Manor. And Robert is about as amateur dramatic as you get. He loves acting. He loves the challenge of improvising around problems. Trouble is, he's not terribly good at either.”
While Jubber is no amateur, he does have one obvious trait in common with his Robert/Thomas PTGW character – they both love acting.
Jubber shares that he knew he wanted to pursue an acting career thanks to his sister, Tessa. He describes her as “the pioneer", because she led the way by inspirational example: Studying drama at UCT, and after graduating taking to the stage, television and even the big screen. He tells that she set the entertainment bar quite high, though she did so in a very unique motivational fashion: “More than function as inspiration, she gave me this nonchalant notion that probably set my career in motion. I paraphrase, but it was along the lines of ‘Get an agent, Stephen. Go to some auditions. Maybe you'll get a role. Might as well give it a shot...’. That kind of casual attitude has pretty much characterised my career evolution.”
Known for his recent musical and dramatic roles, Cape Town audiences may not readily associate this easy-going Jubber with a fast-paced frenzy of a farce that has become the trademark of the Olivier Award-winning Mischief Theatre Company, the masterminds behind PTGW. Why now the appeal of tackling this genre of theatre?
“I've had a handful of laugh-lines in my musical theatre outings”, he shares, “but nothing remotely approaching the kind of laughter The Play That Goes Wrong achieves. And in the dramatic theatre world? Forget it!" So when the opportunity to play a role in a world-class farce came by, Jubber accepted the challenge without hesitation: "How appealing to play comedy, to really just have a good time. It's quite addictive actually. Something that I would certainly like to do more of.”
That makes one wonder if Jubber has always had a natural inclination towards the comedic side of the stage. He candidly admits that upon telling a good friend that he was joining the cast of PTGW, he was immediately met with the response, “But Steve, you're not funny”. Jubber's honest reaction? “Truer words have never been spoken! But between the material and the direction, the process of learning this show has been nothing short of a masterclass in developing 'funny bones'. I watch my cast mates very closely too, just as they watch me – there is so much good stuff to take in! And we often suggest new ways of playing the gags to one another. So you never stop learning and honing the funniest way to play a line or an action. And it is such a science. I had no idea until now.”
In now realising that comedy is so much more than just a quick gag, but actually a detailed and very complex theatrical discipline, Jubber must obviously have a comedic idol or mentor to whom he looks for inspiration?
“Is Alan Committie going to read this?”, he cautiously asks. “Alan Committie is my biggest comedic inspiration and idol. Because he is very smart and funny. And a nice man. And my director. And employer.”
Flattery, when mixed with a good dose of truth, always makes for a good answer. Jubber, should definitely be safe with that response. But just to make sure, we gave him scope to elaborate on his experience of working with his director/idol.
“He's a brilliant man and he has a quick mind. That's his brand of comedy, and boy does it work! Having Alan at the helm is nothing short of a masterclass for us. Nothing slips by him. He cares deeply about the show, and the performers in it, and wants nothing short of the very best performance possible. So, there is no room for apathy or complacency. Over one hundred shows later, he still takes great care to check in, note us, and hone the performances. Not every director would do that. Particularly not when they are in fact concurrently running a one-man show in another part of the country!” [Inserts public service announcement about Alan Committie currently performing Laughing Matters at the Pieter Toerien Main Theatre at Montecasino until 19 November 2017, to make sure Jubber's employer notes it.]
All jokes offstage, Jubber admits that this PTGW journey has challenged and developed him as a performer. “This show has changed my appreciation of comics and comedy forever”, he confesses. “As I mentioned earlier, comedy is nothing short of a science. Timing is at the heart of everything. But, so is truth - for instance, if you nail the timing of the gag, but you play it in a way that jars, if you are not true to your character, the audience won't buy it. Take too long with the setup, they can predict the punchline. Rush the setup, the punchline won't make sense, because the audience may have missed an important step. I'm getting to grips with a whole new dimension of very technical performance. Good thing I'm a quick learner.”
Taking the science cue, apart from the funny angles, PTGW is also physically challenging. Prepping for a production of this nature definitely takes more than learning lines and setting-up punchlines, with actors literally and expertly falling all over the place and even dangling from up high (not to give too much away). Being part of a farce of this magnitude and complexity calls on the performers to be ever aware of what is going on around them, to keep the energy levels high, but also to avoid actually walking into a wall.
“Touch wood, there have been no recent physical injuries... But there most certainly were some major ones in the early run. I think the potential dangers have been identified (at the cost of real blood!), and those dangers have been minimized through re-staging and in at least one case, bungee cord and some strong knots. As far as prep for the physical stuff is concerned, I'm fortunate to have had a background in dance, all thanks to my mum's dance studio really – kept me light on my feet.”
Even with that light-footedness, there have been rumours of PTGW casts across the world keeping count of all unscripted bloody wrongs. “Absolutely!”, says Jubber. “Not only do we keep count, but we keep score! And the ribbing at the bar afterwards is merciless.”
Amidst all the shenanigans that go along with being part of a cast of such a farcical feat, and Jubber’s clear commitment to his character-within-a-character, is there any other role in this production that is a personal favourite? In considering this, he comments that “you've got to love the butler. It's such a delightful stock character. I think we've all loved the comic exploits of butlers after being subjected to the annual New Year's Eve screening of Dinner For One. Same procedure as every year...”
Even with it being the same procedure every night in the case of PTGW too, Jubber shares that it is difficult for him to isolate his most memorable moment so far, as the execution of the procedure “literally changes night to night”. Though he pauses, and then qualifies this general trend:
“But this evening [Friday, 3 October 2017] was a new one. A woman in the front row threw her hands up in delight at one point. Trouble is, she was holding a glass of champagne, which showered the people behind her. The audience were in hysterics. We were in hysterics. The audience was in hysterics at us being in hysterics. We were in hysterics at the audience being in hysterics at us. We had champagne with her afterwards and were in hysterics all over again.”
Never a dull moment with this PTGW cast and crew, and apparently even the audience members too! Which brings us to that comedy question… what about corpsing? Is it even possible to fight it when the moment strikes, or does it just come down to hiding it very well?
Responding with a genuine honesty, Jubber explains, “sometimes you just need to surrender to the laughter. As long as the audience is in on the joke and it's not kept secret from them, let it in. A genuine belly laugh is so joyful when it's shared between the performers and the audience. So unifying. It gives a moment life like nothing else can. Any time it's happened, I'd like to think it sticks in the audience's conscious long after the show. It certainly stays with us."
With all that in mind, the ultimate question eventually comes into the spotlight: Why does Stephen Jubber think Cape Town audiences should come and see him and the rest of the crazy cast in PTGW?
“You mean I haven't sold it sufficiently after all that?” he jests. “Let me try and put this succinctly: It's unlike anything you've ever seen in live theatre. It's a dizzying cascade of disasters. Everything that can go wrong in a night at the theatre, does. And this brave group of performers and technical staff do their utmost to keep the show going. Mr Committie has directed a terrific cast in a very tightly written piece of comedy. And the set is quite literally a deathtrap. I'll wager this show will catch you off guard, a lot.”
With that sell, how can you not already be booking your tickets at Computicket to see the side-splitting, uproarious farce that is The Play That Goes Wrong? And don’t be typically Capetonian about it and wait too long until it's eventually too late. You will regret it if you don’t get yourself to Theatre on the Bay by 18 November 2017, because as stated in our #SceneIt review when this production first stumbled onto the stage in May 2017:
"The Play That Goes Wrong is a scream... of terror, for the casts' characters, and of exuberant delight, for the audience. The magic of this production is that everything goes so wrong, that it is absolutely right in being a gloriously catastrophic murder mystery. Fortune truly smiles on the ‘unfortunate’... You will literally see everything, from the actors to the exquisitely constructed set, fall apart and still be left wanting more of the chaos-driven comedy. HILARIOUS is not a strong enough description."