Theatre Critic and Journalist

Acting His Age: Oliver Chris

Acting His Age: Oliver Chris

Published in The Stage, 22.01.2009

“A beard can cover up any lack of talent – that’s my advice for all young actors. For the first time professionally, I’m going onstage beardless. In the previous two plays I’ve done, I felt that I had to have a beard, but no longer do I need my beard crutch.”

If Oliver Chris’s words suggest a resurgent self-belief, they also point towards a newfound sense of maturity. The facial fuzz, one suspects, was something of a shield that enabled a fiercely youthful actor to tackle the heftier, highbrow roles of Petruchio and, more recently, Caspar Goodwood in Peter Hall’s production of Portrait of a Lady. Both projects were, he says, “massive and brilliant learning experiences.”

Having recently turned 30, he seems to have left behind the type of roles for which he is best known in television comedies – immature young men ill-equipped for the post-student ‘real world’; activists against adulthood. “I fell into a perennial student role. I’m not saying that students are slapdash, but I suppose I’ve played these cocksure, scruffy characters that are slightly disregarding of authority. I’m not sure if that’s true of me as a person now, but certainly in my schooldays I was like that.”

Now, clean-shaven and come of age, Chris is making his West End debut in Lisa Kron’s Tony Award-nominated comedy Well at the Apollo Theatre. “The fact that people are calling it a West End debut is really nice, but the location is the last reason that I’m doing this. Of course, I’m excited – it’s every young actor’s dream to be on the West End stage – but, ultimately, a stage is a stage is a stage. We could do it in a field, as far as I’m concerned. It’s all about the play – it’s just got a really nice heart to it.”

Lisa Kron’s semi-autobiographical script focuses on avant-garde performance, revolving around a daughter’s presentation of her mother’s life. Chris joins the production, which stars Sarah Miles and Natalie Casey as mother and daughter, following its run at the Trafalgar Studios in September of last year.

By his own admission, Chris is something of a sceptic about performance art. “Personally, I place quite a high regard on accessibility. It is art, yes, but when one person goes up onto a stage, covers themselves in pig’s blood and screams for half an hour, I just get a bit confused and upset by the whole thing.

“The great thing about Well is that it takes the idea of performance art and theatrical presentation and turns it on its head. It pokes fun at its own earnestness and the whole thing disintegrates into total chaos. The point being that one person’s perspective can never be the whole truth.”

Comedy of any sort, he believes, must have prey to stalk and Well is no exception. “Anything that takes itself too seriously is a great target for comedy and a target is essential. It’s also extremely personal and subjective. One of the things great comedy does is to take something totally leftfield or everyday and make its humour, its quirks and ironies, accessible to everyone.”

Featuring Green Wing, Nathan Barley and The IT Crowd, Chris’s CV almost reads like a potted history of British comedy post The Office, in the pilot episode of which Chris made his professional debut whilst still a student at the Central School of Speech and Drama.

“I don’t think anyone expected The Office to take off in the way it did. When it first went out no one really watched it. It was only on the repeat that people started to get the joke and then it exploded into this global phenomenon. We always knew that the quality was good, but a lot of things are good quality. It’s no guarantee that the public will like it.”

Through The Office and Green Wing, Channel 4’s madcap hospital comedy, Chris has become a recognisable face, if not a household name. As the medical student Boyce, he was part of a sizzingly double-act, playing the straight man to Mark Heap’s Dr. Alan Statham and creating some of the funniest sequences of both series.

“There was a lot opportunity to improvise and be hilarious – to take centre stage. I just settled into being a foil for other people. I think the slightly straighter characters are really important but, coming from an acting background rather than pure comedy, you just try and serve the scene.”

Like many actors, Chris clearly thrives on the variety of his work and, as such, is relishing the rigidity and collaboration inherent in theatre. “I really like having a solid structure in which to find the gaps to play with. Total freedom can lead to paralysis, but when you’ve got a nice structure you can easily jump away and break it, because it’s always there to fall back on.

“In Well, I’m one of the ensemble. I’m there, hopefully not standing out, hopefully just bolstering the show as part of an egoless ensemble and that’s great, because if you’re on television it can all contribute to ego inflation. Everyone here is so young and vibrant, exciting and excited. There’s just a wonderful atmosphere, totally free from cynicism and that should definitely happen more often.”

Photograph: Oliver Chris

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