The Woman In White at Yvonne ArnaudBy Phil Creighton
August 19, 2011
In the auditorium, the lights are going down, the excited chatter subdues and the cast are waiting nervously in the wings as they prepare for the curtain to go up.
Well, most of the cast. There’s one self-confessed grumpy old man (he’s actually witty, charming and lovely) who’s got his feet up in the dressing room, busy not with line-learning but crossword solving.
It’s actor Colin Baker – famous as the sixth Doctor Who – who is enjoying taking it easy as his character doesn’t appear until the second act. But think he’s sitting down on the job; his latest role is the charming and duplicitous Count Fosco in the a new stage production of The Woman In White.
“I do The Times crossword in my dressing room,” he reveals, giving his brain a good workout before joining the 13-strong cast on stage.
But, says the experienced stage actor, who also starred in The Brothers back in the 1970s, he thinks that the smaller roles can be harder.
“The smaller roles – the supporting roles in a play – they are often more arduous,” he says.
“Once you’re on stage for a big role you don’t have time to think about it, you just get on with it.”
The Woman In White, by Wilkie Collins, started life as a newspaper serial story before being published as a massive novel 150 years ago. The pageturner has never been out of print since and has been adapted for film and television numerous times. Andrew Lloyd Webber even turned it into a short-lived musical version in 1994 – but, given its length, it’s rarely been adapted as a stage play.
“There’s three acts, which is unusual these days. You can’t cram it all into three hours of drama,” Colin admits. “And there’s one or two things that happen that can’t be portrayed on stage.”
As the original book clocks in at around 600 pages, there have been some economies made for the play – even so, it still runs for around three hours, features lengthy scenes of exposition and has a large cast.
To get round some of scenes that are impossible to bring to life in a stage play the actors occasionally break the fourth wall and step into the spotlight and give some exposition to the audience.
Before the play opened Colin admits he had some doubts as to whether it would be successful, so he’s delighted that he’s been proved wrong.
“It’s something that works extremely well,” he says excitedly. “It’s a play about people in formal clothes talking to each other and the audience is gripped. It’s amazing and it’s really gratifying and surprising.”
Colin adds: “When were we in Wolverhampton, I met one person in the street who said, ‘We got good value for money last night. Plays are normally an hour-and-a-half or two hours – we got three hours of entertainment’.
“I thought that’s an unusual approach – I’m normally complaining if I’m in a seat for three hours!” And he laughs, adding: “There’s been a lot of praise of the play and the acting.”
But staging an epic show during the low summer days when a lot of theatres have shut is still a risk.
“It’s a gamble we’ve taken and we’re doing extremely well,” he says, modestly adding that he thinks it’s the play – rather than the impressive cast which includes Emmerdale’s Peter Amory and Duty Free star Neil Stacy.
Colin is full of praise for the source material, lauding its characters and the twist and turns of the plot which includes kidnap and murder as well as focusing on a woman trying to survive in a male dominated world.
“The themes resonant today,” he adds. “Every page has incident and incredibly complicated lines and subplots. Writers really worked hard back in those days.”
When Colin was sounded out about this new version, was he disappointed to learn that it wasn’t a revival of the musical?
He laughs loudly before responding: “I would have been intrigued… I do sing a little bit in this version – a bit of Rossini.”
But not everyone appreciates the Time Lord’s dulcet tones: “My daughters always tell me to shut up when I sing,” he says before playfully rebutting “but I do the same when they do – there’s a very helpful rivalry in the family.”
Colin’s website can be found at www.colinbakeronline.com and he tweets as @SawbonesHex.
The Woman in White is at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford from August 22 to 27. Call 01483 440000 or visit www.yvonne-arnaud.co.uk
The play will also be at The Haymarket in Basingstoke between October 10 and 15.