With his stage career starting a few years ago, Samuel Townsend has recently finished a run at Sheffield Crucible as Francis Flute in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Artistic Director Rob Hastie and music by Dan Gillespie Sells. This year has also seen Samuel perform alongside Bill Milner and Sheila Hancock at London’s Charing Cross Theatre in the production of Harold and Maude and has previously had screen experience including a guest role in popular TV show The Royals. Catching up with Samuel this week, he tells us about appearing in Harold and Maude, his first stage role and his recent run in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Last month, you finished your run in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Sheffield Crucible, how did it go?
This was a bit of a dream job (pun intented!). The Sheffield Crucible is one of the finest regional theatres with a reputation for putting on great shows. Rob Hastie is the artistic director and directed hit shows The York Realist and My Night With Reg in the West End, so I was really excited to work with him. We had new music by The Feeling’s Dan Gillespie Sells, who also wrote Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, so it was an impressive team. I had an amazing time there; everyone was so lovely and the Sheffield audiences are super supportive and loyal. I’d love to work there again.
What did you enjoy most about playing the role of Francis Flute?
I think the mechanicals are one of Shakespeare’s best comic creations. They translate so well to modern day audiences because even 400 years later they are completely recognisable. The world of amateur dramatics hasn’t changed a bit and you can tell that Shakespeare was writing these characters from first-hand experience. Flute is often portrayed as the youngest of the mechanicals and is excited to play a warrior or a knight in their play. It’s a great moment when he’s cast as the female lead and the reality sinks in that he’s not quite in the casting bracket that he thought. I’ve met a few people who have misjudged their casting!
Had you worked with any of the cast or crew previously?
I’m realising more and more how small the industry seems to be. I’d not worked with any of the team before, but you always discover plenty of mutual friends. It’s more often one degree of separation in the theatre so it’s a good idea to be nice, everybody talks! Rob Hastie, along with Robert Sterne (the casting director), has a great talent for casting nice people. Francesca Mills played Snug and she’s a brilliant young actress who is already having a great start to her career, she’s one to watch and the epitome of a nice person!
How long were you in rehearsals for this production?
We had the standard four-week rehearsal process. Rob came up with this great idea to turn the “play within a play” into a Jesus Christ Superstar-esque rock opera parody. We had to spend a good amount of time rehearsing that as we were effectively putting on a new musical. My first introduction to theatre was the London revival of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Lyceum Theatre back in 1997. The show is still one of my favourites, so I had great fun poking fun at it. Danny Rigby played Bottom and I’ve never laughed so much at another actor’s performance, he has very funny bones!
How different was it performing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Sheffield Crucible opposed to being cast in the same production previously at Middle Temple Hall in 2016?
The great thing about Shakespeare is that no two productions are the same. MND in particular is very magical and surreal anyway so it can be set in any place or time and it still works. The production in Middle Temple Hall was very different to Sheffield, it’s a very majestic building with a lot of history – the first recorded performance of Twelfth Night was there in 1602! We had a full orchestra playing the Mendelssohn score so the text was trimmed down a lot. It was also a short rehearsal process and run so I was happy to get another go at Flute and spend some more time developing the character.
Can you tell us about your time in Harold and Maude earlier this year?
Harold and Maude was such a beautiful show. I hadn’t (and still haven’t) seen the 60’s film but when I read the script I was desperate to get involved. It’s a pretty quirky story about a teenager who is fascinated by death and falls in love with a woman in her eighties. There’s so much wisdom about life and love and it has some proper life-affirming speeches. I was brought on to understudy Harold but also played Sgt Doppel and during rehearsals ended up voicing Mr. Murgatroyd, Maude’s pet seal… The part was as random as it sounds and had some great comedy moments.
What was it like appearing in the show at Charing Cross Theatre in London?
The Charing Cross Theatre is a lovely space and audiences really enjoyed the show so it was a joy to be part of. The film has a great soundtrack by Cat Stevens, but for this production we had a new score written by Michael Bruce. He wrote some beautiful music inspired by Maude’s Austrian heritage which was played live by the cast. I never came into the industry expecting to be hired for my instrument skills but I’ve ended up playing something in most of the shows I’ve been in. In this I ended up on the piano, guitar, ukulele, accordion and lots of percussion, so I was kept very busy!
How was the experience acting alongside Bill Milner and Sheila Hancock, who played the roles of Harold and Maude respectively?
Sheila is a real national treasure. You wouldn’t believe that she turned 85 during the run – she has so much energy and in the show she was climbing a 10ft ladder and sitting on the top for a whole scene, she really is fearless. She’s had a very long career and champions young actors so offered me a lot of advice! Bill is a rising star and it was great to catch him on the way up. He’s making a great career on screen but I’m glad I got to work with him on stage. The show was extended for an extra six weeks, with Patrick Walshe-McBride and Linda Marlowe taking over the leads, they were both amazing and brought something completely different to the roles.
You were in the ensemble for Pink Floyd: The Wall workshop in 2014, what do you remember most about being involved?
I’m not 100% sure how much I can say as it’s possibly still in development. Other than the popular songs, I didn’t know a huge amount about Pink Floyd before working on it. Rehearsing with Roger Waters was an amazing experience, as was Simon McBurney who runs Complicité. Roger’s music is so expressive and the whole album is so theatrical that it lends itself perfectly for the stage. The album has since become one of my favourites so I hope something comes of it!
Have you seen any theatre shows recently that you would recommend?
Well, I would definitely have recommended Girl From The North Country but sadly that’s finished over here. Music and theatre go so well together when done right and, in my opinion, they got it totally right; it had great writing and fantastic performances. I don’t see nearly as much as I’d like to but I’m planning on seeing Hadestown at the National Theatre soon, I think that’ll be very good.
When did your theatre career start and what was your first professional show?
My first stage job was As You Like It at Southwark Playhouse in 2014. I’d only recently graduated from Central so I was pretty nervous to join a professional company but everyone was so friendly. Derek Bond directed a brilliant cast that included Simon Lipkin and Kaisa Hammurland. I’m always learning from the people I work with and I was lucky to start my career with such talented people.
You’ve appeared in TV shows previously, would you like to do more screen work?
I’m a big fan of the theatre and the process of developing a character through a rehearsal process. You can’t cut and try again if something goes wrong, so there’s an element of risk that can only be found on the stage. When I was younger, I was a member of the ITV Television Workshop, a weekly screen acting class in Bristol. I had some big auditions for Hollywood films and almost got the lead in a CBBC series! That gave me a real buzz for the screen at an early age. I do find the art of filmmaking fascinating, so I’d love to be involved in some more!
Were there any actors you aspired to be like when growing up?
I think my tastes have changed slightly over time – when I was much younger I wanted to be Bruce Willis… I can’t say that’s still the case! I am inspired by so many actors nowadays – celebrity doesn’t interest me very much, but when I meet people who are at the top of their game and still completely grounded, that’s what I aspire to.
Do you have any projects coming up that you can tell us about?
I’ve taken this Christmas off as I spent the last two in shows. You tend to only get Christmas Day off so, unless you’re close to home (or lucky enough to have parents willing to taxi you back for the day, like mine had to!), you don’t really get to spend much time with your family, and I’m a big fan of Christmas!
What are you hoping 2019 brings for your career?
There are a few things opening next year that I’ve got my eye on but I’m also very happy to see what comes my way; it’s not really the kind of career where you can plan a trajectory of any sort. I’m always hoping that an audition will come in for a good role that’s written well and there are lots of directors I’d hope to work with at some point soon.
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