Peter Hannah joined the original cast of the West End transfer of Waitress the Musical as Earl, the abusive husband to lead character Jenna, which has been played by Katharine McPhee and Lucie Jones, with his final performance in September last year. Prior to his run in Waitress, Peter performed in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, both in New York and Scotland, and amongst his numerous roles in theatre, he made his West End debut in 2015 in Shakespeare in Love. Along with his stage career, Peter has also worked on screen including as Alex in feature film Above the Clouds, filming an episode of Doctor Who and can be seen in two upcoming TV series. Having a chat with Peter, we found out about being the original Earl in the West End production of Waitress, spending six months in New York with The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart and his time in Shakespeare in Love.
You played Earl in the Original West End Cast of Waitress the Musical, what was he like to play?
Earl was a fun character to play… he was great! I got to love him the more I got to play him. You have to learn to love your character even if he’s a horrible man, so the longer I played him, the more I got to delve into his world and discover the wants and needs that he has. For me, I thought he was quite a pivotal character in the whole show and he showed the most depth with what was going on behind this bravado and anger. I loved delving into the psychology of him, but coupled with that, of course it was challenging. Earl is very much the antagonist in what is an upbeat and optimistic show with lots of comedy and music, so that was quite challenging. Some audiences were more forgiving than others but I loved it.
Getting to perform opposite Lucie (Jones) and Kat (McPhee) was amazing. They offered something different every night so it kept it fresh for me. I really loved it and it was a complete sidestep to who I am as a person, and that’s always fun to play.
What were the auditions like?
The auditions were long and arduous to say the least! I think we did about six rounds in the end. This was my first ever professional musical and my first large-scale commercial show so it was my first experience of mass auditioning with lots of people coming in and having lots of different rounds. It was hard and maybe I was a bit naive to it, but I loved it. I rocked up, did my thing, and they seemed to like it each round which was great. I never thought in a month of Sundays that I would ever get it.
The first round was with David Grindrod (our casting director maestro) and he was amazing and put us at ease. We then had a second round with David and Barry (our producer), a third round with a member of the American creative team and another round with the director and all of the American team. We then did a fifth round which was with everyone and there were 20 to 25 people on the panel, so that was pretty intimidating! That was at the Dominion Theatre so there was a huge space to fill, especially in the intimate scenes, but I loved it. Sara Bareilles was there, so I knew even if I got culled, I’d been able to perform in front of her which was great! We thought that was the final round but then we got called to say they were going to do another round with chemistry reading.
That final round was very weird as there were two of each character – two different Doctors, two different Jennas, two different Dawns, two different Beckys… but I seemed to be the only Earl there. More people appeared later on so it became like a weird psychological warfare where you didn’t know if you’d got it, or were just being used as a pawn. As I said, I was quite naive to it all, just going along expecting to be culled at any moment, so I was just loving being around so many talented and lovely people. We were then held for a few weeks whilst decisions were being made as it took a bit of time with the transatlantic partnerships.
I was on the way to one of my other part time jobs when I got a phone call from my agent telling me I’d got the part of Earl. I was a very happy kids entertainer!
How was the experience of opening night?
Opening night was one of the most surreal experiences of my whole acting life. It was quite spiritual in a weird way as we’d grown such a strong bond over the four weeks of previews. There had been a lot of press about it and there was a hype of people wanting to see it. We knew it was such a great show, but obviously there is always a slight trepidation with reviewers coming in and having an opinion on it. It was amazing though, and really cool.
Every night we did a prayer circle led by Marisha (Wallace), which was a lovely moment for us all to come together. We expanded that on opening night with the front and backstage teams, the creatives, Diane Paulus and Sara, and we came into the circle after the warm up and that was very special.
The show was great and the reaction was unbelievable, and then the party was unbelievable after it! It’s very, very surreal looking back.
What did you enjoy most about being part of the show?
I think being able to share such an important story and seeing how it affected so many people. It was amazing to see the reactions from the audience, cast members, crew and the creative team of how it affects people at different stages and moments within the show. Getting to spend over 250 shows seeing that reaction was pretty special. The bond we created between the cast and crew was amazing. It was quite an arduous rehearsal process getting it up and running and trying to replicate it over here, but everyone just got on with it with a smile and laughter. I made friends for life. Also, getting to perform in the West End in front of 1500 people! I would say they were the best bits.
Did you have chance to return to the Adelphi to see the show after you’d left?
I did! I went to the last show of Laura Baldwin and Steve Leask. It might have been Marisha’s last night as well, but it was also Joe Sugg and some of the other cast members’ last night. I wanted to leave it a little bit of time, just because I’d done the show a lot and I wanted to have some breathing space from it and be able to go back and appreciate it with fresh eyes. It was unbelievable. When I saw it, I was blown away. You experience it one way being on stage with the reaction from the audience, but when you are sitting in the audience and all the mechanics of it start blending together – sound, lighting, set, costumes, performers and music – you get blown away by it. Then you start to think about your experience in it and how amazing it was to be part of it. You’re always appreciative of it when you’re doing it, but you don’t really appreciate it until it’s over. I haven’t been able to watch shows I’m in before because most have finished when I’m playing the part, so getting to come back and see a show is very surreal.
I was hoping to go back for the last night but Waitress has come to a premature ending unfortunately.
Can you tell us about your time in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart?
That was another unbelievable experience of my life. The show had already been running in collaboration with the Royal Court and National Theatre Of Scotland. The National Theatre Of Scotland is a theatre without walls so they don’t have a theatre space, they just bring theatre to wherever. Prudencia Hart was set in a pub in Scotland, and we have this thing called a lock in, which is when the last orders are called, all the doors close and everyone stays in the pub and carry on the party.
We had a performance at the McKittrick Hotel in New York, and that’s where Punchdrunk have their big juggernaut show, Sleep No More. The producers of that had seen the show and asked us to come over and do a six-month stint in New York. It was unbelievable. We got to perform in downtown Manhattan in an unbelievable warehouse that had been dressed to the inch of its life for Sleep No More and it was the most perfect setting. The show was very well received and we won the Critic’s Pick by Ben Brantley, who’s the big critic for New York Times, which was great.
I did it for just over six months and was put up in a penthouse apartment on 42nd Street. I walked to work every day and did the performance which was a three-hour show with five cast members. It was very, very physical – we’d climb up the tables, we were making stuff from chairs, we’d bring the audience in to it all and we’d tell a fairytale story which also infused folk music.
It’s a folklore story where the devil gets to meet a young academic. I got to play the devil so I seem to be typecast as the baddies! Earl maybe isn’t as bad as the devil but he’s potentially up there!
What was it like being in the cast of Shakespeare in Love?
That was amazing. I did that not long after drama school and it was my West End debut. I got to perform in a beautiful theatre in the West End with a cast of about twenty-five people, all varying ages, and we got on really well. Lee Hall is one of my favourite writers so that was really cool to be part of something he’d written, and it’s very witty. It was beautifully directed by Declan Donnellan, who is a bit of an idol to me, so to be in a rehearsal room with him and have one-to-one directing was amazing.
I covered two roles so it was my first experience understudying. When I signed up for it, I already knew I’d be going on for one of the parts for three weeks because the actor playing the role was taking a holiday, so that was amazing. I was also covering the Colin Firth character who’s the baddie. Five shows before the end, the actor playing it tore his calf on stage, so without any real rehearsals, I had to learn a sword fight, all the dancing and all the scenes within six hours. There’s also a bit where he’s attacked by a dog and I’m kind of scared of dogs so it was my worst nightmare!
It was one of the craziest, most amazing experiences, again, in the West End. I loved it but it was very challenging. I feel huge respect for all the understudies out there because they keep the shows running and make it look easy.
You were part of One Arm by Tennessee Williams at Southwark Playhouse, what was this production like to work on?
Very interesting. It was directed by a young director called Josh Seymour and this was his first time directing a play. It was an undiscovered Tennessee Williams short story that we adapted into a play and it was great. There were four of us in the cast and we all multi-roled and played lots of different characters. It was in the small space at Southwark Playhouse in the middle of a heatwave and the air con had broken down! It was very hot but it was lots of fun. It was so varied to Shakespeare in Love, Prudencia Hart and Waitress, and I love getting to do different things.
What was Above The Clouds like to film and can you tell us about your character Alex?
That was great fun. It was an independent movie and they came to me as they were looking for a Scottish actor to play the son. We did three days on it and we did a couple of scenes out in rural England and I played a car mechanic. It was fast-paced and low budget but it was beautifully shot. It was a bit of a passion project for Leon Chambers (director) so there was a lot of love and warmth in the cast. I only came in for three days but I could feel that the energy was quite powerful. It was great fun and I really enjoyed it. Getting to play something very contemporary was great as well.
For one of your first screen roles, you appeared in Doctor Who, what was it like on set?
Maybe it’s just me that says this because I’m not used to being a professional actor, but it was amazing! It was the first episode that Peter Capaldi was taking on the role of the Doctor and I got the first line in his first ever episode! I can’t say it’s my claim to fame but that was amazing, and so was the read-through with everyone including Peter Capaldi, the writer Steven Moffat, and Ben Wheatley, who is a British independent film director. I really like Ben’s work so it was really cool getting to work with him.
It was a very minor role but it was super fun to get to be a part of that huge, successful world. I really loved it.
How different do you find working on screen productions to stage?
It’s fairly different. It’s a really different pace in theatre as you have to be fully immersed in it. It’s fast-paced and you just work towards the end goal and you’re all in it together. The growing organic process is what I really love and it’s what I’ve been brought up on, from my amateur stuff to my tech at drama school. I think most actors would say, if they are being brutally honest, that theatre is probably their first love because you get a full character and you can go from start to finish, and your end goal is to get to perform in front of an audience.
Film and TV can be very slow, very long days and there is a lot of waiting around – you could turn up at 6am, be in hair and makeup by 8am, but not be on set doing the scenes until 5pm. Your scenes could also be very short where you only have three lines. You could also have a very emotional scene and you don’t quite know when you’re going to get called, so when you get a knock on the door, you’ve got to be prepared to hit the ground running. You need to be prepared but the days can be really amazing as it’s very intense and you get one or two shots at it so it’s about putting 100% in, otherwise you’ll probably end up looking back and regretting it. I haven’t had a vast amount of experience on screen in terms of larger roles and having that arc. It’s probably very different if you’re someone like Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad!
How did you get into acting?
I think I’ve always been a bit of a show off to be honest! I’m one of five boys so I think it was a case of whoever could shout the loudest would get the most attention, so you had to learn new tactics to be noticed from friends, family, Mum and Dad. My mum was looking for stuff to get us out of the house and we saw a newspaper advert for an am-dram production of Bugsy Malone. My brother above me played the piano, so my mum sent him along to be the pianist and said I could go as well. I went along and ended up getting the role of Fizzy and that’s how this whole career began!
I continued doing stuff every six months. I’d do a show, or sometimes two at a time, and continued that from the age of, I think, ten or eleven. I would sometimes do three of four shows every year and it continued throughout university. I then applied for drama school and I got in and now here I am.
What do you enjoy doing away from acting?
I’m a keen artist so I’m trying to keep myself creatively stimulated in this current pandemic while I can’t be doing my main job. I love painting and drawing and I’m trying to make that more of a career move by selling some of my art. I’ve set up a couple of more charitable initiatives that I’ll hopefully put out there in a few months. People can always check out my Instagram if they want to see some of my art and what I get up to with that.
I like to keep fit, go to the gym and go for a run. I’ve got lots of different types of friends as I’m very social which means lots of drinking. I love sports, I love art and I love going to the theatre and cinema and things like that. I like to be social so being stuck indoors is very, very hard for me.
We understand you have some upcoming projects, what can you tell us about them?
I can’t mention exactly the roles or what they’re on, but I have a couple of TV jobs – one for Sky Atlantic and the other for an ITV drama. They were both off the back of Waitress which was really nice to do something really different and be able to try and keep my CV ticking over. It’s always hard to land roles so I’m very thankful to have those opportunities, especially now that the industry is very much ground to a halt. I’m also doing a lot more voiceover work, and I was supposed to be doing motion capture for a video game before the coronavirus kicked off so that’s been postponed. Other than that, there’s nothing at the moment because the industry has stopped so we shall see where we are at when things pick up again.
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