Sebastien Torkia

📷 : Kim Hardy

Currently, Sebastien Torkia is in the cast of the West End production of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda The Musical at the Cambridge Theatre as Mr. Wormwood, with the show now suspended for the foreseeable future due to theatres around the world closing until further notice. Before joining the West End production, Sebastien had toured as Mr. Wormwood in the UK Tour, and in 2017, he was part of two productions at The Other Palace, The Little Beasts and The Wild Party, with the latter being the first production in the newly-named theatre. Sebastien’s career started in 1993 in the original cast of Grease at the Dominion Theatre, and had his first leading role in Martin Guerre in the West End. We talked to Sebastien about playing Mr. Wormwood on tour and in the West End, joining the cast at Cambridge Theatre and playing Alberto Beddini in Top Hat.

Last year, you joined the West End cast of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda The Musical as Mr. Wormwood, what’s it like performing the role to London audiences?

It’s absolutely thrilling for me to play this part in London, and as theatres are currently closed I’m missing my work hugely. The Cambridge Theatre is wonderful because though it holds over 1200 people, it feels very intimate and the front row can almost touch the actors. It’s great to feel the audience so close and engaged. I hear them gasp with horror at Mr. Wormwood’s cruelty one moment and roar with laughter at his stupidity the next. I walk through the auditorium too which is exhilarating as I’m never quite sure how the audience will react. London audiences can be quite different to those in the rest of the country because we welcome many foreign tourists, whose first language may not be English, and as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda The Musical is full of wonderful wit and clever language, and sometimes fast-paced, it’s so rewarding to still see them up on their feet at the end and showing such huge appreciation.

How was it joining the West End production and working alongside the London cast?

It’s always quite daunting to join a company of people who are already familiar with each other and have worked together for a long time, but I wasn’t alone. Three other actors from the UK Tour plus several more joined alongside me. The existing cast members couldn’t have been more welcoming and supportive. The show is quite technically different to the touring version, but the transition from one to the other was made very smooth by a wonderful creative team, stage management and technical staff. The most important aspect for me was establishing a rapport with my on-stage family, especially Mrs Wormwood, and my son Michael. Coming from the UK Tour meant I had to rediscover the dynamics and chemistry with new actors, and it takes a bit of time to do that. Rebecca Thornhill, my “wife” on tour and Marianne Benedict, my London “wife”, couldn’t be more different as Mrs Wormwood but both are exceptional. After a couple of weeks of rehearsal and performance, I think Marianne and I found a brilliant dynamic, and we really enjoy playing off each other now. I have a fantastic relationship with her and my stage son, Connor Lewis, both on and off stage.

Having played Mr. Wormwood on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda The Musical UK Tour, how was it getting into character for the first time?

Every rehearsal process is different, so I really allowed myself to be directed and guided, and gradually I would start to do things instinctively in character. It’s incredibly exciting when something happens to you as the character that you hadn’t prepared or even thought of. I felt I had a pretty good idea of what this man was like coming into rehearsals so it was a case of developing his physicality, nuances and inner rhythms, within the parameters of the staging and music. I did a lot of voice work too because his accent and the sheer energy required to play him meant my voice needed strength and stamina.

What are some of your favourite memories from touring with the musical and how different was the experience to London?

It’s always really fascinating to see how audiences vary around the country, but the end result was always the same… people on their feet!! It was really lovely to sometimes meet fans of the show who hadn’t had the opportunity to see it in London and were so grateful that we had brought the show to them. It makes you feel like you are doing something really worthwhile, and that you’re part of a community, and I felt that the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda The Musical was inspiring young people in so many ways that it was rewarding to feel I was part of that. Another thing I loved about being on this tour was the great camaraderie between the company, actors, musicians and all the technical staff. We were one big family, and I developed some wonderful, lasting friendships.

How was it learning the music and choreography?

Well, I have a dance background and Mr. Wormwood is more about physicality and movement rather than dance exactly, so it was fun for me to bring some of that skill to the role, and not too challenging to be honest. I interpreted the music too, much as a dancer would, and that helped in creating his physicality. I love the songs, so once Tim Minchin’s witty lyrics were under my belt, I just enjoyed singing them over and over till I got them right!

Why do you think the musical is so popular in the West End and why would you recommend future audiences see the show when theatres reopen?

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda The Musical was in development for eight years I believe, so by the time it hit the public it was pretty perfect. It doesn’t win over eighty-five international awards if it isn’t exceptional theatre! It is a show that has everything, an incredible story beautifully told, amazing, memorable songs, stunning sets and scenery, spectacular and fun choreography, plenty of laugh out loud moments, as well as touching, tearjerking moments, for adults and children alike, the list goes on… I think people will love seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda The Musical when theatres reopen because it’s a story that brings families together. Children are hugely inspired by it, and adults enjoy the spectacle and are moved and touched by the story. People will want to be lifted and inspired in these times and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda The Musical most certainly does that. It’s also a story that can remind us of what is really important in life, like standing up to adversity, and remembering that human connection is vital, which I think is especially relevant today.

Can you tell us about The Little Beasts that you were part of in 2017 at The Other Palace?

Yes, The Little Beasts was possibly the first experiment of staging a new work and presenting it over sixteen performances, with the opportunity for a paying audience to feedback their thoughts via an app, and consequently affect the development of the piece. Therefore, each performance was slightly different to the next as new ideas were implemented, and the ticket prices increased the closer we got to the end product! It was hugely challenging to work at such pace and to remain so open to changes and developments, and I learnt so much from this experience. It was incredibly exciting to be part of the creation of something new and have the opportunity for such significant input. It was a fascinating story and the puppetry was sublime, so much skill and talent involved.

In the same year, you played Gold in The Wild Party, what was it like being involved with the first production at the newly-named The Other Palace?

This was a special experience for me. I had worked there the previous year having had an amazing time, so I was able to remember what the theatre had been like before its rebranding and was keen to see what had changed. It felt exciting to be in the opening show of a “new” venue as there was a lot of attention focused on it, but the familiarity I had with the building made me feel immediately at home which was lovely. More important than that though was being part of such a talented team, in terms of cast, creatives, and producers. I’d long wanted to work with Drew McOnie, and watching him dance in rehearsals was thrilling. And how could I ever forget working alongside the Broadway legend, Donna McKechnie!

You were in the cast of Travels With My Aunt at Chichester as Mario and Chief of Police, how was this?

I’ve been very lucky to have been in lots of original casts, and this was no exception. I’d work with director Christopher Luscombe again at the drop of a hat. It was an intimate show and so well suited to the Minerva Theatre at Chichester. I’d worked there before in Funny Girl, and I love the space. The audience are three quarters around you and the front row are practically on stage with you, so this is really exciting and means there’s nowhere to hide. I love that feeling; it’s a huge adrenaline rush.

Having toured with Top Hat as Alberto Beddini, what was this like to do?

Roles like Alberto Beddini don’t come along very often, and it was a part I felt I could really bring to life. It was such a polished and stylish production, beautifully choreographed and directed, and I felt very proud to be part of it. We had so much fun, and there were times when me and my fellow actors were doing everything we could not to corpse at some of the antics we had to do on stage. On the other hand, comedy is a serious business. I think it’s one of the hardest things to do, especially for a prolonged period, so I had to keep my wits about me. We also went to Japan with the show, and combining work with travel is always a dream come true, so I have many happy memories from Top Hat.

Can you tell us about some of your earlier stage work you were involved with?

My first job on leaving theatre school was Grease, at the Dominion Theatre in London. I couldn’t have wished for a more exciting start. A film I’d always loved, and I was going to be in the original cast of a brand new production, the first with all the film songs, and with all the bonuses that come with that. I felt Arlene Philips really championed me giving me this opportunity, and I had an amazing year. Martin Guerre was also a significant musical for me as it gave me my first leading role in the West End. Of all the characters I’d have wished to play at the time, Benoit was the one. I loved this character of the “village idiot” who walked with a stick and stuttered, but who was sensitive, fragile and far from dumb. I also have to mention Saturday Night Fever. Working at the Palladium Theatre in the original production was amazing, such a beautiful and iconic theatre, but it also led on to me playing the lead in Germany and Italy, so it became a big part of my life… and I may be the only person to play a part in three different languages!

You also have screen experience which has included an episode of Coronation Street and as a Guard in Aladdin, what do you enjoy most about working on camera?

Working on a television or film set I find fascinating, though the experience is quite different on both. There can be a lot of pressure with television as it’s quick and there’s often a lot to achieve in a short space of time. Film, on the other hand, is much slower and you might only film a few minutes of footage in a day. It’s very intimate though because the camera can see right into your face and eyes, and it allows you to be right there in the moment. The atmosphere is also often much more relaxed than in theatre, and you get the opportunity to do things more than once. If you don’t give your best in theatre then it’s too late, but on camera, you can try again.

Had you always wanted an acting career and what advice would you give someone starting out in the industry?

I decided I wanted to be an actor when I was eight. It sounds like a cliché but there are times when I feel I’m only really alive when I’m on stage. I would say to anyone starting out, “throw everything you’ve got at it because it’s too tough an industry to survive in if you don’t”.

What are some of your favourite TV and theatre shows to watch?

I’ve had so many amazing nights in the theatre, watching some of the great actors like Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Mark Rylance, Vanessa Redgrave and Bryan Cranston. Some performances you just never forget, and in my case, there are just too many to mention, brilliant plays and brilliant performances. I’ve also loved taking my children to the theatre and watching how engrossed they become. We went to see the most incredible mime artist called Julien Cottereau on the Southbank one Christmas. He played all alone on a black box of a set and my ten year old came out and said, “Dad, that’s the best show I’ve ever seen!”. I couldn’t disagree! As for TV, the first that comes to mind is Breaking Bad. There are many more highly recommended shows I need to watch, but for now, that stands out as an all-time favourite. There’s just so much good TV now. Recently, I’ve enjoyed Unorthodox and Schitt’s Creek, and Glenda Jackson was amazing in Elizabeth Is Missing on BBC last year.

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