With The Last Five Years opening at Southwark Playhouse earlier this year, Oli Higginson was playing Jamie in the two-handed musical, and with the pandemic closing theatres during their run, the show was rescheduled for October with Oli reprising his role, and the show has been recorded to be streamed worldwide on Stream.Theatre from November 26th to 29th. Since graduating from Guildhall School of Music & Drama, Oli’s stage roles have included playing Private Secretary in Maggie & Ted and Rob in The Haystack at Hampstead Theatre. Oli has filmed for two upcoming TV series, Bridgerton which is released on Netflix on Christmas Day where he plays John, and The Pursuit of Love, a co-production from BBC One and Amazon Prime Video. Last year, Oli, alongside his wife Meaghan Martin, set up their production company 3 hearts canvas and, having already worked on a number of projects, they have more plans for 2021. Recently, Oli answered our questions about playing Jamie in The Last Five Years, his upcoming screen work and his plans for 3 hearts canvas.
What is Jamie like to play in The Last Five Years and how do you find the experience working on a two-handed musical?
I had an absolute blast working on The Last Five Years. It’s a beautiful, textured piece of writing and Jamie is a really interesting character with a brilliant emotional journey to sink my teeth into. He was always a character I wanted to play and I’m so happy I’ve been able to put my stamp on him and share it with so many people. There’s a huge amount to discover and explore with Jamie; he’s ambitious, loving, supportive, romantic, witty, intelligent, intellectual, insecure, jealous, and ultimately has the capacity for something quite dark and destructive both to himself and those around him. But most of all he really fights for his relationship with Cathy which I always felt was key to bring out in the character. I tried to always play the positive wherever possible. All the way through, he’s trying to cling on to their marriage. Deep in his core, he doesn’t want it to fail but it does in spite of his efforts. In fact, the harder he tries, the more off the rails it becomes – that’s the tragedy of it, I think… As for the two-hander aspect, I loved it and relished the challenge of just having the two of us on stage for ninety minutes. I loved the rawness of it, and how exposed you are. It’s exhilarating and felt special – two-handers don’t come along very often, especially two-hander musicals of such depth and in the hands of someone as stunningly talented as our director Jonathan O’Boyle.
How did it feel being nominated for Best Performer in a Musical at The Stage Debut Awards and Best Lead Performance in a Musical at the Offie Awards for your portrayal of Jamie?
It was amazing! Especially being nominated at The Stage Debut Awards. The news of that nomination came right in the middle of our lockdown in July/August time, when so much of the industry was shut down (as it still is really). With all the bleak news coming our way, it really was a very joyful thing to be recognised like that.
The remainder of the original run was rescheduled for October, how was it returning to the show after the break?
It was a combination of excitement and apprehension… I was quite daunted at the prospect of just jumping straight back into Jamie after six months away. It’s such a tough and gruelling role physically and vocally. Because of my filming schedule on The Pursuit of Love, I was only able to do five days rehearsal on The Last Five Years before we remounted it. In fact, I went pretty much straight from Bath where we were filming, to the Southwark Playhouse in London for tech rehearsals – twenty-four hours later we were in front of an audience again! It was a whirlwind! But, of course, you forget how much of it is muscle memory and it came back super quickly. It felt very special and emotional to be back finishing what we had started back in February. Being reunited with Molly (Lynch) and our gorgeous creative team after so many months of solitude and uncertainty felt like a very healing process, actually.
What’s it like knowing the show will be streamed worldwide?
So exciting. I think the development of theatre streaming is one of the few silver linings of this pandemic! It’s very special to be able to share our work with people all over the world – especially a show like this which has such a strong cult following. The filming of it was quite a rollercoaster – it was very last minute, we had a little window in the midst of previews and the opportunity came up so we just jumped straight in and pretty much recorded the whole thing guerrilla style from start to finish! It was an exhausting and strange experience but immensely fulfilling to have recorded the show in this format. I haven’t seen the whole thing yet but I have seen clips and it looks beautiful. The team at Stream.Theatre – a sister company to Broadway On Demand – have done a wonderful job with it. Can’t wait til it comes out, I hope as many people will be able to join us as possible. November 26th-29th, 7:30pm!
You played Rob in The Haystack at Hampstead Theatre, how was this?
It was a great experience. Hampstead Theatre is one of my favourite theatres in London, so it was a real treat to work there. I had a little role in it, and my role was actually all pre-filmed. The Haystack is a play about hacking and surveillance so my scene was entirely projected onto screens during the performance (as if the audience are spying on our conversation). It was a really fun and intense break-up scene with the lead character – played by the lovely Rona Morison. And we had the phenomenal Roxana Silbert directing us. It was a lovely little job from start to finish. It also was a special moment for the theatre nerd in me; I was a part of an ‘original cast’ for the first time, and so my name appears in the front pages of the published script. That had to be a bucket list ticked. It’s the small things!
What did you enjoy most about appearing in the production?
I think it probably was working with Roxana Silbert. I had always really admired her work, especially everything she had done at Birmingham Rep. Her CV is endless really, there’s barely a play that she hasn’t directed at some point during her career! I was expecting the experience to be a little intimidating but she is nothing but lovely, and really puts you at ease and has fun in the process. Oh, and I also got to wear a ridiculous costume complete with blue polo shirt, chinos and boating shoes – the character was an obnoxious ‘rugby lad’. Great fun to play.
Can you say about your time playing the Private Secretary in Maggie & Ted?
Maggie & Ted was a new play written by Michael McManus. Michael had had a career in politics prior to moving into the theatre industry. Maggie & Ted explored the relationship between Maggie Thatcher and Ted Heath – inspired in-part by Michael’s own experience as Ted Heath’s Private Secretary, which was the role I played in the production. It was such fun. We were rehearsing and performing in the folkloric White Bear Theatre above the gorgeous pub of the same name. We drank a lot of good beer, ate a lot of good food, and had a lot of fun. It was a very mischievous cast, very much including Hugh Fraser of Poirot fame who was probably the most mischievous of us all!
How was the experience filming as John in the upcoming Netflix series Bridgerton and what are you looking forward to for the release?
This was a huge learning experience for me. I had filmed a teeny-tiny role on the Netflix show Cursed a few months prior, but other than that I had very little experience working on big television sets. And it doesn’t really get much bigger than something like Bridgerton! It was a huge, epic machine with lavish costumes and sets and scenery on a grand scale. My role was only a little one but every one made me feel very at home – especially the brilliant Claudia Jessie with whom I had most of my scenes. John is the Bridgerton Footman so I crop up a few times in a couple of episodes and have some really nice little scenes. I can’t wait to see how the series turns out – no doubt it will be beautiful and I think the fast-paced romantic drama of it will really resonate with people. It’s also very silly and fun, and doesn’t take itself too seriously which is quite refreshing in the period drama world!
We understand you’ve filmed for The Pursuit of Love, what was this like to do?
Probably one of my career highlights to date. I was working in scenes with pedigree acting talent, the likes of Freddie Fox, Lily James and Emily Beecham. And then being directed by – and acting alongside – Emily Mortimer who is someone I have admired for years. She is another level. Emily is such a warm human being, and a wonderfully playful actor. She is also a very talented, specific, and articulate director. She makes your life easy. I wish I could talk more about my time on it but I daren’t spoil any surprises… I guess you will have to tune in!
You recorded for Doctor Who – Early Adventures: After the Daleks, can you tell us more about this and what is it like doing voiceover work?
I love doing voiceover work. It’s such a particular skill, and much harder than it looks actually. But there’s something about magic of telling a story just through your voice that is quite organic and raw. I can’t talk too much about it as it is yet to be released, but I play a young man called Victor whose mind has been taken over by the Daleks. I had such a fun time working on it. I actually was invited to play the role by the wonderful Lisa Bowerman who directs on the series. Lisa was performing in Maggie & Ted with me at the time and she asked if I’d be interested in coming in and playing the role – it was a very happy coincidence! I also got to work with the amazing Lucy Briers and Carole Ann Ford – it’s always such a bonus when you get to work with such experienced and knowledgeable actors, you come away hoping that some of their immense talent has rubbed off on your somehow. I hope it has!
Had you always wanted to be an actor and how was it training at Guildhall School of Music & Drama?
Pretty much as long as I can remember I have wanted to be an actor. I sang a lot growing up and appeared in school plays and musicals, as well as rock bands and things. I love telling stories and getting lost in characters. I love escapism and pushing myself out of my comfort zone. And I love meeting people and working in a company of like-minded, interesting artists. I always wanted to formally train – a lot of my favourite actors had gone to drama school and I felt deep down that I needed to learn how to channel and focus my creative energies as I was a bit of a loose canon when it came to acting! I was full of energy and ambition but needed a bit more precision and nuance I think… hahaha. So I applied and fell in love with Guildhall. From the moment of my first audition I knew it was the right place for me. I didn’t get in my first time, but reapplied second time and got in. I loved every minute. I felt very safe and free at Guildhall. I felt they understood me and really nurtured me both as an actor and as a person. The depth and rigour of the training left no stone unturned. It was very difficult, enraging and frustrating a lot of the time – not to mention exhausting! But it was also so inspiring to be surrounded by such talent, so many astonishing actors passionate about excavating their craft. I could not have wished for a better bedrock from which to dive into my career. I feel immensely privileged to have had the opportunity to train there and I look back on the school with huge love and nostalgia. I’ve also made very special friends, friends for life, which is a gift.
You performed in a number of shows whilst training, can you say about some of them?
Yes, well as I said, the nature of the training is such that no stone is left unturned really… I played so many interesting and absurd characters during my time at the school. For the first couple of years you do a huge number of projects, so I was able to try my hand at roles like Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard, Foppington in The Relapse, Angelo in Measure for Measure, Fred Graham in Kiss Me, Kate, Nils Krogstad in A Doll’s House, and Liam in Orphans by Denis Kelly, amongst others. Then in third year, you have your public performances and I got to play such a crazy variety of characters; The Party Guest in the amazing play Mercury Fur by Philip Ridley directed by the extraordinary John Haidar; a fun little part called Michele (complete with 3-inch platform shoes and a bald cap!) for a play called Saturday Sunday Monday; followed by Ben in Detroit by Lisa D’Amour; Tyndareous in the Greek tragedy Orestes; Helena in a gender-swapped A Midsummer Night’s Dream; finishing the year playing Frank Shepard in Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. It’s this variety that I love about acting. I love moving from challenge to challenge. I hope to consider myself a character actor and I just relish going as far away from ‘Oli Higginson’ as I can, totally immersing myself in the way someone else moves, thinks, and talks. Understanding their point of view. Looking back on all the roles I got to play at Guildhall, you realise what a comprehensive training it is. You come away feeling like you could tackle pretty much anything… fingers crossed anyway…
How has it been starting your production company, 3 hearts canvas, with your wife Meaghan Martin?
It’s been amazing. I love working with Meaghan, she is my constant inspiration and a huge support to me in my life. We’re lucky that we also work very well together in a professional context and we’re constantly bouncing around ideas and challenging each other. 3 hearts canvas continues to grow and expand. We’ve recently had some really exciting meetings and are pursuing projects in theatre, film and music. Because of COVID, some things have been delayed a little but we have some really awesome projects in the pipeline for 2021 and beyond. Acting is my first love but as an actor you often join projects once they have already been very much established. With 3 hearts canvas I adore developing projects and being part of ideas from the ground up, nurturing that exciting first spark of creativity and bringing it to fruition. London is a thriving ecosystem of art and entertainment, and my work with Meaghan at 3hc lets us look at that ecosystem from a different angle other than just as actors. It’s a very refreshing contrast. You can learn more about our work at www.3heartscanvas.com.
What are some of your favourite TV and theatre shows to watch?
Hmmmm I think my most memorable experience in a theatre in recent years was seeing A View From The Bridge at the Young Vic, directed by Ivo van Hove, or even Billie Piper’s performance in Yerma, also at the Young Vic, which could probably be the best performance I’ve ever seen on stage. Virtually anything at the Almeida or the Donmar. I think one of the best things about the UK is the shear amount of theatre going on. Sometimes I love to just wander into a pub theatre, you’re bound to find something interesting and thought-provoking. It’s the magic of that buzzing creative ecosystem. As for TV, right now I’ve been loving watching shows like Succession, I May Destroy You, The Queen’s Gambit, Des, The Crown, Killing Eve, Normal People, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Schitt’s Creek, The Morning Show, I mean the list is endless! We’re living through a television renaissance.
What do you enjoy doing away from acting?
I love running, and going for long walks. Seeing family. I’ve gotten really into cooking too during these lockdowns which has been lovely. I love trying new foods and drinking interesting beers and wines (I probably drink too much of them…). I spend a lot of time sitting at my piano writing songs. It’s something that’s immensely important to me and it’s a really great creative outlet. I’m actually hoping to release some songs in 2021 and get gigging, which I’m hugely excited about. I also love supporting friends in their work, seeing the work that they’re creating is a lovely experience. A close friend of mine from drama school, Joe Potter, is appearing in a live stream of a play next week and I am so excited to watch it.
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