Last year, Alexander Moneypenny was cast as Gareth in the new stage adaptation of David Walliams’ book The Boy in the Dress at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, also understudying the role of John, and is part of the original cast recording which is released this Friday. Prior to taking on the role of Gareth, Alexander made his professional debut as Alan in Bare: A Pop Opera at The Vaults in London over summer 2019, also going on as understudy Peter. During his time studying at Arts Educational Schools, he was involved in a number of productions including workshopping the musical The Postman and the Poet at The Other Palace, playing Clive in Season’s Greetings, and in his final year, he performed in Disney’s Newsies as Elmer. We caught up with Alexander about being an original cast member of The Boy in the Dress, making his professional debut in Bare: A Pop Opera and playing Elmer in Disney’s Newsies.
You most recently played Gareth in The Boy in the Dress, what was the role like to play?
Ah, Gareth. It was amazing. I mean, as all good things are, it was everything. Hilarious, scary, joyous, weird, incredible… *opens thesaurus* spectacular, fatiguing, enthralling… everything. But mostly amazing.
I was lucky enough to be cast to play Gareth, the hairiest boy in the school and captain of the football team. Football is his life. He’s about fifteen, but he’s very overdeveloped for his age with a lot of body hair and a ridiculously deep voice. The voice came during rehearsals, but we struggled with how to make the body hair read on stage, considering my own personal follicle challenges on my legs and arms. Mascara on the hairs was suggested, but quickly forgotten, and at one point during the previews they covered my bald limbs with flesh-coloured tights that they had drawn on. Alas, they were taken away, as Rob Jones, our genius designer, said I looked like I had a skin condition. He wasn’t wrong, in fairness.
Greg Doran, AD of the RSC, but mostly our wonderful and inspiring director, had the idea that the hair on Gareth’s head should grow over the course of the show, perhaps inspired by his own fantastic mane. He asked me what my vision was for it (I want to come back to this later), so I showed him a picture of Matteo Guendouzi, the Arsenal player, (one of those weird out of body experiences when you’re suddenly very aware of your situation as you’re Googling a twenty-one-year-old French midfielder with discipline issues in front of literally one of the most revered theatre directors in the country), and the idea grew. Literally. I ended up wearing about four wigs over the course of the show just for one character, and the body hair was left au naturale.
I had such a blast with Gareth. It was a very physical role, with a lot of stage time, so the shows whizzed by. We had Quentin Blake’s incredible illustrations to work with from the book (having literally grown up on his illustrations in Roald Dahl books, it’s so surreal to be saying that), and leaning into the cartoon side of things in the process was just so much fun. Rob had designed the set to look like it had been ripped from a sketchbook, and the larger than life element was so rewarding. The script and songs changed pretty much every day over the course of the process, so it was great to have the opportunity to form a real arc of a character organically, with our input, as so much was to be decided. Going out on stage every night, the script and the incredible actors I worked with on that job gave such rich ground for play – I even managed to wangle a character arc with the dog after a few months of performances!
I miss Gareth. He was so serious, it was hilarious. I hope I get to return to the deep voice and short shorts sooner rather than later, because there’s only so long I can look fifteen for I reckon… surely?! He says, looking down at his six chest hairs…
How did it feel booking your role and what was it like to be in the musical?
It was wild. I was getting ready to go to work when my brilliant agent (also called Alex) rang me, and I think I just kept asking her if it was a joke. She assured me it was not, and then I just re-read the e-mail about forty-five times, making sure they hadn’t tried to book an Alexander Coinpenny or something. I had about half an hour to myself then I started doing the rounds calling people, and resisted the urge to tweet something cryptic about “new beginnings”. I may have had a few drinks that night.
It was such a great audition process, too. I’m all about vibes, me, (said every fifteen year old ever, but it’s true) and I got such a great feeling from the rooms I went into, which were run so well. The initial audition was SO fun – we had to pretend to dance in our bedrooms, then we were at the school gates, then we made newspaper dogs, then we had to simulate a football match with an invisible football. Even if I hadn’t got the job, I would have remembered that as one of my favourite auditions – the sense of play and freedom in the room was palpable, and it carried through all the auditions. There’s so much elitism and judgement in this industry – I felt none of that at any point. Just actors doing their thing in a safe environment.
I suppose my overriding feeling actually doing the job was that I was very, very lucky – lucky to be working with such fantastic people, lucky to be going out on stage every night in an extremely privileged position within a very competitive industry, lucky to be working just after graduating, lucky to be happy, safe and well looked after… it was just such a joyous experience from start to finish. The RSC are INCREDIBLE to work for. Nothing is too much trouble, they’re so communicative, and the facilities, safeguarding measures, traditions and history make it such a magical place.
I think the best way to describe it is this: they put us up in gorgeous RSC-owned digs right on the river and literally 200m from the theatre (and 100 from the pub). I was being a bit of a diva once, and complained that the mattress I had was a bit soft. I love a firm mattress, me. Instead of me just getting over myself, which was probably the optimal solution, they bought me a NEW MATTRESS out of storage and exchanged it, free of charge, the same day. I mean… how can I complain?! Of course, there were hard moments, I would be lying if I said there wasn’t, but the one thing that never wavered was the support of the people at The RSC, and how grateful I felt to be there in Stratford.
Ok, fine. I wish the Tesco was twenty-four hours. There, I said it!
What was it like meeting the cast and creatives for the first time and how did you prepare for the role?
Scary! Luckily I’d been for a workshop for a few days the week before we started rehearsing, so I knew some more people, and also there were some people I knew from drama school in the cast and on the creative team. We all stood in a circle and introduced ourselves and played some games… the classic, really.
I think I’ll remember that period of rehearsals as one of my favourite of my professional life. Getting to Clapham every morning to make something, creating something live in a room full of amazing people every day. The one thing that I didn’t think we’d have, and I said earlier I wanted to come on to, was so much creative involvement. The creative team were so receptive to ideas from the cast and, perhaps this was just my experience, but I felt really encouraged to speak up and contribute to the group discussion, even as a new grad. There wasn’t a feeling of ‘us vs them’, it felt like a team trying to make the best versions of everything. Ideas, scenes and songs were constantly revised and streamlined and taken apart and put back together again, so there was a lot of room for exploration and getting things wrong. I’d love to be a director at some point in my life, and I learned so much just from observing that process.
There was also such an incredibly professional team around it all, from the stage management to hair and wigs, costume, security, producers, lights, sound, FOH, in-house staff, everyone really, both in London and in Stratford. I’d never felt involved in an operation that big or well-managed. I felt valued. As a cast we had an away day, we had nights at the pub – it really felt like a group of actors just trying to put something together under experienced eyes. I loved it.
I am a massive football fan, so luckily enough, preparation was a breeze. And I went to school once! I read the book, watched the TV adaptation and did as much research of the creatives and story as possible, but nothing quite prepares you for what you end up doing in the room.
Can you say how it was rehearsing for the roles of John and Football Captain which you understudied on the run?
John is Dennis’ sarcastic but hilarious brother. Unfortunately I didn’t get on for him over the run itself, but our understudy rehearsals were stewarded brilliantly by Sarah Tipple, our Assistant Director. Sarah and I worked together on one of our third year shows at ArtsEd, Curtains, she’s an absolute legend. She can sing If I Don’t Cry, Dennis’ opening ballad in the show, absolutely beautifully, we discovered, by the way. I’d have loved to have played John a bit more, he’s much closer to me in character, and it meant I would have been able to work with the genius that is Rufus Hound a bit more, as well as have a bit more stage time with our younger actors. We had a lot of brilliant young actors in the show, and Alfie (Jukes) and Zach (Loonie) who played John on alternate nights were both fantastic, bringing such different dynamics to him, so it would have been great to give it my own spin.
‘Football Captain’ was something that sort of came out of the process, and wasn’t an onstage role – that’s probably me just trying to sound more important on my Spotlight! There’s two big football sections in the musical, and someone came up with the smart idea of putting the balls on sticks so we could control them. We spent a huge amount of time on the football sections in the show, working and re-working them until they were right. As a massive football fan, I really threw myself into the process, probably annoying the hell out of everyone by nagging them all about offside rules and how to structure a defence. In fairness, I’m an Arsenal fan, so what do I know about that? In the end, the creative team asked if I wouldn’t mind looking after the football sections and keeping them clean during the run, as well as assisting with all of the swapping in and out of roles, with the younger actors and our swings who were less familiar with it. After a few months of negotiations with my agent and a lot of soul searching-
No, I said yes on the spot, of course. It was great fun, and I ended up helping to teach the football sections, along with our dance captain and assistant choreographer, to a new Dennis who had to come in when another boy could no longer continue (his voice broke, bless him!), as well as running through the football every day before the show for safety and lifts. Dennis has to take a penalty at the end of the show with the ball not on a stick for the first time, so I assisted with a bit of ‘penalty technique’, too! It was a new and unique experience, but one I was grateful for, and enjoyed a lot.
The boy whose voice broke never missed the penalty at the end of the show, so he had the last laugh!
How was the experience being involved with the original cast recording and what are you most looking forward to for the release?
So cool. It’s another thing ticked off the list, to be on an original cast recording. The recording was so much fun. It was in the middle of an eight show week towards the end of the run and we were knackered, but I think it just reminded us just how good the songs are and we all left on a high. It was just another of the amazing opportunities the show afforded us. We had gala nights, press nights, educational workshops, TV appearances, all sorts. We also met some amazing people, including Prince Charles and Robbie Williams (CLANG). Very warm hands, both of them. Taron Egerton was at our press night (CLANG) but I was too scared/not drunk enough yet to talk to him. It was all a bit surreal, and I think I just got used to it a bit at the time. It’s only looking back now that I’m reminded how cool it was. It’s when I, completely seriously, referred to David Walliams as ‘David’ in conversation, as if I knew him, that I realised I needed to wind my neck in. He’s very tall.
I’m really excited to hear the album in full, and for all the people who couldn’t see the show to be able to listen to it. We had a Zoom listening party the other night, and it just absolutely slaps. I’m not even biased, the songs completely slap. The band were incredible on that show, and Guy and Robbie are just so good at writing catchy stuff – I think the album’s really captured the fun of it.
(Just realised I called them Guy and Robbie. I’ve not learned.)
Last year, you appeared in Bare: A Pop Opera, how was it playing the role of Alan?
ALAN! Alan was a blast. He loved rules. And recycling. Bare isn’t a show I’d come across before, and it was all a bit of a blur getting the job as I was still at school and in classes, but I had a great time. It was a short run at The Vaults in London, and feels a million years ago now, but I really appreciated the opportunity to make my professional debut in a show in London alongside some really amazing people, and I look back on it with fondness and as a great experience.
How was it making your professional debut in the show?
Challenging, but really rewarding. Rehearsals were great, but the production itself ran into some trouble in the early stages, with questions over whether it could continue due to financial difficulties, but luckily they managed to keep it going and everything was ok in the end. The space itself was also challenging for various reasons out of our control, but the cast and creatives were all such cool people, and over the challenges of the production we formed quite a tight bond. In many ways it was a great introduction into the world of theatre! The show delivered a powerful message around acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community, and we had some really dedicated audience members, which was awesome. The show was full of really talented young performers who I think will all go on to do incredible things, as well as some amazing experienced actors who taught me a lot, guided by the legend Julie Atherton.
Can you tell us what it was like going on as your understudy role of Peter?
Terrifying! But it was also such a good exercise in getting out of my own head, and reminding me that the fear of something is almost always worse than the doing. The songs are really nice, and it’s fun to play such extreme emotions (if you know the ending). The cast were amazing, dragging me into the right positions, and I got through it, just about! I went on twice over the run for Peter, which was great. But yeah, no, absolutely terrifying.
You were involved in a workshop at The Other Palace last year, what did you enjoy most about this?
Yes! The Postman and the Poet. ArtsEd are fantastic at arranging opportunities to get some industry experience in third year, and actually all the years, but this we did in third year. It was about a Chilean revolution in the 70s, directed by Ron Daniels at The Other Palace. I loved Ron. He had a working iPhone 3GS in 2019. Not sure what phone he has now, but that is impressive.
It was cool to rehearse something in a really short space of time and deliver it to a small audience. I’m writing some stuff myself at the moment, so it just gave me a bit more of an insight into what goes into making a musical, and how you structure it, what needs to be decided, how to best plan rehearsals, etc. The music for that show was stunning. I hope it gets another life soon.
Can you tell us about performing as Elmer in Disney’s Newsies at Arts Educational Schools?
Newsies. Was. Wild. I have a voice note on my phone, called ‘OMG.mp3’ of when Chris Hocking, the Principal of ArtsEd, told us we were doing it, and our entire year just lost it. I’ll never forget it. The process was amazing. Ashley Nottingham, the choreographer, is so good, so intense and his work is all the better for it, we just drilled and drilled the choreo for hours until it was right. We’d sometimes be there after school until 9/10pm, having started at 8am, and back in the same time next day. I’m not the strongest dancer, so I found the process very tricky and absolutely knackering, but it was all worth it in the end. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. The rush in the opening number was electric. Working with Luke Sheppard and Laura Bangay, too, I mean… they’re just at the top of their game. The music is elite, the set was incredible. It was just the most incredible experience that I’ll never forget, and I was especially proud of the feedback we all got from the show – it didn’t just feel like ‘another drama school show’, it felt like something a little bit more special.
I could go on and on about Newsies, but I’ve already rambled enough in this interview. As I said earlier, I think sometimes when you’re in something, you can’t necessarily see it for what it is – we were very lucky to do that show and have the time we had, and I hope we’ll look back in twenty or thirty years at a cast of people who all went on to do great things – it felt like the beginning of something.
I got to eat a Yum Yum on stage every night. Sometimes two. That’s how good it was.
Had you always wanted to train at ArtsEd and how did you find the experience?
Yes, to answer the first bit. There was a string of boys from my local drama school (Big Little Theatre School in Bournemouth, shoutout) who had been before me, and seemed to come out and do well. I looked up to them a lot, and as it became a bit clearer what I wanted to do, I started to look at drama schools like ArtsEd and pay a bit more attention to what was going on in terms of grad success and general vibes etc. (Sidenote – See, Representation Matters!!) I auditioned the first year and didn’t get a recall, but the moment I walked in I knew I wanted to go there. I feel like everyone says that, but it’s completely true. They give you these awful plastic chairs to sit on while you wait to be auditioned, and I can remember, despite shaking on said plastic chair while my bum went numb, that I felt like I was in the right place. In hindsight I think I was too young and not ready that time, but the year after I just went in all guns blazing and luckily it worked out. I often think about how if my larynx hadn’t moved a millimetre at the right time, or my balance in a turn had been slightly different, my whole life might have gone down a whole other track. It’s important to remember that kind of stuff, in the good moments and the bad.
It’s difficult to sum up three years at that school without using lots of superlatives. It was the best time of my life in some regards, the hardest as well. It went by in a flash, and I made friends for life, as well as massively improving myself professionally and personally. But there were tough times. I had a lot of tough days, and I lost my Dad at the beginning of second year. Overall though, I absolutely loved ArtsEd.
I don’t think drama school is for everyone. Some people don’t learn like that, some people aren’t ready or are already ready for the industry, some people don’t like the intensity; but I absolutely loved it. I can’t remember many days where I didn’t feel like I’d improved in some manner, and that’s all down to the incredible staff who work there, too numerous to mention. It really is an absolutely incredible operation, and there are so many unsung heroes at the school who really hold it together. At this point, I feel it would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to the late Denys Rawson. He was my first year repertoire coach. To me, he was everything great about ArtsEd. Knowledgable and experienced beyond words, hard-working, and kind. People get being kind and being nice mixed up. Being kind doesn’t have to look like telling someone they’re great all the time; that’s niceness. Denys was capable of giving me a kick up the backside, but he also knew when I needed a break. That’s kindness. True kindness – and it breeds resilience, hard work and success – and so does the culture of that school, and long may it continue.
But I’m proud of myself. I worked hard to get there, worked hard while I was there, and I got rewarded in the end. I think if I could tell myself at thirteen/fourteen what I’d end up doing up to this point, I’d be very happy, but I wouldn’t be satisfied just yet… and neither am I. Nowhere near.
What were some of your favourite projects you were involved with whilst there?
Too numerous to mention, but I’ll pick one out; when we were in second year we did a production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings. It was with the fantastic Jonathan O’Boyle, and I played Clive. Towards the end of the first act, Clive and another character kiss and it gets a bit heated – I had to fall into a Christmas tree, and in the meanwhile unbuckle my trousers, revealing my underwear to the entire school. Not something I ever thought I’d end up doing on the Andrew Lloyd Webber stage.
Do you have any favourite theatre shows to watch?
I’m a big fan of Something Rotten. I was massively into Jersey Boys as a kid too. I loved The Inheritance recently, but my favourite ever moment in the theatre was probably going to see The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth. It was INSANE. The acting was sublime, and I remember just sitting there with my mouth wide open, fully immersed. I find it hard to immerse myself even when I’m acting unless I do some serious prep, let alone when I’m watching in the audience, but that production got me. Sensational.
Where does your love of performing come from and how did you start?
It will surprise no one to hear: showing off. I think I was having a tantrum on the floor of my kitchen and my mum said “you’re so dramatic, maybe we need to take you to a drama school”. In the film of my life, there’s a close shot of the kid playing me’s eyes, and then a jump cut to my first drama class. In reality, I think Mum just signed me up as something to do, and considering I was being left out of the Poole Town under nines First XI at this point, my other career in football might have been a non-starter.
Thanks so much for having me on and asking me these questions – apologies for droning on. Lockdown innit! Anyway, hopefully you’re all safe, and thanks for reading.
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