From the 4th to 28th October, Richard Cant will be starring as Merle in What It Means at Wilton’s Music Hall, with the show produced by Nisha Oza, written by James Corley and directed by Harry Mackrill. With What It Means set a year after the Stonewall riots, it is the true story behind one of the most impactful pieces of writing ever published in the fight for LGBTQ+ equality. Earlier this year, Richard played Pawnie in the Noël Coward play The Vortex at Chichester Festival Theatre alongside Joshua James and Lia Williams, and finished his run in the West End as Viriginia/Harriet/Kitty in the new adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, with a cast including Emma Corrin. Amongst his many stage projects, Richard has performed in Handbagged at the Kiln Theatre, Henry VI: Rebellion and Henry VI: War of the Roses with the RSC last year, The Normal Heart at National Theatre, My Night With Reg at Donmar Warehouse, War Horse for over a year, and he returned to live theatre for the first time after the pandemic in Talent by Victoria Wood. As a screen actor, most recently, Richard could be seen playing Rudy in the feature film My Policeman, and, previously, his roles include Marcus in Channel 4’s It’s a Sin, Thomas Andrews in Mary Queen of Scots and Harry Langdon in Stan & Ollie. Richard answered our questions about his upcoming starring role of Merle in What It Means at Wilton’s Music Hall, playing Pawnie in the Noël Coward play The Vortex and his time in the West End in the new adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando.
It’s been announced that you will be starring as Merle in What It Means at Wilton’s Music Hall in October, can you tell us about the show?
Yes – it’s set a year after Stonewall. Merle Miller is a closeted journalist, novelist and, it turns out, raconteur. Prompted by an outrageously bigoted piece in Harper’s Magazine, he begins to write his response, and his life story unfolds. The show is produced by Nisha Oza for The Lot Productions, written by James Corley and directed by Harry Mackrill. We spent a brilliant week last year working it all through, and we’re all really excited to see it come to life.
What are you looking forward to most for opening in What It Means and why would you recommend booking tickets?
Well, it’ll be really satisfying to bring this complicated man to life. He’s been largely forgotten, so I think people will enjoy meeting him – he’s terrific company for an evening. It’s incredibly intimate in scale as well, deeply personal, and really informative about that early part of the gay liberation movement.
In May, you finished your run at Chichester Festival Theatre as Pawnie in Noël Coward’s The Vortex, how was your time in the show and performing at Chichester?
We had a great time on The Vortex. Dan Raggett was really great to work with. He has a really fresh, passionate approach, and had cast the play with great care. I’d worked with Joshua James before, so that was great – and it was wonderful to work with Lia Williams. They were so dynamic together in the climax of the play. Chichester was one of the most actor friendly theatres I’ve worked in – everything there seemed geared to letting us be free to perform, while backstage ran like clockwork.
How much did you know about The Vortex before booking the role and how was it working on a Noël Coward play?
I’d read the play years ago, but it was a surprise when we rehearsed it. The specificity of tone was key, and the text demanded a rhythm which couldn’t be denied. It was the old adage of obeying the punctuation, but I’d never felt it so keenly. I loved how the play seemed to offer the audience a comedy at the start, and then pulled the rug from under them as it progressed.
What did you enjoy most about playing Virginia/Harriet/Kitty in Orlando in the West End and how was it getting into character?
The three characters were a heady mixture. Virginia was largely technical as there were nine of us playing her, and we worked as a tight chorus. Harriet’s scenes with Orlando were great fun with a level of emotion mixed in, and Emma Corrin was a brilliant scene partner; we tried to keep it fresh each night. Kitty was really a cameo caricature, so they all demanded a different approach. With quick changes and wigs flying around (once with a sleepy mouse inside) there wasn’t time for deep connection – more slipping the character on and setting them off to fight their corner.
What was it like being part of Neil Bartlett’s new adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel?
One of the best things was the wide range of audience members, and the joy it brought them. Neil’s imagination is so strong, and his sense of wit in telling the story kept everyone on the front foot – actors too, of course. It was very striking that, however, one felt before walking on stage, the play seemed to take each of us over as we entered. It really had its own spirit.
Before opening in Orlando at the Garrick Theatre, you were performing in Handbagged at the Kiln Theatre, how was this?
I loved it. It was an incredible challenge playing Dennis Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Geoffrey Howe and many others. I’d never considered myself any kind of impressionist before, so the fun of it all took me by surprise, but also the detail of the feeling in the eyes and voice and body of each person. This was another crack cast, and the technical aspects of the six of us as one entity demanded such concentration and energy each night. We were performing as the Queen died, and Liz Truss was PM, so the echoes of the relationship between the former and Margaret Thatcher were palpable. I’d worked with Indhu Rubasingham before, in WIFE by Samuel Adamson, and the Kiln felt like home.
How did you find the experience performing in both Henry VI: Rebellion and Henry VI: Wars of the Roses with the RSC last year?
I hadn’t performed in Shakespeare for a good few years, although I’d directed plenty in Mountview projects. It is entirely different, of course, to speak the words, and feel the verse. I’d worked with Owen Horsley (director) and Mark Quartley (who played Henry) a couple of years earlier, so it was good to come back together for this pretty epic undertaking, and the largely younger cast imbued it with a strong energy. The plays are neglected, I think, so it was thrilling to play major Shakespearean roles that people were less familiar with.
Can you tell us about your time in the cast of The Normal Heart at National Theatre?
The play touched so many people, and Dominic Cooke directed it with a pure intensity that honoured it beautifully. I can’t say it was a pleasure sharing all the research (having lived through the AIDS crisis as a young person), but it was necessary, of course. We rehearsed in a COVID-controlled environment, so the feeling of isolation rather reflected the atmosphere of the play.
How was it returning to live theatre in 2021 with Talent by Victoria Wood?
Well, it was a relief, of course, and lovely to start again with the play that had originally been commissioned by the Sheffield Crucible, where we performed it. Paul Foster was incredibly well prepared and patient as we all dusted ourselves off and dived in, and it was fun to sing and dance a bit into the bargain.
On screen, you were most recently seen in the feature film My Policeman as Rudy, what was it like on set of the film and can you tell us about your character?
Oh, well, Rudy is a tiny part – a nosy neighbour, and I was there for one day. Michael Grandage (who directed Orlando) had created a really warm atmosphere on set, which meant everyone was welcoming and friendly and giving of their best, it felt to me. It can be hard to pitch up so briefly, but in this case it was a pleasure.
How was it seeing the fan response to It’s a Sin and how was it being involved with the series as Marcus?
Well, I felt very proud to be a part of it. The response was so wide ranging, as it reached beyond the demographic that might have been expected, I think. The detail put into Marcus’ filming was key to us doing our best, and it felt there was freedom for us to improvise and delve deep into the moments.
What was it like working on Mary Queen of Scots as Thomas Andrews and Stan & Ollie as Harry Langdon?
Mary Queen of Scots was spectacular in scale, yet Josie Rourke (like Michael) was running a tight but welcoming ship, and we had a few more days on set. There was a similar scale, at least, on Stan & Ollie.
Can you tell us about some of the other projects you’ve been part of over your career so far, which have included My Night With Reg, War Horse, Wife, The Crown, Doctor Who and Bleak House?
My Night With Reg was a turning point for me really. I’d never imagined working at the Donmar, for some reason – I thought it was beyond reach, so the whole thing was thrilling. I’d always been a character actor, but now I was able to really embrace that, I think. Playing a strong comedy with brilliant actors is so joyful, and the gales of laughter coming from the audience are so energising.
I was in War Horse for over a year, taking over the role of Friedrich. I hadn’t ever seen it, which I was glad of, so it felt fresh to me – although I was fitting into the cast (about half of us were new). It’s quite different not being in at the start of the creative process, but there was some flexibility – and the show was tried and tested, of course. I learnt a lot working with the puppeteer teams as the horses – each team bringing the animals’ characters alive in very individual ways; consequently the show was interesting and different every night in the human/animal interactions.
Where does your love of acting come from and how did you get into it?
Both my parents were actors, but I was in denial about wanting to do it. I felt quite shy and unsure of myself, I guess, and – while I knew I could do it, I found it hard to project a version of myself that could persuade anyone of that fact. I studied drama at Bristol University, and slowly built my confidence, before going on to Central.
What are some of your favourite films, TV and theatre shows to watch and how do you like to spend your free time?
I like such a wide range of entertainment! From Big Business with Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin, to Au Revoir Les Enfants – a 1987 Louis Malle film. More recently I loved Triangle Of Sadness.
On TV, I’m enjoying Heartstopper at the moment, and looking forward to The Motive And The Cue on stage. I’d recommend Patriots, which I saw at the Almeida last year.