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Keith Barron has had plenty of comic roles in his time. But rehearsing them is a serious business. Lucy Johnston finds him preparing for a revival of Donkeys’ Years, Michael Frayn’s sparkling farce, at the Rose Theatre, Kingston
On a rather gloomy January afternoon, a rather bubbly Keith Barron phones me for a chat – during rehearsals for a production of Michael Frayn’s classic farce, Donkeys’ Years, to be staged at the Rose in Kingston this month.
“I’m soaked!” is his opening exclamation, when I enquire after his welfare.
I immediately put this down to an enthusiastic rehearsal, perhaps involving a bucket or similar comedic device, but it turns out that Keith has simply been walking his dog in the rain.
After comparing notes on the joys of muddy walks with our furry companions, we turn our thoughts to the show.
“We’re in the middle of four weeks of rehearsals, and my God do we need it,” gasps Keith. “It is truly a work of skill on the part of Michael Frayn, but it’s so tortuous right now getting to grips with it.
“I’m glad you’re not actually here to experience it, as we’re all stumbling about the place at the moment, and I’m currently swearing a lot!”
He is cautious of sharing too much more about exactly how it is going though. “It’s going,” is the most he will offer.
“I think underplaying my enthusiasm is the best approach at the moment. I’m keeping it casual,” he teases.
This classic piece of theatre cleverness was written by Frayn in 1976, winning the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy that year. It follows the escapades of a group of Oxbridge alumni at their 20th reunion, with Keith playing the head porter of ‘one of the lesser colleges’ where they convene.
“I love this role,” he continues, “because I get to be the one in the middle, making sure that everyone’s alright, while the rest of them all go dashing around.”
And as if all the choreography were not challenging enough, I suggest, the cast must surely also have to contend with the dangers of uncontrollable laughter along the way.
“I’m actually feeling quite serious about it at the moment,” insists Keith, in a tone that could either be serious or not. It’s hard to tell.
“We have to approach it as a serious operation! But yes, it is often said that comedy is the most difficult theatre form to pull off convincingly.
“In rehearsals we are subconsciously anticipating laughter in various places – it’s all part of the technique. And, once we get on stage, hearing the laughter of the audience is actually heaven. It energises rather than distracts. What is far worse is if no one laughs at all!”
In fact, accustomed as he is to stagecraft, it is the process of learning lines that Keith considers to be the most challenging aspect of it all. Even with so much experience, it’s still something he can’t stand.
“I think everyone has their peculiarities when it comes to a technique for that. For me, I absolutely have to be sitting in one particular special chair, holding a special pen. Only then can I start to get into the right frame of mind.”
“Speaking of which, I think I’d better get back in that chair now. I’ve got lots to do!”
Rose Theatre, Kingston, Feb 6-22.
Tel: 08444 821 556