Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Bruce Alexander and Sam Alexander: The Red

By | Published on Friday 11 March 2022

A few years back at the last pre-pandemic Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019, one of our reviewers went to see a show called ‘The Red’ – a play about alcoholism, addiction and a relationship between father and son – and gave it a five-star review.

It praised the script, brilliantly written by Marcus Brigstocke, and the excellent and subtle performances of its stars, real life father and son Bruce Alexander and Sam Alexander.

I was really pleased when I heard that the show would be streaming digitally to audiences via Original Theatre Online this spring, and immediately thought it would be great to find out more about the play and the actors who are performing in it. 

I spoke to both Bruce and Sam, about the play, what it was like working together, and their plans for the future.

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the story the play tells? Who is it about and where does the narrative take us?
BA: I wonder if it even is a story in the conventional sense. A man is an alcoholic. He hasn’t had any alcohol for years – 25 years in fact. His father dies and leaves him something from his wine cellar. What’ll happen?

SA: Yes, ‘The Red’ is about the joy of drinking and the hell of drinking. It’s the story of a father and son who both really love wine, only one of them hasn’t had a sip for 25 years. The action takes place in a cellar packed with pricey bottles of wine – a dangerous place for an alcoholic in recovery, I think you’ll agree.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
BA: Alcoholism. Sounds serious and even dreary doesn’t it? It isn’t. Anything but, for the dad and the son always got on pretty well and laughed together even if they hardly understood each others’ life-choices. At least the dad hardly did.

SA: Yes, it definitely explores the theme of addiction, a subject a lot of us have a fairly superficial understanding of – I certainly did until I started work on this. But it’s also a play about fathers and sons and asks the rather unsettling question: do our parents always know us better than we know ourselves?

Marcus’s play is warm and witty – as you’d expect from such a funny fella – and it is also rooted in lived experience. Marcus reveals what it feels like on the inside. The writing is honest and authentic; I think that’s what makes ‘The Red’ so compelling. 

CM: Can you each tell us about the character you play?
BA: I play the dad. He was quite a bon viveur, a naturally happy man. He had a wine cellar full of all sorts of wines – 948 bottles of the stuff – and three children to split it all between. 

SA: Benedict is calm on the surface, with rip currents below. His life unravelled when he fell hopelessly in love with alcohol at the age of fourteen. After a quarter century of sobriety, he has put all that behind him. Thanks to his twelve-step recovery programme, Benedict is successful and pretty content most days. But the day of your dad’s funeral isn’t most days…

CM: What attracted you to your respective role? How did you get involved with this production?
BA: It takes the universal view that we’re all responsible for our own lives even when we start from very different points to others. In a way it is an ‘argument’ in the proper sense of the word.

I like words. Marcus likes words. He likes to laugh his way out of dilemmas rather than bang on about things. Sam knew Marcus at university. Somehow or other we were both asked to look at the play. It was self-evidently a corker. We spoke on the phone and jumped at it.

SA: The setup is gold, it grabbed me straight away. Benedict is wrestling with an impossible dilemma and the messy complicated parts of himself, that’s a lot for an actor to get his teeth into.

I knocked about with Marcus years ago at university, playing small parts in a sketch show of his. I leapt at the chance of working with him again.

He’s got boundless energy, knows a heck of a lot about a whole heap of subjects, makes you laugh and enjoys being made to laugh. It’s infectious, that kind of spirit. 

CM: Did your real life relationship have an impact on how you performed your roles? Was it helpful?
BA: That’s rather like asking do plants like the sun! I’m a father – twice over – and I am who I am because I’m a father.

SA: It’s actually really efficient working with someone you know inside out; you certainly spend a lot less time wondering what your colleague is really thinking and what makes them tick.

That said, I think doing a job like this when I first left drama school would have been tricky – he might have given me acting notes in the wings – but it feels like an equal partnership now.

It’s actually a real privilege to spend time with your parent in work mode. Dad’s a brilliant listener, thoughtful and kind. At work anyway!

I think what helped us the most is that Benedict and his dad obviously share a great sense of humour, it’s a shorthand between them. Love and laughter seem like two sides of the same coin. It’s something dad and I have too – though in real life our jokes aren’t written by a professional comedian.

CM: What was it like to work together on something like this?
BA: Brilliant. We had a lot of laughs, but we came together not as father and son but as two actors.

SA: I agree, it’s been a total joy. I feel so lucky we’ve had the chance to do this. It’s a profession where lots of people follow in their parents’ footsteps, but not all family members get the chance to work together.

CM: Can we talk a bit about each of you, now? Did you always want to work in the arts? How did your careers begin?
BA: Well, pretty much. I’ve been an actor for fifty years. Anything before that is lost in the mists of time. The first acting job I had was touring around Shropshire with five other great actors in a van performing in theatres, village halls, the open air, etc. I liked it.

SA: You may not be surprised to hear that dad was lukewarm about me becoming an actor, which actually did me a favour because I explored other avenues. I’ve been doing plays since I was fifteen but I never really dared consider doing it professionally until I left university and found myself thinking: I don’t want to do this as a hobby, I want it to be my job. I think he was resigned to it by then!

CM: What have been the highlights of your careers thus far?
BA: Simply put, working. Sounds evasive but you’ve got to like each job you do. Sometimes you don’t and that’s grim. Mostly you do and it’s great. And yes, ‘The Red’ is up there as a truly inspiring job. 

SA: Honestly, it’s the variety I like. ‘Comedy Of Errors’ in the style of ‘Up Pompeii’, directed for Shakespeare’s Globe by Chris Luscombe was pretty sensational. More recently ‘The Watsons’ by Laura Wade was a hoot. We were about to do that in the West End when bloody COVID struck.

CM: Ah yes, COVID. The pandemic had a very negative effect on the industry – how did you get through it?
BA: The first year was grim for our business, but I’ve reached a stage in life when I got on with other things I wanted to do. Mostly writing history.

The second year a lot of TV companies had worked at coping with the pandemic, factoring it in as it were. I was lucky: there were a number of lovely tellies to do – not least ‘Gentleman Jack’ and ‘Hard Cell’, Catherine Tate’s mockumentary for Netflix.

SA: Yes, it’s easily been the hardest few years I’ve had. At first, it was okay because no one was working. No danger of FOMO! Also, I was lucky to get the self-employed grants which kept me afloat. Since then it’s been a lot harder.

Theatre in particular has taken such a hit and, understandably, producers have looked to do projects with small casts, preferably comprised of famous faces off the TV.

I had to find other ways to earn, which feels tough at the time, but you end up doing stuff you may not otherwise have tried and some of it’s really satisfying. Like I said, variety is one of things I like best about this business.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
BA: To keep taking the tablets…

SA: My ambition is always to do a couple of really great plays a year, and hope to pick up some screen work around them. Sounds so easy when I put it like that!

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this? 
BA: Life!

SA: I’m in rehearsals for a tour of ‘The Homecoming’. I’ve never done Pinter before and I’m extremely chuffed to be having a go now.

‘The Red’ is online via Original Theatre Online from 16 Mar-16 Jun, see this page here for more information and to book.


Photo: Tom Grace