Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Terence Mann: The Doppel Gang

By | Published on Thursday 12 January 2017

Everyone loves The Marx Brothers (well, you know, a lot of people do) so I suspect many of you will be attracted to this new play about a troupe of performers trying to save their theatre by pretending that the famous trio are set to perform at the venue.
I am certainly very interested in seeing it, and was eager to find out more about it, so I put some questions to the play’s director, Terence Mann.

CM: This is a new play, isn’t it? Can you tell us what happens in it? What is it about?
TM: ‘The Doppel Gang’ is a new play. Set against the backdrop of London during the Blitz, it tells the story of a group of music hall entertainers who, in a desperate attempt to boost audiences and save their small theatre, decide to pass themselves off as the inimitable Marx Brothers.

In trying to determine who they want to be, the company begin to question who they actually are and as some long held secrets emerge they are left wondering, who is really playing who? Opening night approaches, the bombs rain down and tensions rise both onstage and off as the company starts to fall apart.

I suppose, ultimately, the piece is concerned with the question of identity both on a personal and cultural level. The fictional company in ‘The Doppel Gang’ decide take on the identity of the iconic American trio at a time when the influence of US culture in Britain was palpable. The expansion of the US film industry in the 1930s and 40s played a huge part in the migration of American culture and whether it was for better or for worse, British culture along with that of the world has never been the same since.

CM: Who are the main characters, and who plays them?
TM: Jake Urry plays Lombard, the manager of the failing theatre, who reluctantly ends up playing Chico. Peter Stone plays Tommy, one half of a rather poor Music Hall double act, Doppler and Burke. Tommy has no say in playing Harpo. Jordan Moore plays the other half of the hapless duo, Cyril, he insists on playing Groucho. Rachel Hartley plays Rachel, a musical hall male impersonator who is in love with Tommy. She also plays Collette, the female stooge in the Marx Brothers scenes.

CM: Are the ‘impersonators’ convincing in their roles? To what extent do they really resemble the Marx brothers?
TM: The cast are actors not impersonators or look-alikes. From day one I discouraged the cast from getting too obsessed with trying to look or be exactly like the Marx Brothers. They are all too tall for a start! Besides, the costumes are a kind of mask. To some extent, if I put Groucho glasses, moustache, nose and eyebrows on our hamster, we would know who it was supposed to be. That’s the easy bit really. The unmistakable and consistent look of the Marx brothers; Groucho’s specs, moustache, eyebrows and cigar, Chico’s jacket and hat, and Harpo’s top hat curly blonde wig and long coat, are a very important part of creating the illusion. Moreover, those things help the actor inhabit the character and adopt their physicality.

The voices were more of a challenge, particularly for Harpo! Again, full on impressions were less important to me but an audience would be left disappointed and unable to suspend their disbelief if Groucho sounded like he was from Wigan. If an actor gets the tone and rhythm right everything falls into place. We have put a lot of time and detail into characterisation and when you add to that dialogue which actually sounds like the sort of thing the Marx Brothers would say, Bob’s almost your Uncle, but of course the final piece of the jigsaw is in the hands of the audience. It’s a bit like Father Christmas, if his beard is crap, his suit looks like it’s been bought in a fancy dress shop, and he sounds like David Beckham, it’s hard to believe he is Father Christmas. If all that stuff is right then it’s easy…especially if you want to believe. At times, in rehearsal I sort of forgot I wasn’t watching the Marx Brothers, if the audience believes, then they might just catch a glimpse of them too.

CM: Does the Marx Brothers’ own material make appearances in the play?
TM: No, but at times you would be forgiven for thinking it does.

CM: What attracted you to this script? Why did you want to help bring it to the stage?
TM: When I agreed to direct the piece the script didn’t exist, so it would be more of a question to the writer – ie, why was he attracted to writing the script? The company had the idea they wanted to create a piece inspired by the Marx Brothers, and approached Dominic Hedges to work with them. It’s refreshing to see a young company creating work which is not about social media, sex, drugs, gangsters, suicide, child abuse or terrorism. Also, I love the Marx Brothers.

CM: How did you go about evoking the atmosphere of 1940s London?
TM: Attention to detail. The soundscape, music, costume, props and lighting all need to be right. That doesn’t mean we have raided antique shops and spent hundreds of pounds hiring stuff. Again, it’s not real, it’s about creating an illusion. There are certain bits of costume and props that are authentic and that’s all it needs. And of course the dialogue needs to be authentic to give a sense of that time and place, any anachronisms can spoil things, so a good deal of time was spent on that too.

CM: Was the playwright involved with the actual production?
TM: Dominic’s role was to write in collaboration with the company to incorporate their ideas and vision of the piece. This involved a lot of drafts and re-working of things once the actors had workshopped initial Dominic’s ideas. It was at times a complicated but very organic process.

CM: Can you tell us about Just Some Theatre Company? How did you come to be working with the group?
TM: All the members of the company and the writer trained as actors on the BA (Hons) Acting at The University of Central Lancashire. Peter Stone and Jake Urry formed Just Some on graduating in 2012 and were joined by Jordan Moore who graduated in 2013. Rachel Hartley was hired by the company in 2015 to work on The Doppel Gang. After spending 20 years working as an actor and director I became the Course Leader on the BA (Hons) Acting at Uclan in 2007, so I have worked with all of them for years. One of the strengths of the company is that they have had the same training and therefore have a unique shared language and way of working, much of that stemming from their training in Meyerhold’s Biomechanics. In that sense they are a true ensemble. In 2012 the company asked me to direct their touring production of ‘Coward’, a speculative piece looking at the exploits of Noel Coward in the 1920’s. It was an enjoyable experience and the play was a great success, so it seemed natural to work together again on ‘The Doppel Gang’.

CM: What’s next for the company?
TM: Probably a question best answered by the company, but I know they have a few projects on the go, one being a new play set during World War1. I think they are probably working their way back through history and by the time the are in their sixties they will end up doing a piece about a group of Iron Age Potters who start a very successful drag act.

CM: What’s next for you?
TM: I am about to direct David Edgar’s ‘Pentecost’ at St. Peter’s Arts Centre, UCLan and in complete contrast, as an actor, I am just about to finish recording the voice of Gobble in series 2 of CBBC’s ‘Kate and Mim Mim’.

‘The Doppel Gang’ is on at Tristan Bates Theatre from 17 Jan-11 Feb. See the venue website here for more info and to book.