Cush Jumbo

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Originally written for IdeasTap.

Actress Cush Jumbo has appeared in a wide range of stage and television roles, including Lois Habiba in Torchwood. Her latest project, Josephine and I, is a one-woman show that tells the extraordinary life story of Josephine Baker. She shares her tips on training, research and how to cope with pressure…

How important do you think it is to train as an actor?

I really loved my training experience. I think it probably depends on the kind of person you are and what your plan is; what kind of career you’d like to have. I was very interested in learning the technical aspects of my job; the craft of it, the voice, the movement and how to actually do this job day to day. That’s the bit that I think you can be taught. The other bit is the raw talent part, which you can’t be taught. I personally found my training really useful and I’ve continued to find it useful since graduating.

Was there a point at which you felt your career really took off?

I didn’t have a rocket launch of a start. For the first couple of years I really was a jobbing actor and I had to deal with all the strain and the pressure of having absolutely no stability. I think after I did Torchwood things changed a lot, but for me it’s been a gradual process. It’s only really in the last two years that I have been booked up with work.

There’s something positive to be said for both ways. It’s nice to be constantly in work, but it also has an impact upon your life because you can’t fit anything else in – you can’t take a holiday, you can’t go to a friend’s wedding, you can’t make plans. Sometimes when you have those gaps you can do those things.

Did you feel any pressure when you were cast in Torchwood?

I don’t recall thinking that at the time, I recall being ecstatically happy that I could pay my rent for the next three months! In a way, actors thrive on pressure. Part of our job is about being able to take on stress and pressure, deal with it and turn it into another kind of energy. Things can change every day, nothing stays the same, lines get cut, lines get added, jobs get taken, you get rejected. You have to thrive on pressure and on the ability to change. If you sat there and thought about pressure then you’d never get any jobs done.

What advice would you give for coping with the pressure and instability of acting?

At drama school, nobody really talks about how to deal with the mental anxiety of being out of work. It can put you in a very lonely, very low, very blue, very depressed state. One way of dealing with that is to remember that there is always going to be somebody else who’s going through that same stage and that you should talk to people about it. Don’t let it get to the stage where you’re feeling so low that you feel completely alone. Otherwise, when that audition comes up, you’re not on top of your game. You need to be ready to go.

It’s a brilliant idea to give yourself your own routine. So you’re doing your boring day job, but you’re still trying to go to classes, you’re still trying to learn accents. Get together with a group of other actors and run lines from a play, or do a bit of writing, or go to a gig – try to take in as much artistic stuff as you can, because working in a job you hate is going to kill your soul. You need to find ways of keeping the creativity running so that when that phone call comes for that audition you’re at your peak.

In Focus: Researching Josephine and I

I’ve always been interested in Josephine Baker since I was a kid. She has an unbelievably fascinating life; it’s so mythic. I read a lot of books and biographies, I watched a lot of movies. I had a really good idea in my head by this point of who this woman was – although the fabulous thing about her is that she can be played a million different ways because she was always changing herself, she was always changing her identity. It’s great to do her in a one-person show because you can be all those different people and all the other characters, but somebody else could do this show and play her in a completely different way.

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Samantha Spiro

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Originally written for IdeasTap.

Samantha Spiro has acted in everything from Shakespeare to musical theatre, as well as establishing herself as a familiar face on BBC Two sitcom Grandma’s House. As she prepares to play Lady Macbeth at the Globe, she shares advice on maintaining a healthy career balance and not losing faith…

How difficult was it to make the transition from drama school into the theatre industry?

As far as drama school is concerned, the brilliant thing is that you just get to do lots of plays. I was very lucky that my first job was at the Open Air Theatre at Regent’s Park, so I continued in a similar vein. In those days you got to do two Shakepeare plays and a musical, so I played Third Witch in Macbeth and Peaseblossom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and everything from a canary to a courtesan in The Boys From Syracuse, which was the musical.

It felt very much like the old days of rep, which I never experienced because there were very few theatres still doing it. I was very lucky to have those opportunities to get into that kind of environment very early on.

You have described the role of Barbara Windsor in Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick as one of your big breaks. What impact did that production have on your career?

Because it was at the National [Theatre] and we filmed it, it had the knock-on effect of opening doors. But it didn’t feel like it at the time, it didn’t feel immediate. I don’t feel there’s been any one moment in my life where suddenly everything’s burst into technicolour and everybody has been knocking at my door. It’s been more slowly-but-surely.

How do you maintain a balance between theatre and television work?

I felt for many years that theatre was my main source of employment. But in the back of my mind I knew that there probably was a better balance. Although the worlds do feel very separate, I think that the more you’re seen on television, the more people want to come and see you in the theatre, and the more chances of you getting better roles. It’s only really in much more recent years that I feel as though I’m doing a bit of both. I absolutely love it, but I’m always eager to get back to theatre. 

Is there added pressure with taking on an iconic role like Lady Macbeth?

It is an iconic role, but I think you just have to free yourself of those pressures. Most of my favourite actors have played this part brilliantly, but when you come to it you’ve got to think of it as a new play and pretend that nobody’s played this part before, because otherwise you do drive yourself mad and you’ll lose your nerve.

Do you have any advice for young actors?

Try and work as much as you possibly can and try and create as much as you possibly can. If the acting work isn’t coming in then keep active by writing or by trying to get in on the production side of things. Just keeping at it if you’re passionate about doing it is the best thing, because there’s no logic. As long as you’re part of the business, I think things can happen at any moment. To not lose faith.

In Focus: Creating a back story for Lady Macbeth

Joe Millson – who’s playing Macbeth – and I agreed very much on what our back story is. The back story for us is about having had a child who died within the first few weeks of its life. 

I’m approaching playing Lady Macbeth as a woman who had post-natal depression and had evil thoughts about her baby, and then the baby does die, so she’s left with this huge, gaping hole in her life. And her husband feels guilt towards her and wants to try and help her out of this.

Going through birth, going through post-natal depression, and then going through the loss of a child has left her with a chasm to fill. That then gives me the springboard or catalyst for what happens in the play.

One Hour Only, Underbelly

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Originally written for IdeasTap.

AJ’s mates have bought him a banging present for his 21st birthday – quite literally.

Out of place in a classy London brothel, the gift he ends up with is Marly, a cash-strapped student in her first night on the job, with whom he has more in common than he expected.

This is the somewhat contrived but dramatically fruitful set-up of Sabrina Mahfouz’s new play, a bite-sized meditation on youth, sexual politics and the economics of power. As soon as Marly’s mask slips and it becomes clear that this will be no usual encounter between prostitute and client, the unlikely situation becomes a platform for surprisingly honest discussion and debate between the pair. They might remain clothed, but the conversation is naked.

Marly, who likes sex but likes money more, argues her defence by suggesting that no exchange involving money is ever truly empowering; we are all, to a lesser or greater extent, whoring out our talents. Falling prey to Pretty Woman syndrome, AJ tries to talk Marly out of her morally dubious profession, but Mahfouz’s writing is too clever to allow this to become anything nearing black and white.

Through AJ and Marly, the piece asks questions about ambition, money, knowledge, the nature of modern feminism. There is also an acute observation about the way in which sex is viewed in modern Britain, with the line between casual one-night stands and paid-for encounters growing ever more blurred.

AJ and Marly’s conversational dance, engagingly played by Faraz Ayub and Nadia Clifford, takes place in a naturalistic, clinical hotel room, a naturalism that is offset by a striking back wall of lightbulbs in Francesca Reidy’s design. This simple yet fascinating feature fades and brightens, pulsing with the power games between man and woman, crackling like their obvious chemistry. Although Mahfouz’s intriguing, intelligent piece has yet to quite reach its own lightbulb moment, as the hour ticks past it leaves everyone wanting a few more minutes.

Photo: Jassy Earl

Strong Arm, Underbelly

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Originally written for IdeasTap.

Sporting ambition and athletic excellence are high on the national consciousness as the country continues to ride the wave of Olympic success. When competitiveness goes up a weight class into pure obsession, however, that same determination to succeed becomes altogether more disturbing.

Roland Poland has a lot to prove. Cursed with rolls of fat and a ridiculous name, he finds unexpected strength after visiting Plates, a run-down gym above a butcher’s shop where pumping iron becomes a substitute for emotional fulfilment. Eyes transfixed on the goal of becoming Mr Britain and discovering what Arnold Schwarzenegger calls “The Pump”, Roland guzzles protein shakes and doses up on science, trying every tactic possible to get stronger.

Although entitled Strong Arm, Finlay Robertson’s protein- and testosterone-fuelled play is more concerned with another appendage. Roland, played with humour and granite-eyed determination by Robertson, fantasises about having veins so popped that he resembles a giant penis. He spunks while working out and reels off the names of “hardcore” supplements that have a hint of the pornographic. In a deeply sexualised world, strength seems to be synonymous with virility, offering a deeply critical vision of what it means to prove one’s masculinity.

Much like Roland, Robertson’s writing has more to it than it initially appears. While seeming to promise to be a vaguely amusing one-man show, it teases at our expectations, even offering up the dramatically disappointing possibility of sentimental catharsis before snatching it away again. Although grounded in a recognisable world, there is just enough strangeness to the writing – the unlikely, Dahl-esque names, the vividly grotesque descriptions – to lace the piece with a sense of the surreal and sinister.

The same might be said of Kate Budgen’s direction and James Turner’s design, which each reveal themselves as increasingly clever. The performance space is backed with a set of four mirrors, as rusting and distorted as Roland’s perception of himself, through which coloured strip lights flicker like the neon of strip clubs or of the signs on which Roland dreams of seeing his name.

Because ultimately this is all about self-identity. In a society in thrall to the media, in which outcasts can become superheroes and a bodybuilder is a Hollywood hero, to demonstrate superhuman strength is to gain fame, validation and, most importantly, acceptance.

Photo: Jassy Earl

Glory Dazed, Underbelly

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Originally written for IdeasTap.

While his friends come home in coffins and wheelchairs, Ray knows that war can make you lose something other than life or limb. Returning to Doncaster with frustrated aggression and tortured memories, the only thing that Ray is any good at these days is fighting. But there’s no memorial service or prosthetic aid for being messed up in the head.

As Ray returns to the local boozer in a misguided attempt to win back ex-wife Carla, the bar becomes a vodka-doused pressure cooker in this new piece from Second Shot Productions, stitched together by writer Cat Jones with help from ex-servicemen at HMP & YOI Doncaster prison. Knocking back shots with Carla, old mate and pub landlord Simon and ditzy barmaid Leanne, the invisible wounds begin to split open and weep.

The production is knotted together by an explosive performance from Samuel Edward-Cook as “wounded lion” Ray. Dripping with sweat and radiating aggression, he is as pathetic as he is dangerous, yet still with a spark in his eyes that hints at former charm. Like Carla, we are unable to fully detach our sympathies, no matter how broken and violent he becomes.

This is not the first piece of theatre, or even the only piece of theatre in Edinburgh this year, to tackle the bitter legacy of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Where it demonstrates nuance, however, is in its dissection of the relationship between the world of war and the domestic battlefield. As terrifying and as impossible to understand as warfare may be, Jones does not play down the struggle and drudge of everyday life, a drudge that might just be enough to make someone prefer the danger that war entails.

We are also left staring down the barrel of the bleak fact that no one really cares. The struggle goes on in the warzones and the suburban streets and all we do is sit and watch The X Factor on a Saturday night. In more than one sense, this loaded production departs with the perception that the world is indeed, in Simon’s words, a “fucking scary place”.

Photo: Jassy Earl