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Interview with Oliver Dench – Tom in Alex MacKeith’s School Play

Antic Face School Play Oliver Dench
Antic Face School Play – Oliver Dench – Photo credit gbphotos.com

Alex Mackeith’s debut play – School Play, at Southwark Playhouse from 6th February and running until the 25th February 2017. The play is set against the backdrop of an education system in turmoil, and asks what it means to be a Primary School teacher in contemporary Britain and was inspired by his time working as a tutor.

Oliver Dench plays Tom. Theatre credits include The Witch Of Edmonton (RSC), Romeo And Juliet (Permanently Bard), Hamlet (Revolve Theatre Company), Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo And Juliet (Reading Between The Lines), A Christmas Carol (Reading Repertory Theatre); and for television, Ride.

Oliver recently answered some questions about his career and School Play.

Q: What attracted you to be a part of this production?
Oliver: Something I find thrilling about the work of antic | face is their commitment to their mission statement. Not only do they create work with a strong sense of purpose, they do incredibly well to begin to redress the gender imbalance that pervades not only theatre, but the rest of the artistic (and indeed non-artistic) world. I saw their previous show (‘For Those Who Cry When they Hear The Foxes Scream’) at the Tristan Bates Theatre several months ago and was very impressed.

I’ve also worked with our director, Charlie Parham, once before on a one-man show in Nice. I think he might be a bonafide genius. I’d jump at the chance to work with him again. And that’s not even addressing my interest in the particular themes of this production…

Q: What are your own personal processes with regard to ‘getting into the character’ and learning lines?
Oliver: My Grandad once gave a lovely metaphor about acting. He explained that he viewed the process like gem cutting. Each human being is a large, rough diamond, or block of beautiful marble. Or something else extraordinarily metaphorical and pretentious. Inside that rough stone, there is a beautiful sculpture or cut gem that is your character. The process of finding that character is working out what aspects inside yourself are present in the character, and which attributes may need sharpening and heightening.

For Tom, in particular, there were a few things I needed to research. For example, unlike him, I didn’t attend a public school – I needed to find out what precisely that may have been like, and how it may have affected him. So I made sure to talk to my friends who had attended such a school, and some students who are currently part of one. That seems very obvious… because it is, really. You can’t start pretending to be someone else until you know who that someone else is.

In terms of learning lines, nothing beats speaking them out loud. Running them with someone. Annoying my housemates at home. Speed runs with the cast. I’d love to say there was something magical about it, or some trick through which you can completely circumvent the process, but I’d be lying. Repetition makes perfection. Repetition makes perfection. Repetition makes perfection. Repetition makes perfection. Repetition makes perfection.

Q: You play the part of ‘Tom’ – what can you tell us about him and how he fits into the storyline?
Oliver: Obviously he’s the hero.
No, that’s not quite true. Tom attended Winchester school, followed by Oxford. He studied economics and achieved a double first. His mother was a teacher at Winchester when he was attending. That much the script gives us. In terms of behaviour, he tends to find situations get away from him. Maybe he over-thinks things. Maybe he’s a little awkward.

He has had a few thoughts about the purpose of education, and how exactly this purpose fits into the system we currently have. A lot of Tom’s personal journey through the play is about how these ideas fit into the situation or school in which he finds himself.

As I’m playing Tom, I have to fight his corner and say that he really is in it for the right reasons; he wants to help the kids. His motivations are basically unselfish. Though I’m not certain every other character in the play would agree.

Q: What is at the heart of School Play – and why should people get along to see it?
Oliver: School Play (as the name suggests) is about a School. It’s a beautiful work (that’s the first reason to go and see it) that very reasonably and realistically explores the issues being faced by the education system today (second reason.) Frankly, I’m still in awe of Alex MacKeith’s ability to explore the issues with such an outrageously fine toothed comb, while retaining a sense of realism, and even some pretty fantastic character development and story telling (If I were to try, it would probably end up more of an essay than a play.) I suppose at the heart of it, it discusses what it means to be a teacher, and the disconnect between the tumultuous education policies and their application. (One final set of parenthesis before we finish. This overuse of brackets is why I’m not a playwright).

Concerning why people should see it – have you ever been in School? Do you think they’re worth thinking about? Do you have kids who might be in school now? Do you think education matters? These are things we need to consider as a society. And School Play might just give us a great springboard for doing so.

Antic Face School Play Ann Ogbomo, Fola Evans-Akingbola, Charlie Parham and Oliver Dench
Antic Face School Play: Ann Ogbomo, Fola Evans-Akingbola, Charlie Parham and Oliver Dench – Credit gbphotos.com

Q: How much does School Play reflect issues in the current educational system?
Oliver: Like a bloody mirror. Or, if we’re being pedantic, I hope I’m not ruining anything by saying it’s set in the summer of 2017 – so if anything, it’s ahead of its time. Alex MacKeith and antic | face’s research has been amazingly thorough. From what I can tell, and according to the teachers with whom I’ve spoken, the plays reflection is picture perfect.

Q: What do you hope the audience will get from watching School Play?
Oliver: Like any great theatre, I hope that it provokes debate. The wonderful thing about writing characters means you can come at an issue from a number of different angles. I hope different audience members come out with different sympathies. Identify with different characters. It’s not the job of this play to be over didactic, or polemic (Charlie Parham taught me that word.) It’s the job to explore, and allow the audience to come to their own conclusions. Hopefully, people will come out debating. And maybe, if I’ve done my job right, someone might be fighting Tom’s corner.

Q: With regard to you personally, what do you find the most rewarding aspect of performing on stage?
Oliver: There’s a wonderful freedom to performing on stage, which doesn’t really have a parallel on the screen. Of course, there are strengths to each medium, but it’s lovely on stage to try your best to inhabit the moment. It’s really hard. And I rarely succeed. It’s very easy to get tied up in your own headspace, or confused with how you did things before. But there’s something wonderfully rewarding about finally getting to a space when you are sure of your character, your place and position in the play, and you can simply react to what you’re getting from the other actors in the space.

I also think it’s especially thrilling that theatre, especially when dealing with new writing, has to be relevant. It’s difficult for it to be outdated (without an entire company severely dropping the ball) because it’s happening right there in front of you. That life that is given to characters in the theatre is something the audience pick up on, and something that makes theatre very special for everyone.

Q: Finally, What do you like to do to chill out?
Oliver: Apart from interviews? I like normal things like reading and watching films. Two of my housemates are musicians in a fantastic band called Nubiyan Twist, so there’s always a lot of music around the house. I also live with my brother who is a puppeteer, so it’s fun to play around with things he’s made and have a go at building some. Also, all the things above are fun – that’s another of the things I love about acting. You get to delve deeply into the issues addressed in any play you might be doing at the time.

antic | face, in association with Nik Holttum Productions, presents
School Play
by Alex MacKeith

The headteacher’s office of a south London primary school is always busy. But today is results day and the phone won’t stop ringing. Jo, the headteacher of St. Barnabas, knows that the arrival of the school’s SATs results puts her job on the line. With the future of the school and its pupils at stake, Jo struggles to maintain order as her staff and superiors demand answers. Can she protect her students and herself?

antic | face is proud to present this sharp, wry and timely drama. Set against the backdrop of an education system in turmoil, Alex MacKeith’s debut play asks what it means to be a primary school teacher in contemporary Britain.

1 – 25 FEBRUARY 2017
Start Time 8pm
Matinee Starts 3.30pm
Running Time 90 mins approx


  • Neil Cheesman

    First becoming involved in an online theatre business in 2005 and launching londontheatre1.com in September 2013. Neil writes reviews and news articles, and has interviewed over 150 actors and actresses from the West End, Broadway, film, television, and theatre. Follow Neil on Twitter @LondonTheatre1

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