ARTS AND FEATURES — 22 October 2013

Cast members in a scene from The Seagull. Photo: Mandy Gasson

By David Hennessy

Charm Offensive, the theatre company established in 2001 by acclaimed Armagh director Gavin McAlinden, will next month present a rep season of Ivanov by Anton Chekhov and The Parasite, a play inspired by the writings of Ivan Turgenev, at Theatro Technis. The company earned rave reviews in April when they showcased The Seagull and A Month in the Country, also by Ivanov and Turgenev respectively, at the same venue.

Gavin also hosts an acting gym at London Irish Centre twice a week, a place where budding actors can meet up and have the chance to perform and experiment while building up to a performance. It is also an opportunity for them to speak about auditions and other aspects of the actor’s life and network. Gavin and his group of actors are also working towards a January performance of Playboy of the Western World at The Corrib Rest.

“Acting Gymnasium began as a group of actors that just wanted to keep working and developing their skills on a weekly basis,” explains Gavin. “Since then it’s got stronger and more focused. It’s great for me as a practitioner to work week-in week-out with the same actors because you develop quite a unique shorthand. I’ve seen actors make some quite astonishing breakthroughs. You have that unique bond of trust that gives actors the confidence to experiment and push their emotional boundaries, visit places, re-create experiences and take risks in a safe and supportive environment. The results can be quite breath taking.”

“The Seagull and A Month in the Country were a fantastic experience for everyone. I think every single actor involved got at least one mention in the reviews. So it gave everyone not only a terrific showcase but also a platform to approach the next stage in their careers with a real sense of confidence.”

Clare Langford from Limerick

Clare Langford from Caherdavin, Limerick plays Anna in Ivanov. A recent recruit to the gym, she describes its benefits: “That’s the difficulty with acting because I think if you play an instrument or sport, you can do that all the time whereas with acting, you need people. You can read a monologue in the garden but it’s not the same as being there.”

When asked if there is a shortage of such groups, Clare says: “At one end of the spectrum there are the heavy demands of fringe shows that require huge rehearsal commitments and no guarantee of quality, and at the other end you have the weekly classes that offer the opportunity to hone your skills but without the prospect of getting in front of an audience.  The gym falls somewhere in the middle for me, and it’s a place where I feel creatively involved as an individual artist, but also that there is a vision that we are all working towards as a group.”

Kathryn McCartin, from Cushendun in Antrim, is playing Sasha from Ivanov and Pegeen Mike in Playboy of the Western World, and adds: “I think with theatre, it’s about the energy of people in the room together. You really can’t dig deep just on your own. I was looking for something like this where you could just continue to just get up and play and work with other people and explore characters and things like that.

“We’re meeting once a week and that has its benefits but it also has its challenges but I think it’s an interesting mode of working and I think a lot of people should give it a go.”

The actor’s life can be an uncertain one with much time spent waiting for the phone to ring. Gavin describes the gym as “like Fight Club” with everyone getting up and performing before the end. By keeping sharp in the gym, the actors taking part ensure they are ready for that audition when it comes. The Irish World has observed a couple of its sessions and seen how there is no holding back.

Acting Gymnasium appreciates the on-going support and encouragement of The London Irish Centre, Gary Dunne and all the staff and patrons there. Before they had this regular venue for their meetings, Gavin’s group was a “wandering group of merry players”.

Gavin’s production of David Edgar’s Pentecost was nominated for two Off West End Awards last year in the categories of Best Director and Best Ensemble. Another of the group to be recognised in this way is Alexander Neal who played the lead in The Seagull and has been nominated for an Offie for his work in Sus in The Lion and the Unicorn. Alex will play the lead role of Nikolai Ivanov who is plagued with bad luck and drifting steadily into poverty and despair and looks to his sultry young neighbour, Sasha, as a last hope for happiness and redemption.

Based upon Turgenev’s The Hanger-On, The Parasite tells the story of Olga’s joyous homecoming which is marred by an incident that reveals a secret that will change her home life forever. The new adaptation relocates the story to modern day rural Russia and explores parasitical elements within Russian society. While Gavin helms Ivanov, James O’Donnell is directing The Parasite.

Other actors who have joined Gavin’s productions include Richard Armitage (The Hobbit), Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones), Paul McGann (Withnail & I) and Kris Marshall (Love Actually, My Family).

Clare says: “It’s great to have a director as well who is constantly giving you feedback and you get to work with classic material like Playboy/Chekhov and explore it in a way that maybe you’ve never looked at it before and having someone give you an idea so you can run with it, it may or may not work, but it’s really exciting to go actually: ‘I never even thought of that’.

“He’s so down to earth, you do get that where there’s a wall between you and them, actor and director, there’s kind of a hierarchy while he’ll get on the floor with you, he’ll get up there and be hands on.”

Antrim’s Kathryn McCartin

Kathryn adds: “I think Gavin’s really loves the classics and exploring the classics and that’s what I love as well. I love good writing and just strong characters and interesting dynamics between characters and I think we’re quite similar on that front so for me, I really respond to Gavin’s direction.”

Clare has appeared in feature films such as Steve Coogan’s The Look of Love and has co-directed as well as appeared in Lie Under the Sheets at The Old Vic. Kathryn has done much stage work in Northern Ireland with Rawlife Theatre Company and the Ulster Theatre Company.

And the beginning of 2014 will see the group in another venue when they showcase The Playboy of the Western World at The Corrib Rest, Salusbury Road. Gavin explains what a great night’s entertainment this will provide: “We are very excited about doing Playboy in an Irish pub in Kilburn. I spoke at length to the proprietor Finbar Holian who was quite taken with the idea. Finbar’s been great actually. He came at the whole idea with a lot of imagination and was really keen to make it work. What makes this production really exciting is the fact we are using a live Irish Ceilidh band in show. Think about it, Playboy of the Western World in an Irish pub in Queens Park/Kilburn with a live Ceilidh band – it’s a terrific idea. The staff and customers of the Corrib Rest have been terrific as well. I’ve nipped in to the Corrib Rest a few times in the last couple of months, incognito, to just talk to people and it really is a great place. I’m really excited about the project. We are hoping to have a free mini Ceilidh after every show and course a Ceilidh Mor on the final night. I think the whole week will be a real blast.”

Ivanov by Chekhov and The Parasite, a play inspired by the writings of Ivan Turgenev, are at
Theatro Technis (www.theatrotechnis.com/)‎ November 4-23.

Playboy of the Western World is at The Corrib Rest, Salusbury Road January 14-19.

For more information, go to: www.charmoffensive.org.uk/‎.

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