James Witherspoon talks to Nancy Zamit about her role in the smash-hit comedy The Comedy About a Bank Robbery.
Mischief Theatre’s latest production The Comedy About a Bank Robbery comes hot on the heels of other hits The Play that Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong. After seeing the show (which is, by the way, perhaps the funniest thing on the West End aside from the Book of Mormon), I caught up with Nancy Zamit, who plays Ruth Monaghan in the play.
So, one of the first things I noticed is the crazy level of stamina that goes into the show. How do you manage to keep that up for every performance?
It’s funny; because this is the least movement I do in any of the three shows. In The Play that Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong it’s really physical and heavy. Me and Charlie (Russell) do a big fight at the end of The Play that Goes Wrong, there’s a load of stunts. For this one, I just kind of swan around singing which is a really easy thing for me. You get a certain level of match fitness. If you don’t do it for a few weeks you can feel it a lot because it’s like anything you do everyday. At first, in the rehearsal period it’s like ‘how am I going to do this, it’s really intense’ but then you just build up a stamina for it. It’s like a muscle.
Is the singing specific to this show?
Yeah, we don’t do singing in any of the other shows. Well, I sing a song in Peter Pan, but it’s over a chainsaw… it’s not supposed to be pretty, it’s a lullaby song but there’s a chainsaw there. We’ve worked hard at it. When we recast it, we’ve got a load of singers in.
When performing The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, which has gone straight to Piccadilly theatre, do you feel pressured by opening the play at the West End, and after your other two shows were so immensely popular?
This show, there was an enormous pressure because we hadn’t quite finished it when the theatre was open and available. There was loads of drafts and things, but we had a few months where we were like ‘shit we’ve got to do this immediately or we’re gonna lose this’. It was too good a deal to not take it, so we were like ‘lets do this’ and we pushed extremely hard. It was terrifying, because it’s the first time we hadn’t done a Goes Wrong thing. It was the first time where we hadn’t taken a show on tour first then taken it to the West End. But, I think, the last two years… Since we’ve been a company we’ve been writing scripts, and we change the jokes in our play almost every night because we’re in them and develop them as we go. The Play That Goes Wrong, we developed it so much as we wrote it. The first 15 minutes of this show is completely different to when we started because we just cut two scenes out. This whole year we’ve been adapting it; because we’re never quite satisfied. We need to get to a point where we can set it and give it to another cast.
The visuals and humour from the show are so distinctive, where do you see the main influences of the piece?
It’s just a lot of classic comedy. One of our writers, Jonathan, is very into silent movies, you know, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. I think Henry Shields is a big Monty Python fan. Everybody loves Fawlty Towers. You can pinpoint classic, physical comedy and just general British humour. It’s just farce. And we’ve got the whole clowning element to it… it’s that style. We did a lot of masque work in the rehearsals and our director trained at Lecoq (a famous Parisian theatre school). There’s basically just a mashup of classic comedic styles. We try to breathe some life into something that younger people aren’t doing any more.
There’s a lot of stunt work in the show. How long did it take to get that perfect?
Touch wood, we haven’t had any accidents in this show yet. In other shows, however, Dave has dislocated his shoulder a couple of times. He’s an incredibly physical performer – a free runner – he does loads of stuff like that. He’s got dickie shoulders too. I broke my foot in a rehearsal just before Peter Pan as well.
We’ve had our fair share of accidents – things falling on people’s heads etc. But, we are a group of performers who do this stuff, it’s part of the risks of the job. If you want to create a physical performance piece, you need to be willing to take the risks. Because it’s not funny unless it’s dangerous – if a stage punch looks like a stage punch, then it’s not funny.
Out of all the unique scenes in the play which is your favourite?
The back-wall scene (ed: a scene in which the back wall of the stage becomes the ‘floor’ of the scene)! It’s amazing. I watched the show for the first time recently, and I knew it was going to be quite cool, but I was like ‘wow its bloody amazing!’ It’s genius. When I read it on paper I was like ‘how are you going to do that?’ but it really works, so that’s definitely my favourite.
What do you love the most about your character?
I love the way that I don’t have a big chunk of scenes but I can come straight in and be so heightened in my emotion, and can feel so strongly about stuff because I have to comically interject the scenes. And I love that so much. Obviously I like the entire ending for her. I’m not going to spoil it here, but for me, the entire ending just makes it all worthwhile. This omnipresent thing where I sing a lot, it’s really nice to do that.
I do a lot of singing, and I have a really interesting character. I really like how the women in this play come out on top as the strong characters. In a company that’s so boy heavy it’s great to have really strong female parts.
Besides this show, what’s your favourite stage show?
Oh I don’t know, I’ve never been asked that before… shit… it’s nothing to do with this, but the one that’s coming to mind is this play by the Scottish National Theatre in Edinburgh called Blackwatch. I remember coming out of it and crying for 20 minutes. Because that was just… it hit me very, very hard. And if a piece of theatre can move you like that, it’s amazing. I don’t know if it’s my favourite ever, but it’s definitely one of them.
How did you get into acting and what was your first performance?
Oh, I guess I’ve always wanted to be an actor. I was in dance school when I was younger, and then I got picked up because the lady that ran the dance school had an agency and then suddenly I had an agent. My first professional acting job was a TV series called Bus Life that was on the Disney Channel when I was 14. You can still find it on Youtube. I was just like ‘plonk me on the stage I’m here’; one of those annoying little kids that was just like ‘I’m gonna be a star!’
What advice would you give to people who are just starting out in acting?
I didn’t get into drama school. I tried for 4 years, and didn’t get in anywhere. There’s so many reasons it doesn’t happen. And I think at that age, it genuinely deterred me, it made me feel like I wasn’t good and that I shouldn’t be doing it. I think I really let it affect me more than it should.
Now I’m casting people in things, I’m on the other side of auditions, and the reasons why people don’t get a job… you can’t let that be a deterrent for you. Liz Smith, one of my favourite actors, didn’t start until she was 70. You know, just do it, otherwise you may as well become a lawyer or an accountant. If you want to do it, you may as well keep at it.
What are your favourite actors and why do they inspire you?
Well, I think there’s just a ton of women really; and I think that because I’m a woman doing comedy, me and Charlie just adore people like Julie Walters and Victoria Wood, French and Saunders, all the women from Smack the Pony. All the comedians that are doing things that are exciting and bold. They’re just being funny, and that’s ok. I’ve never found my gender an issue, so I love to have people back it and not saying ‘Oh, you’re a girl’.
What is your dream role, and why?
I’ve never been asked that either… My dream role? You know what, my dream scenario is for us to do a long running sitcom. You know It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia? Basically, I want us to be in that! That’s my dream role; Dee from It’s Always Sunny. But I want to do it with my guys! I want us to do a little sitcom for the rest of our lives with Danny DeVito playing my dad which is so believable because I look like Danny Devito. We were at BBC, filming re-shoots for Peter Pan, and I saw my first studio, with the cameras that go right across the set. And that’s definitely where I sit. It’s a dream I didn’t realise I had until I was 28. Madness.
Outside of acting, what do you like to do the most?
To wind down, I watch documentaries all the bloody time. We do such ridiculous farce comedy; I watch the darkest documentaries. I go lie down in a real Black Mirror situation, a real dark horrible way. You just can’t do comedy all the time. I’m also big on the environment and recycling so I spend time (I feel so old) buying plants to clean the air in my home and finding responsibly sourced meat and dairy products… I’m at farmer’s markets. It’s really silly but that’s all I have time to do. We work in the daytime; we perform in the night time. I see my husband a couple of times a week.
Who would you see as an intended audience for show?
It’s a weird one. I think a lot of the audience are off-cuts from our other two plays which is lovely. Obviously, we get a lot of tourists as well, cause we’re in Piccadilly Circus. I wish we got young people, but because we’re doing commercial theatre… We come from a fringe background, and that’s our ethos. That’s what we know how to do. People see it as a West End show now, so it’s like Jersey Boys and you get that West End audience. It’s no bad thing… but I think farce isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. If you don’t like this show you’ll know within the first 10 minutes. Perhaps young people are looking for something a bit more edgy. We’re not the coolest people in the world; we’re just really good at falling over. So I guess that’s probably why. It differs on the day.
Sell your show in a sentence.
It’s a group of very physically able performers bringing an old style of classic comedy to life and modernising it – it’s genuinely a laugh a minute.
That’s such a crap little soundbite. Yeah. You can edit that.
The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is running until October 2017. It undergoes a cast change early next year.
You can catch Peter Pan Goes Wrong on BBC1 this Christmas.
Featured Image: Darren Bell