Interview: Jos Vantyler

Actor Jos Vantyler’s personality fills the room as soon as he enters the Marylebone coffee shop where I’m waiting for him. Sporting shades and wearing a blue linen shirt and white trousers, he’s effortlessly cool and charming on one of the hottest days of the year. This is his local cafe and it’s clear that the staff love him. “Thanks, flower,” he says, flashing a megawatt smile at the waitress who brings him his coffee. “She’s so pretty, isn’t she?” he asks after she’s gone.

We’re here primarily to talk about Circus Britannica, which has transferred to London’s Theatre503 following a hugely successful run at the Exter-based Bike Shed Theatre, a powerhouse for new writing that gives writers the chance to develop their work away from the hubbub of the Big Smoke. Vantyler is reprising his role as a wide-eyed gap-year student who joins the circus in Shaun McCarthy’s powerful new play about immigration and right-wing extremism in the UK.

Vantyler’s performance in Circus Britannica is one of a score to have won him critical acclaim following his return to these shores a few years ago. Born in Ireland in 1986, he moved to the USA aged six and went on to study at the illustrious Juilliard School and The Actors Studio. In 2005, he won Best Newcomer at The NYC Star Awards for his turn as Rodolfo in A View from the Bridge at The Tower Theatre.

Since coming back to the UK, Vantyler’s roles have included Anselmus in The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, the lead part of Lord Fancourt Babberley in Charlie’s Aunt and a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Prophecy, US playwright Karen Malpede’s exploration of the effects of war. In 2009, he starred opposite Susannah York in the Tennessee Williams season at the Hampstead New End Theatre and was singled out for praise for his performance as Pietro in Swimming at the Ritz, about the last day in the life of Winston Churchill’s granddaughter, Pamela Harriman (played by best friend and colleague, Felicity Dean). Last year, he was nominated for an Off West End Theatre Award for his scene-stealing turn as Tom Sawyer in James Graham’s Huck.

While digging into lunch (“I’m on a diet today. I’ve been eating like a racehorse and I keep panicking about my vest and the trapezy bottoms I have to wear”), Vantyer tells me what makes Circus Britannica so good, what it was like growing up related to a famous Hollywood actress, how much he loves supporting roles and how he ended up mowing Susannah York’s lawn.

Your new show, Circus Britannica, has just transferred from Exeter to London. Why do you think it’s been such a success?

Do you remember that old word, agitprop? That’s what Circus Britannica isn’t, which is its blessing. It’s political and talks about xenophobia, extreme racist views and everything else to do with this country and foreign people working here. It’s easy when someone writes about these things for everyone on stage to end up as a mouthpiece; but it’s not like that here. Everyone is completely different. There’s my character, Stevie, who’s very middle-class and on a sort of gap-year at the circus; there’s the working-class woman who owns it, runs it and is up to her neck in debt; her life-long childhood friend who’s got a criminal record and done some terrible things for reasons that we find out would probably have led us to do the same; and then there are the people who have had terrible lives and who have come to the circus to get away from their countries. The play is about what happens when all of these people are forced to be together for a long period of time, living and touring the country.

And in the midst of the massive political shift that happens in it, there’s some spectacular circus stuff: a trapeze, magic and fabulous live music. The boys who do the music are phenomenal. There are violins, accordions, a tenor-sax – it’s wonderful. There’s a facade of heightened entertainment, joy and cheekiness while, behind it, the goings-on are as grim as you like. Everything works to such an effect that if you catch sight of people’s faces in the crowd, their mouths are open; they can’t believe what they’re seeing. David Lockwood, the director [and Bike Shed’s artistic director], has done a brilliant job. I’ve really enjoyed working with him.

You were born in Ireland but at a young age moved to the USA, where you had a successful stage career. What prompted your return to the UK?

I did it and it was very nice. But if you look at Broadway, it tends to be – and people will say that this is wrong, but I really don’t think it is – slightly geared towards children. Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, The Lion King… the list is endless; it’s children and family theatre with some massive musicals and the odd play now and again. There’s no Arts Council and no new writing. I mean, I came here and did great plays like Huck, which I adored, and straight after that I did The Game for Northern Broadsides and Barrie Rutter, who I’m nuts about. I played his son. Never in a million years would that have happened in America. I mean, The Game was over a hundred years old and it had never been performed. But it was an absolutely huge success. I love the American theatre world – there’s some wonderful work – but it sticks to what it knows.

The thing about London is that everybody’s on the same page. So, something can do really well at the Finborough Theatre and come into town; something can do really well at the Menier Chocolate Factory, come into town and then go on tour; or a show can end up in the West End, like Over the Rainbow. Everyone’s tapped in, turned on and, I think, massively aware of what the people want and how to bring it to them.

Why did you pursue acting as a career?

There’s never really been anything else besides acting. I don’t know what else I’d do. Be the prime minister? I think I’d be good at that. Also, did you watch the royal wedding? When the royal family were getting out of their cars I sat there and honestly thought, “I’d be a wonderful part of the royal family.” That isn’t narcissism, is it? It’s having broad horizons. I don’t look at the royal family and think, “It’ll never happen.” Because you never know, they might end up short of a member.

Essentially, I always wanted to do something where there was an audience involved. If I’d told my father that I wanted to be the prime minister, I don’t know if he’d have taken it seriously. But he’d never have said, “I don’t think that’s right for you.” He’d have asked me how I was going to do it, and I’d have been there as a four-year-old, trying to answer. So everybody kind of egged me on. And I had a relative, Anne Miller, who was a dancer and a film star, which was a nice kind of inspiration – not that we do at all the same work.

Did watching her give you a good insight into the industry?

Well, she was from a different age of industry, from the golden age of Hollywood when you were hired, protected, controlled and designed; you looked a certain way and you did a certain job and there was nothing in between. When that came to an abrupt end, Anne, Debbie Reynolds, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire – they weren’t exactly left high and dry but they were out of the woods, so to speak. When you’ve seen somebody as one thing for so long, well, you wouldn’t expect to see Astaire in a thriller because you’ve been told that he’s a dancer. So their careers were limited. Although, before she died, Anne did do Mulholland Drive, which she loved.

You’ve garnered some of your best reviews playing supporting characters. Do you think that, sometimes, these are the more interesting roles?

They’re my favourite. I love them. I had an acting coach, who became a friend – I had about nine lessons and we never got anything done, we just used to talk – called Neil Phelps. I used to go to him and say, “I’ve only got 20 lines in this play” and he’d say, “They’re the best parts, because you don’t have all the responsibility.” If I’d just left RADA I’d probably be sat here saying, “I only want to do the leads.” Now, I love a lead; give me a lead. I love ‘em. But I’m the first one to sniff out the other parts. As the lead, you have to set stuff up, drive the play and wake ‘em up at the start of the second act… you know what I mean. I think that supporting roles often get overlooked when, in fact, they’re the real gems!

Like the role of Tom Sawyer in Huck?

I loved Huck. John Terry, who directed it, is brilliant. He pulled it off with such genius.

Which role has been the most memorable so far?

I must say that of all the parts I’ve played, the one in Prophecy was my favourite. I loved it. It was proper macabre American writing. You read it kind of wincing, going, “How am I going to say that?” As part of my research, I went up to a hospital in the north of Scotland where they have soldiers with PTSD; who have been in war and seen terrible things. And I went there. It definitely served a purpose, but you have to be in a slightly work-ish mode, because you can’t take in the things that are there. You just couldn’t do it, because you’re not going back to an environment where that’s looked after. You’re just going home on your own, on the train. But it was a wonderful insight.

Prophecy proved to be quite controversial. What was that like, as one of the actors in it?

People walked out of the show. When somebody gets up and walks out you kind of think, “Was it because of me?” Actually, I think that it’s people looking after themselves. They’re going, “I can’t hear it, I don’t want to hear it.” And good on ‘em, because no should sit and suffer; if you’ve got the nerve to get your stuff and leave, well done. But it’s a wonderful thing to do something like Prophecy. I mean, it’s lovely to be sat here talking about the plays, the good reviews and who I’ve liked working with – all of that – but there’s real worth in being able to present somebody to an audience who, without you playing the part, wouldn’t have a voice.

If a play’s controversial and you know some people aren’t going to want to watch it, well, so be it. Because you know that, truthfully, you’ve presented somebody that people wouldn’t have got to know about otherwise. And hopefully, afterwards, they’ll have a slightly wider understanding of the subject, situation and time that created the world that character lived in and experienced.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t do Prophecy when it transferred [to New York] because I was doing the Tennessee Williams season at the New End Theatre with Susannah York – Yorkie!

What was it like working with, and getting to know, the late, great Susannah York?

I’d met her before, at Nick Roeg’s BAFTA honorary dinner thing. She was sat next to me but I didn’t know her at the time. I was born in 1985, after her heyday in the Sixties and Seventies. We chatted but we never said that we were actors. And then the Tennessee Williams script came through and I had Yorkie in the second act. She was playing a washed-up prostitute, God bless her. We did the show and became great friends.

When the audiences came to see it, you could tell they were waiting to see her; because no one had really seen her apart from people who might have watched her in the West End or on a big national tour. And there we were, in Hampstead, in this cosy little theatre that was packed to the rafters. She opened the second act and there she was, this British film legend, stood in a little nightie with a bow in her hair. We both looked a fright. And when she went on you could hear people saying, “Is that her? That’s her, that’s her,” all the way through. Even in her seventies she was still very attractive, with the biggest, bluest eyes you ever saw and baby-doll skin; but she wasn’t a girl of 25. And she was wonderful. I don’t how she did what she did, because she wasn’t deaf! She’s one of a handful of people who, when you deliver a line and they deliver it back to you, the person – Susannah – is completely absent. You’re getting that line from a washed-up prostitute, which was sensational. I adored her.

We became great mates and, after the show had finished, I’d go round for tea and end up doing the gardening. She’d go, “I’m struggling with this lawnmower. I don’t suppose you could just..?” And you’d find yourself looking through the window at her on the phone, looking down at the lawnmower and going, “What am I doing?”

So, what’s up next once Circus Britannica is over?

I’ve been asked to do a play. I can’t talk about it at the moment, but it’s a super play, a classic. It’s lovely. You know when you really want to do something and your tummy roars, you have to do it? It could be great. But I don’t know yet, because I haven’t finished Circus Britannica. When I’m doing a show I can’t really think about anything else. It consumes me. After 9 July, things will be clearer. I don’t know how other people do it. When I’m in something I can’t even think about my journey home!

Circus Britannica is on at Theatre503 from 4 to 9 July. For tickets and information, see:

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