Interview: Clever as Clever

Following the success of their debut production, Public Interest, exciting young theatre company Clever as Clever returns to the New Diorama Theatre with Four Days of Grace. This one-actor show tells the story of Grace, a young mother trying to put the pieces of her life in place. Restricted to fortnightly visits with her son, Grace’s world has become an endless cycle of dissolution, perpetuated by waiting for a fridge – for four days.

The play channels darkness through humour and uses vivid imagery to bring to light the pain that Grace is concealing.

Four Days of Grace reunites Clever as Clever artistic directors Drew Ballantyne (writer), Kamaal Hussain (director) and Rachel Marwood, who will be playing Grace following her much-praised portrayal of Ellie in Public Interest.

The week before opening night I met with Kamaal and Rachel to discuss the play, the actor/director relationship, their love of the New Diorama and why Clever as Clever is as committed as ever to producing thought-provoking work.

Would I be right to assume that the title Four Days of Grace is both literal and ironic? That Grace is far from being blessed?

Kamaal Hussain: That sums it up perfectly. The play begins as a study of enforced entrapment, with Grace waiting in her house for a fridge to be delivered at one of those unspecified delivery times that we all know so well. Through a series of mishaps, she’s stuck there for four days, daring not leave. As the time passes, we begin to peel back the layers of her life and see more and more of what has led Grace to this point.

Does this play mark a change of direction from Public Interest?

Rachel Marwood: It’s still looking at issues that need to be questioned and addressed. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but Grace is a woman who is falling through the cracks in society. The audience will be able to relate to her character and the different aspects of the world we live in that she embodies.

KH: There are still a lot of broad societal themes in this, but we’re telling the larger story in a more personal way than before. As a company, that was really important to us. Having done macro politics, as it were, with Public Interest, we wanted to take something and explore it in a lot of detail: how society operates on an individual level.

Does this reflect British society’s shift of focus from wars to individual welfare in the past 12 months?

KH: That’s exactly what Clever as Clever has tried to do. Public Interest was where we were last year. Now, we’ve moved more towards looking at the internal; what happens there. We’re examining how wider politics have a direct effect on people like Grace.

What themes does Four Days… deal with?

KH: As a society, we set up fail-safes, things like the NHS, that we believe are necessary and beneficial. But, inevitably, there are cracks – and significantly more people than we would like to admit fall through them. That’s what we wanted to look at.

RM: It’s easy for us to say that people like Grace aren’t our responsibility. But the issues that affect her matter to all of us.

Did Drew research the subject or was it a more instinctive process?

KH: It was probably a combination of the two. Obviously, I can’t speak for him, but knowing his process I suspect that the instinct to find and shape a story would have been there. And then he’d have gone away and done the research.

RM: Drew tends to be influenced by something he has seen or read. An idea will come to him as a story that he feels needs to be told.

Why did you choose to have only one character on stage?

KH: it’s about isolation. That’s the simplest answer. As I said earlier, the play is an exploration of waiting, of being trapped and alone. There was no other way to do it. It’s interesting, though: I was watching a run-through yesterday and there are times when it feels like ensemble piece.

RM: I was just about to say that! Although it’s only me on stage, Grace is telling the story, and there are characters that aren’t in the room that she moulds herself into.

KH: Sometimes they speak directly and at other times through Grace’s interpretation of what has been said to her. Rachel and I were very careful during the rehearsal process to distinguish those moments of direct speech from those where Grace is painting a colour onto something that may not have been intended that way.

I think that’s one of the keys to this piece. An hour is a hell of a long time for an actor to sit solo with an audience, so you have to walk a fine line. To keep people’s interest, you have to allow the story to expand and contract in terms of character and narrative.

Would it be fair to describe Four Days… as a grittier take on Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads?

KH: I think it’s born out of that pedigree. I don’t necessarily think it’s grittier. People have this misconception of Alan Bennett’s work as gentle, which it often isn’t. And Grace has moments of gentility as well as being pretty hard hitting at times. So, yes, Talking Heads is definitely an ancestor of our play.

Rachel, how does it feel to be the only actor in the play?

RM: In one way, it’s massively exciting – a challenge, but a really thrilling one. But it does mean that I’ll have no one to help me out if it goes wrong. And if the energy is lagging, there’ll be nobody there to pick me up. I’ve not done it yet, but I imagine that there are times, when you’re performing alone, that you come off stage and end up talking to the mirror. But Grace is such a full and well-rounded character that I’m not really worrying about any of that.

I would imagine that touring a one-person show can be a lonely experience.

RM: Yes. No one to share that story with, about the man in the front row who fell asleep!

KH: But there’s no danger of that happening here!

Is loneliness key to the play as a whole?

RM: Yes, that’s right. There are moments of hilarity in the script – Drew is great at writing dark comedy – but also moments of real heartbreak and loneliness. I can’t imagine doing a one-person play of this intensity for a six-month run. I think Grace’s isolation would be a real danger zone to be in for too long.

KH: It would also be exhausting.

Does the actor/director dynamic change when there are only two of you?

RM: Yes. The rehearsal process – just two people in a room – has been really interesting.

KH: At the very beginning, instead of planning a traditional rehearsal schedule and chatting about the script, we sat down and set out the process. We listed the things we wanted to achieve but also established a list of rules. Because it was only going to be Rachel and me in a room together for three weeks, how would we make it work? Where would the balance of power lie? With a larger cast, it’s very much with the director. There, I’m the one who calls time and decides when we have breaks. But here, I had to give Rachel the freedom to do the same thing. Because of the amount of information she had to take on, there have been occasions when to keep pushing her would have been ridiculous. There would have been no benefit. So, really, it’s been a pretty equal partnership throughout.

Why have you returned to the New Diorama with Four Days…?

KH: For the same reasons we were there before: they’re an amazing, exciting company. If you look at their success in the past year, the New Diorama feels like the place to be in London in terms of a new space. I can’t think of a single centrally located fringe venue that has their breadth of work, from an Iranian puppet version of Bernarda Alba to a one-woman show –and everything in between. Where else would we want to go? I’m extremely happy to be associated with them.

RM: It’s a beautiful, welcoming space.

Since Public Interest finished all three of you have done other work. Have your separate experiences influenced the direction of Clever as Clever?

KH: The work never stops, so there hasn’t been that sense of going away and coming back. Although we’ve done other things in the intervening year, preparation for Grace started pretty much as soon as Public Interest finished.

All of our experiences – both good and bad – feed into what we do, so it’s a difficult question to answer. I feel that we are still firmly ‘on remit’. We’re still looking at moral ambiguity, taking things that seem to be black and white and showing people that they aren’t.

RM: We’re exploring grey areas, and that’s where Grace exists.

What is next for Clever as Clever, after Four Days… finishes?

KH: There’s potentially a partner piece to Four Days…, another one-person show. We’re also looking at maybe doing a classic at some point. We’re still a young company, so we’re keen to spread our wings. As we become more confident about what we’re doing, as a three, we’re exploring new ways of expressing ourselves – and there are plenty of classics that fit our remit. We’d also love to continue building our relationship with the New Diorama, which is as key to our growth as what we do as a company.

For more information on Four Days of Grace, and to book tickets, go to: