The stars of Simon Nye’s new comedy talk restoration humour, randy kings and how to pull off the perfect heist
There are an awful lot of funny people involved in The Crown Jewels. The cast includes actress and presenter Mel Giedroyc, Joe Thomas of The Inbetweeners fame, and Carrie Hope Fletcher, who has starred in West End comedies such as Heathers and The Addams Family. The script comes from Simon Nye, writer of Men Behaving Badly amongst many, many others, and the direction from Sean Foley, a double Olivier Award-winner and veteran of West End comedy. And then there are Neil Morrissey and Al Murray. The actor and comedian are set to appear as the puritanical Captain Perrot and the womanising King Charles II respectively in the riotous new comedy, based on one of history’s most daring heists.
Ahead of The Crown Jewels’ arrival at the Garrick Theatre, we caught up with Morrissey and Murray to talk about the rehearsal process so far, what makes this story so compelling, and the surprising parallels this new restoration comedy has with the times we live in.
When you first read the script, what was your response?
Neil Morrissey: I remember reading it before we did the full read-through – we did that with a bunch of actors in front of the producers a long, long time ago. We knew we weren’t looking at the finished article, but right from the get-go, it was so wonderful. It worked as a table read. I know Simon’s style and it’s really weird because even though it’s a new restoration comedy, I get Simon’s style in it, the way he builds towards jokes.
Al Murray: This is my first venture into the theatre, and I had it easy – I did the read, I got the part.
What are those other actors complaining about?!
AM: Exactly! You read the play, you get the gig, you turn up a year later.
NM: Yeah, it’s not normally like that, Al…
AM: But I remember that first read-through, it was a very funny script straight off, and especially as it is my first venture into the theatre, the king part… it feels strange to say it breaks the fourth wall, because in restoration comedy there isn’t really a fourth wall.
NM: There’re a lot of asides and a lot of talking to the audience and bringing the audience with you and the rest of that.
AM: A lot of winking at them, letting them know where some of the gags are. So I’ve got this open-ended thing with the king where he’s treating the audience in the theatre as the court, so they’re there.
NM: Because in actuality, in court, there were courtiers everywhere. It was only the king’s bedchamber I think that was a private space. I don’t think they’d even invented the corridor by then either, so you’d literally be going from chamber to chamber to chamber. The corridors were added later.
AM: But Charles had a series of mistresses in different rooms with ways to get to them. So whoever he fancied visiting, he’d take a secret route to get to them. He was just a massive shagger.
NM: He was, wasn’t he?
Do you feel the style of this restoration comedy is similar at all to today’s stand-up comedy?
AM: Yeah, absolutely. There’s an element of that. Although, this experience is showing me when I do a stand-up tour how woefully underprepared I am! Compared to this, which is so precise. I’ll walk out to do stand-up and I’ll improvise some of it. This is like, stand there. You’ve got to do that then, not before, not after.
NM: You’ve to deal with all of us now. You’ve got to deal with the la-di-das. If there’s too much improvisation, we just go, “What?”
Has there been any room for improvisation in rehearsals?
NM: Not improvisation necessarily, but everyone is allowed to have their suggestions. So if you’re in a scene and you think, “Oh my god, what if I said this?” or “What if I just did that?”… Even today, there’re new elements coming in. There’s a lot, because everyone keeps having another idea, and they’re all listened to. And 90% plus have gone into the show. Someone will go, “Shall I do this this way?” and then Simon will go, “Oh okay, then I’ll write in another bit.”
I mean, when you’ve got so many creative and funny people all in one room…
AM: Well, yeah. It’s an embarrassment of riches.
NM: Yes, it is. It’s really good. Now it’s a question of getting it to a point where I know roughly what I’m doing.
AM: And not laughing.
NM: And not laughing at each other! I still laugh onstage when I’m with you, and with Aidan (McArdle). Aidan just keeps coming up with new stuff as well, it’s bloody crazy.
Why do you think it is that audiences are still so fascinated with stories about royalty and the monarchy?
AM: Well, because in this mad country it’s such a central thing. Also, we’ve got another Charles, so there’s a link there, and also the questions we’re asking: what are crown jewels? What do they represent? What would stealing the crown jewels do, what message would it send? Although this is a funny play, it’s full of ideas as well, ideas about royalty and about rebellion and about…
NM: Repression and oppression and depression, and regrowth and the birth of new ideas. That makes it sound political, but we couldn’t have avoided it. When we’re dealing with the stealing of the crown jewels, the reasons behind it are there. I mean, my character’s just an absolute bloodthirsty militant fundamental religious…
NM: Lunatic! And is really keen to do something, to make his mark. I am quite enjoying it.
It must have been interesting to learn that you would be performing this play with another Charles on the throne.
AM: Yeah, because the play was written before certain events took place. The thing is, though, nothing’s changed. We’ve got a king called Charles, the crown jewels are kept in the Tower of London, and people want to know what the royals really are like and what they think. Nothing’s changed in 400 years.
NM: Which is, when you think about, quite depressing.
AM: It’s weird though, isn’t it? Because in a nutshell, that’s it.
NM: Except we’ve got the tube now.
It’s such a compelling story that the play is based on – why do you think it is that we know far more about figures like Guy Fawkes than we do about this theft?
AM: I had heard of it, but I didn’t know the ins and outs. I’ve since read a biography of Blood and it’s interesting doing this play because the characters were all real people. They haven’t been invented.
NM: The monarchy or the people in power didn’t want this story to come out because it was so close to happening. It would have been a massive embarrassment. If they had managed to get away with it, it would have been a legend. Certainly in Ireland. It was quite a ruse that Blood came up with, ultimately unsuccessful but quite a ruse, and it was a small handful of players. Like a group of SAS going in to extract a suspect in a foreign territory.
AM: The thing is, it was an uncertain time as well. So that’s probably another reason.
NM: People were very short on money. How militants could survive is they could steal a bit of money from somewhere and then spend it on their ambition. People were very easy to recruit because everyone was poor, and it’s not that different these days.
What makes a great British comedy for you?
NM: I suppose we have a slightly more bawdy kind of attitude in British comedy – I’m just thinking of the great films, the era of the Carry On films – there’s always a bawdy element.
AM: I think also we’re not afraid of having a go at the powerful. We’re not afraid to express an opinion. I think the other thing this show has is it uses lots of different kinds of comedy – there’s wit, there’s physical comedy, there’s farce, there’s satire…
NM: Every little element is in there. Sean is relentless with the detail. It’s brilliant.