INTERVIEW: Ben Stock chats Me & My Girl, why he loves Frinton & why he has such a soft spot for all things pantomime

Ben Stock at West End Live 2019 – Photo: Pamela Raith

Ben Stock is a multi-talented director and performer. He is currently directing a site-specific production of Me and My Girl at Frinton Summer Theatre, a venue for which he holds a deep affinity. Some of you may recognise Ben from his epic Sunday afternoon sing-along at West End Live where he routinely gets audiences of up to 20,000 singing along to iconic show tunes. He is also a pantomime veteran, having performed as an ugly sister for eleven consecutive years. We caught up with Ben before he travelled down to Frinton-on-Sea to begin rehearsals. He told us what audiences can expect from Me and My Girl, what he loves about Frinton and why he has such a soft spot for all things pantomime.

You are currently directing a production of Me and My Girl at Frinton Summer Theatre. Can you tell us a bit about the show and what audiences can expect? We are doing Me and My Girl as it is traditionally done but we have the privilege of doing it in a site-specific way. We have a big top tent being erected on the Greensward, which is the large space in front of the beach. I’m really hoping that the show will feel as though it’s started as people arrive because we’ll have this panoramic view of the sea and the beach as the audience enter the tent. We do have a stage but the actors will enter through the audience which I hope will have the feel of a huge party. It will hopefully be a bit like attending a village fete, so it’s going to have a very British feel about it. We only have a cast of 13, so there is some doubling up of characters but the audience will very much be a part of seeing that happen. We are not hiding from the fact that we haven’t got a large cast. I really hope that everyone goes out singing the songs having had an absolute ball. We’re not living in the easiest of times so we’re going for pure escapism. We’ve got a brilliant cast who I think the Frinton audiences will fall in love with.

How did you come to get involved with the show? So I have to rewind by about seven years, I have been working at Frinton on and off during that time, both as an actor and as a director. This year Clive Brill (the Producer and Artistic Director) called me and asked if I fancied directing the musical in the Greensward tent. At the time he didn’t have a specific show in mind, so we talked about various options. I remembered that I’d seen and loved Me and My Girl at Chichester the year before and I thought it would be perfect for Frinton audiences. It also fits the bill because Clive wanted a show that the whole family could come to and enjoy. One of the great things about Clive is that he is really committed to giving people opportunities. He gave me my first opportunity to direct at Frinton and he’s really keen on supporting and promoting graduates (whether they are creative’s, technicians or actors) to have their first job at Frinton. In fact, a lot of people had their first jobs there; Vanessa Redgrave, Antony Sher, Nickolas Grace and my lovely friend Lynda Bellingham all started their careers at Frinton, so it has an incredibly rich history.  

Me and My Girl has been recreated for stage numerous times, what differentiates this version from all the others? I think the fact that we have got a smaller company and it’s slightly more immersive. I say that, although I’m not really keen on the word as it tends to frighten audiences into thinking they might have to participate! Despite there being no official audience participation, we do hope that the audiences will sing along with the Lambeth Walk and we hope that as soon as they enter the tent they will feel part of the show. The fourth wall is absolutely down and people will be making entrances through the audience, so we are in no way pretending they’re not there. So I really hope that it will add to the joy of the production.

You have performed and directed at Frinton for a number of years, what is it that keeps you coming back? My comedy answer is that there is a café in Frinton that does the best Battenberg cake that you will EVER taste! Also, as a self-employed person, when someone offers me a job I just say yes! In all seriousness though, the reason I adore Frinton is that I love the setup. It really feels like something you don’t get to do very often. With such short rehearsals and playing times you really have to use your wits and rely on your instinct which is great. In the current climate of multi-million-pound musicals and star-led productions, it’s wonderful to go and work with a bunch of really talented people. The technicians at Frinton are amazing and work SO hard, they do not stop and are brilliant. One of the other things I love is that the people of Frinton are so proud of their theatre and that’s a model we should try and re-adopt across the country. There is a wonderful mutual feeling of inclusivity, so they very much feel part of the theatre and we feel welcomed into the community. As theatres become more and more corporate-led I think it’s a brilliant role model.

You have several creative projects coming up (Ben will be Assistant Director on the Hope Mill Theatre’s production of Mame in 2020), yet you are probably better known for performing, which do you prefer? The directing is a new thing for me and I am loving it. I think it will always be a performer at heart, but as you get older the commitment and demand of touring gets harder. Being away for a year and doing eight shows a week is incredibly demanding and it’s just lovely to explore new avenues. That said, I will always want to perform; I have dates for my one-man cabaret show planned for December and I have got panto at the end of the year which is always a joy. It’s wonderful when I am working on directing projects though because I often have light-bulb moments where I think I can use this elsewhere, so the two definitely feed each other.

Your West End Live sing-along is now a staple of the weekend’s schedule. Why do you think events like these are so successful? Ironically I did the very first West End Live about fifteen years ago which at the times was in Leicester Square. I was in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and we performed to an audience of about 150 mildly bemused people as nobody really knew what it was. Now it’s developed into this huge event which attracts about 250 thousand people over the course of the weekend. I think the most absolutely incredible thing about the event is that it’s completely free and that’s the main reason it’s so successful. It doesn’t matter what anybody says, going to the theatre is expensive and not everybody is in a position to go and see every top show, with the newest cast. West End Live not only enables people to go and see snippets of shows live but they get to feel such a part of it. I think the sing-along is so popular (which by the way is nothing to do with me) because by the time Sunday afternoon comes around it’s like letting the pressure valve off and the audience is absolutely ready to join in and be the stars. It’s always really interesting to decide which numbers to do as it needs to be something that everyone knows. I have found over the years that people absolutely love doing Do-Re-Mi from the Sound of Music so that has become a staple that I do every year.

Over the years you have done many a pantomime, what is it about pantos that keep you coming back to them? The money! Seriously though, I enjoy doing pantomime so much because for most kids it’s their first experience of theatre. Ultimately they are tomorrow’s audiences, actors, creative’s and technicians so it’s incredibly important that they feel inspired. Also, most people come to pantomime because it’s synonymous with a special family memory. They may have come with their grandparents for example and fallen in love with the theatre as a result. I get really angry when people diss pantomime because it’s such an important thing. I like to call it privileged hard work because it’s such a demanding period. With panto, the atmosphere inside the theatre is incredible and you don’t get that anywhere else, it can be like a rock concert. I think it’s so important for kids to engage in something that isn’t their tablets or iPhones etc and it’s funny because, in an age of technology, the thing that gets the biggest reaction is a dancer in a sheet running around pretending to be a ghost. They will scream as if their lives depended on it, I’m talking kids right up to the age of 14/15 who walk in embarrassed to be there. Plus I also get the chance to be evil – which I love. This will be my eleventh consecutive year as an ugly sister and my mum keeps asking me to do something other than Cinderella because she comes every year. The atmosphere off stage is wonderful as well, especially the last couple of years where I have worked with Gok Wan and Brian Conley. The whole thing is just a joy to be a part of and long may it continue.

What has been your biggest career highlight to date? I took my one-man show to New York for one night only and I did 54 Below. My MD and pianist Inga Davis-Rutter came with me. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would do a one-man show in New York to a full (not quite sold out) audience, for it to go so incredibly well and be invited back. It was kind of surreal and I wish I have videoed it because it went past in such a blur. I love doing cabaret and the UK audiences are getting to understand that world a little bit more. Much like panto isn’t in American’s DNA, cabaret isn’t in ours. So if I had to single out one thing it would be that because I never thought it would happen.

What do you consider is your profession’s greatest challenge? I think we have a long way to go on diversity. Not only in terms of making sure everyone is represented but also the balance between men and women in creative and technical roles. People are doing amazing work at trying to right this but we need the Governments to help to start it much further back in the education process.  By the time people are leaving school/university, it’s too late. It would be lovely to go along to drama schools and after school clubs etc to encourage more boys into dance classes, more girls into technical roles for example as well as encouraging more BAME people into the industry. I have been delivering talks in schools about the different careers that are available in theatre and that it’s not just about being an actor. I think our other challenge is making sure that (despite the fact that shows are expensive to run) we always find a way to make sure that theatre is accessible to everybody both financially and physically. I think we need to work harder to get the message out there that theatre is not for the elite, it’s for everyone and that’s something I think panto champions so well.

What was the last thing you saw at the theatre and what do you wish you had seen but missed? The last thing I saw was Adrian Mole which I loved; it brought back a lot of memories as I am old enough to remember the books and the TV series. I wish I had seen Carol Channing in Hello Dolly, Ethel Merman in Gypsy and Angela Lansbury in Mame.

We then asked Ben some Dress Circle Antics quickfire questions…

Who would play you in the story of your life – Hugh Jackman *laughs hysterically*

Dream Role – Harold Hill from The Music Man

Favourite musical number – Hello Dolly

Go to audition song – You’re Nothing Without Me from City of Angels

Favourite musical – Hello Dolly

Your inspiration growing up – My amateur society, St Mary’s Players in Bristol, everybody that encouraged me there

Tell us something no one knows about you – I was the longest baby ever born in the Bristol Royal Infirmary up until that point. I have also danced with Cyd Charisse (as in Singin’ in the Rain) at the London Palladium in a spotlight for 8 counts just me and her which was pretty amazing.

Tickets are on sale now for Me and My Girl at Frinton Summer Theatre: Evenings 7.30pm (except 18th Aug at 7.00pm). Matinees Sat 10th and 17th at 3pm – Sun 11th and 18th at 2.30pm

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