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I had a completely different experience in the theatre tonight at Live and in Conversation with Graeme Hawley and Jennie McAlpine, John and Fiz Stape respectively, from the legendary British soap opera Coronation Street. The evening was hosted by Halifamous florist Neville MacKay at the Belle Rose Arts Centre in Halifax.
Coronation Street first aired on December 9, 1960 and has become a British television institution, but its Canadian roots date back over forty years as well and some of the show’s most avid and impassioned fans live right here in Nova Scotia. The audience that filled the Belle Rose Arts Centre was zealous in their desire to connect immediately and vociferously to Hawley and McAlpine and their enthusiasm buoyed me up, despite the fact that this was not a conventional theatrical production. There was still such a joyful magic at play of the collective experience being in the room and watching dynamic human beings communicate with us live from the stage.
Graeme Hawley is best known for his role as sheepish serial killer John Stape on Coronation Street, but he is also a stage actor in Manchester where he has performed in such plays as Rock n’ Roll, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Romeo and Juliet, Measure For Measure and For Love And Money among others. I found it very interesting how often Hawley brought discussion of his portrayal of Stape back to the complexity and depth in the writing of the character, which is quite uncharacteristic of soap operas. John Stape is not the typical villain, as Hawley continually pointed out, if it weren’t for the people he killed, John would be one of the most boring and ordinary blokes on the planet.
Jennie McAlpine spoke about her early beginnings as a teenager doing stand up comedy in pubs, accompanied by her father, and both she and Hawley continually demonstrated their quick wit and ability to throw a punch line into anything throughout the entire evening. McAlpine has been playing Fiz since 2001, when she was seventeen years old, and she spoke passionately about how connected she feels to the long history of the show, especially through working with legendary British actors William Roache and Betty Driver. While Hawley’s character was written out of the show due to John’s murderous story line, McAlpine has plans to stay with the soap for as long as possible.
The two have a beautiful affinity with one another off-screen, which doubtlessly contributed to their intense chemistry as a couple on the show. They joke with one another playfully and often and both seem like lovely and down to earth people. I found it really interesting how fluidly they both slip in and out of referring to both themselves and their characters in the first person. Since a great many of their fans blur the lines between the actors and the fantasy world of Weatherfield, it is quite endearing and convenient for them to respond in this way. We were also treated to a great improvised scene between Fiz and John, which McAlpine explained had become their “in case we mess up” crutch during the filming of the hectic live episode, which marked the show’s 50th Anniversary.
There was quite a lot of microphone trouble throughout the evening, and although I did hear a few patrons grumbling, McAlpine and Hawley soldiered on with humour and bright spirits. As a child of the theatre, I actually found it quite lovely when the mics would go out because the hush over the crowd was so intense and commanding, you could hear the technicians in the booth cursing. Actually, McAlpine had a sort of lovely monologue while the mics cut out about the universality of Coronation Street and how, out of focusing on the shear humanity of the lives of everyday people, come some of the most compelling and fascinating stories of conflict and relationships that makes for the most captivating television.
It is always lovely to have performers of various genres visiting Nova Scotia and I love having the opportunity to have these sorts of live conversations because they really give the audience the opportunity to get to know these artists in a little bit more depth and to develop a better understanding of the way in which this entertainment medium is made. I loved when Hawley spoke about going to HMV and TAZ records and buying Canadian music from Ron Sexsmith, Alan Doyle et al. It is nice to know that there is a cross pollination of artists and artistic consciousness when celebrated performers visit from other countries.
The duo head to the Savoy Theatre in Glace Bay Wednesday June 14th, 2012 before heading to Summerside, Prince Edward Island, where McAlpine promises to wear her signature red hair plaited in braids. Tickets to the Glace Bay show are $44.50 or $69.50 (VIP, includes a meet and greet with the actors after the show) and are available at www.capebreton.ca or by phone at 902.842.1577.