When actors talk about playing difficult roles, they might as well be referring to Alexis Gregory’s play Safe. It is a verbatim play which tells the real-life stories of homeless LGBT youth challenging its four actors to do justice to the words and lives of these remarkable young people.
A new production of Safe is being staged here in our Stage Two centre later this month, specially commissioned as part of our Creative Matters season on gender and sexual identity. We spoke to two of the actors involved to find out how they were handling that responsibility.
“Safe is quite unique,” explains Alistair Hall, who has travelled from London to appear in the show. “It’s told through the words of four young people, all of them very different, and it follows their journeys through their very contrasting personal situations”.
Norfolk resident Nelson Gombakomba will be acting alongside Alistair. “Despite their differences,” he adds, “there are these themes that keep coming up throughout all four of their stories. Even though they’ve lived very different lives, you find a lot of things that bring them together.”
Both actors are well aware of their responsibility to tell these stories accurately, and they’ve done their research. “So my character’s name is Samuel,” Nelson says. “During the play, he talks about the journey he’s been on. He starts out from a point of shame – he’s ashamed of who he is, and he doesn’t understand who he is – until towards the end, he starts to break out of his shell. He learns to celebrate himself and he doesn’t try to change what can’t be changed. It’s a journey of acceptance.”
Alistair plays trans woman Tami: “She’s a very ferocious character: as soon as we meet her, we can tell that she’s very passionate about life and she’s got a real sense of identity about who she is now.
“But as her story unfolds, it becomes clear that her journey hasn’t always been easy and that she has had struggles in life; some ups, but also some incredible downs. But even despite her hardships, she doesn’t identify as a victim. She’s a very strong character, with a strong sense of what she wants and what she needs. She’s been through quite a lot, and she’s no longer afraid of life, she just wants to go for it.”
All four stories tell of the extreme hardships that these characters have had to endure, and they tackle issues including loneliness, addiction, depression and familial abuse. That’s exactly what drew Alistair to this piece in the first place: “It’s really relevant to so many topics, and that’s the fascinating thing about it. Not just the fact that the writing is so brilliant, but that it tackles really urgent themes, themes that I think probably aren’t spoken about enough in theatre. As an actor, that’s really exciting.”
As such, audiences could be forgiven for expecting a fairly grim evening – but they might be surprised to learn that Nelson is a leading light on the Norwich comedy scene, hosting monthly stand-up nights at Gonzo’s Tea Room in Norwich. “The play has a lot funny moments; I don’t think people will be expecting that.
“I guess my comedy background does help me there, but I want the story to be about the person. It’s not so much about me being funny, it’s about the character and how the words come out. So I guess the comedy is more of a natural outcome of what’s written down, rather than something I’m consciously trying to bring out.”
Alistair nods: “There’s humour laced through the play, and I think that different audiences will pick up on different lines that they find funnier. But I suppose that’s it with life really, isn’t it? You go through tough times, but there’s always moments you can find to laugh about.”
With less than two weeks to go until opening night (28 September), rehearsals are in full swing, led by the play’s writer Alexis Gregory. Some people might find that daunting, but not Alistair: “Alexis is very quick as a director, I’m finding that really engaging. And he’s so passionate about the piece, because it’s his play. That passion sets the atmosphere for the whole room, and I can feel all the cast getting really into it.
“We’re all very different, the four of us – which is good because the characters are all very different. But we just seem to have a strong bond already!”
Nelson laughs: “The energy is contagious! And that’s the thing; when I did the audition, I was trying to work out what it was they wanted and what I could bring to the table. But as we’ve rehearsed, the lines are now coming out naturally without me having to think about it and get in the way – it’s all coming together!”
And with that, Nelson and Alistair are back to the rehearsal studio and back to work. The stories that Safe tells are undeniably hard-hitting, but filled with humour and heart. This show certainly won’t be a dull evening!
You can see Alistair and Nelson in Safe on the 28th and 29th September. Buy tickets now at Norwich Theatre Royal.