When I meet Lucy Hollis and Alasdair Hankinson, graduate intern actors at Glasgow's Citizens Theatre, in the foyer of the Gorbals playhouse, they are observably relaxed and comfortable in their new surroundings.
Every bit as relaxed, in fact, as when I've met them at their alma mater, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (formerly the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama), on past occasions.
Hollis is playing the lead in Citz director Dominic Hill's forthcoming production of Sleeping Beauty, while Hankinson is tackling two roles (Minstral and Table Slave) on either side of the interval. A major professional appointment, under the direction of the most critically acclaimed theatre director currently working in Scotland, and performing alongside such outstanding actors as Kathryn Howden and Mark McDonnell, this production is, needless to say, an important moment in the careers of the recent graduates.
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Both young actors are pleased to find Hill's rehearsal room to be a very benign place. "He has a very clear vision of what he wants, and I think he has impeccable taste as well," says Hollis. "He's very much in charge of the rehearsal room, and we all respect that. However, it's also quite relaxed. If, as actors, we have ideas, we're welcome to put them forward."
"You're allowed to try whatever you want but if it's not suitable he will say no," adds Hankinson. "So often with Christmas shows everything is very heightened. That's part of this show too, but for Dominic it's important it is rooted in something real. He's making us work hard to give our characters that kind of substance. He's not letting us off the hook."
The substance of the Citz's Christmas show – which, this year as in the past, offers a stylish, story-driven alternative to the pantomime high-jinks which prevail elsewhere during the festive season – starts with the acclaimed script by Rufus Norris. It is based, not upon the Grimm Brothers' version of the tale, but upon the late 17th-century original, The Sleeping Beauty In The Wood by the great French fairytale author Charles Perrault.
The Norris/Perrault narrative will raise some eyebrows, say the graduate actors. "The version we all know ends with Sleeping Beauty waking up," Hankinson comments. "In the original version, that's only halfway through. You'll see the second half of the story when you come to see our production. By going back to the original, we're subverting expectations."
"The beauty of it is that, while the original story is very different from the Grimms' version, it still has all the moments people are going to expect and want to see," adds Hollis.
If the play has some surprises in store, so too does Hill's vision for it on the Citz stage. "It's like Tim Burton meets Monty Python," says Hankinson. "It's simultaneously very dark and very funny."
This bleak humour is certainly on display in the characters the young male actor will be playing. "I'm playing a minstrel in the first half," he explains, "and he just sings continuously. In the second half I'm a table slave, who is, literally, a slave who's attached to a table. A lot of things befall him, bless him. He's had a hard life, and it doesn't get any easier."
For her part, Hollis was much relieved to discover there is little that is conventional either in Norris's script or Hill's directorial approach to the character of Sleeping Beauty.
"I thought I was going to be costumed like an archetypal Sleeping Beauty, a kind of wishy-washy princess," she says.
"In fact, in our version, she's a bit of a rebel. She hides from her parents and just wants to go outside. She has messy, punky hair and Doc Martens. At first it seemed to me, reading the script, that she was quite a bratty girl. But now we're rehearsing it, it's clear she's not. It's just that she's oppressed and frustrated; she just wants to be a normal 16-year-old girl."
As the rehearsal process goes on, award-winning designer Naomi Wilkinson (who collaborated with Hill on his acclaimed production of Ibsen's Peer Gynt back in 2007) is beavering away on the set and costumes. The actors have already seen the costume drawings and the model box of the set. They are, Hankinson explains, very much in keeping with Hill's vision. "The designs are like a mixture of the drawings you would see in Tim Burton's notebook and Terry Gilliam's cartoons. They have that kind of dark humour."
The young actors are clearly enjoying and learning a great deal from the process of making the Citz show. "It's nice to be in such a supportive environment," says Hankinson. "It's also nice to be reassured the training you've just been through at the Conservatoire has made you ready for work at this level."
Hollis agrees. "It's not as daunting as I thought it would be. It's fast and furious, but not daunting. You just get on with the job. I think we've been really well equipped for that by our training at the Conservatoire."
Sleeping Beauty plays at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, from December 1-January 6. For more details, visit www.citz.co.uk.
MARK BROWN'S CHRISTMAS SHOW HIGHLIGHTS
A Christmas Carol
The Old Kirk, Kirkcaldy
Graham McLaren's superb staging of Charles Dickens's great Christmas tale was not only the best Scottish Christmas show last year, but also winner of the best show in any genre in the 2011-12 season at the Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland. Produced by the National Theatre of Scotland, with excellent live music (by the brilliant Jon Beales), wonderful acting (not least from Benny Young as a Newton Mearns Scrooge) and tremendous puppets (by Gavin Glover), its relocation from Glasgow to Kirkcaldy is a real gift to Fife audiences.
Runs December 7-30
The Snow Queen
This production of Hans Christian Andersen's much-loved tale seems set to continue Dundee Rep's tradition of stylish and enchanting Christmas shows. The story of Kai – the boy who seems to have lost both his soul and his deep friendship with Gerda when a splinter of glass from the Snow Queen's mirror goes into his eye – is performed by the Rep's acclaimed ensemble and directed by its talented artistic director Jemima Levick, with live music composed by the seemingly ubiquitous Jon Beales.
Runs December 4-January 5
The Night Before Christmas
As a son of Greenfaulds, some of my earliest theatrical experiences were of fine Christmas shows at Cumbernauld Theatre. That tradition of strong yuletide storytelling is taken to an intriguing extreme this year with a show which encompasses no fewer than 10 distinct tales, ranging from Hansel And Gretel, to Puss-in-Boots and The Emperor's New Clothes. The five-strong cast boasts the talents of recent Royal Conservatoire of Scotland graduate Tyler Collins, who knows a thing or two about the frozen north, as he hails from Alaska.
Runs December 4-24
Too Many Penguins
The award-winning penguins are back! Recipients of the gong for best show for children and young people at the 2012 CATS awards, this charming show by Frozen Charlotte theatre company transfers from the MacRobert arts venue in Stirling to the Traverse. Carefully crafted for very young audiences (aged one to four-years-old), the play asks the burning question, "how many penguins are too many?" Penguina is determined to find out as, to the irritation of the penguin-phobic Mr Polaro, she fills the theatre with more and more of her Antarctic avian friends.
Runs December 11-22