Leon Ockenden talks to Sammi O’Neill about his forthcoming role in Terence Rattigan’s World War Two drama Flare Path opening this week in Eastbourne and then going to Richmond Theatre before embarking on a nationwide tour.
Leon Ockenden | Interview
You have a very extensive biography, you have done many things. Do you prefer to do films, stage or TV?
To be honest, I really love all of it. Originally I trained to be a baker and actually won some awards for my Hot Cross Buns! As a baker I got the opportunity to work in Germany and Sweden for six months. After being a baker and a patissier for a while I decided to try and become and actor and despite careers advice telling me not to become an actor I got into drama school and basically I got lucky.
Nowadays in regards to becoming an actor it feels like such a privilege to do it. I can’t believe that I actually get paid for doing something that I love.
Mainly I have done television (Waterloo Road, Mr Selfridge) and I think that it is so nice to be back in a rehearsal room. I haven’t acted on stage for about 3 1/2 years but I am very excited as this has got a really good script. I think Terence Rattigan is like the English version of Chekov. He has written and created some really amazing characters that are so well drawn that I love trying to pick his work apart, there is a lot of stuff to be mined in ‘them thar hills!’
Terence Rattigan wrote Flare Path during the war, do you know much about Rattigan’s experiences in the war?
There are a couple of little interesting things have come up, the play is dedicated to a guy called Keith Newman and I wondered who he was. When I delved, I have found out that Keith Newman was actually Rattigans psychiatrist. Basically after an early writing success Rattigan got writer’s block pretty badly and Newman advised that he should get out and do something with his life. He suggested that Rattigan joined the air force and became part of the war effort.
Rattigan was a navigator on the Wellington bombers so the play is really a true experience of his. All of the characters I believe are drawn from real life characters and if he hadn’t have gone through those war time experiences I don’t think he would’ve been able to write this play. It has come from a place of real meaning. His plane got literally shot at and machine gunned. At one point they were on their way to be stationed in Africa they were bailing everything out of the plane, as his suitcase was being chucked off the plane he managed to rescue an early draft of the manuscript. This manuscript was almost lost forever!
What is interesting is the timing of Flare Path, the play was written at a time where the outcome of the war wasn’t certain so you do get a real sense of imminent danger in the play. You wonder how the war is going to pan out for all his characters, some of which have already lived and worked through the First World War and others who are of the next generation and the war is a new and terrible experience.
Flare Path is set in a hotel and pulls together lots of characters in that one setting. Tell me about it.
Yes it is set in the Falcon Hotel. Rattigan went on to write a film called ‘The Way To The Stars’ starring John Mills and Michael Redgrave. It is interesting to see how many of the characters appear in both The Way to the Stars and Flare Path even though they are not the same story. Both the proprietor of the hotel and a character called ‘Tinker’ Bell for example appear in both so it is very interesting to see how these characters are developed and used.
You play a character called Peter who is a Hollywood superstar come to rekindle his relationship with an ex-lover who has since married a serviceman.
That’s absolutely right. Peter last saw his ex-lover Patricia in 1939, just before the war broke out . They had had an affair for 15 months and Peter is still very much in love with her but she has got married in a whirl-wind war-time romance to a pilot called Teddy Graham, who is played by Alastair. Peter comes to the hotel to upset the apple cart and take back what he considers to be rightfully his. It is a delicate and rather intriguing love triangle that plays out over the course of the play.
Is Peter deliberately stirring trouble or is he truly in love with Patricia?
He is truly in love with Patricia. In terms of likeability I shall leave that for the audience to decide. He is a complex character but I think as an actor you always need to fall in love with your character and I have had deep sympathy and understanding for Peter from the outset. He may seem to have a certain shallowness and vanity manifesting in his wants and needs but then there is a drive underneath where he feels very disconnected to the war effort and struggles to grasp the dynamics of it all.
He also knows that deep down his time is coming to an end for him as an actor, he is no Cary Grant and he knows he is not good enough to continue acting into middle age and that that the studio will not renew his contract.
Flare Path is co-produced by Original Theatre and Birdsong productions, have you worked with these companies before?
No I haven’t, this is my first time, when I first met the Artistic Director Alastair (Whatley) we went out for lunch and he told me about all his experiences and about how he started Original Theatre by doing stuff for free on the Welsh cliffs.
I went along and saw their production of Birdsong which I thought was sublime, it was a really moving production. I went to see it at a couple of times at different venues and now I am very excited to be part of the company. I have nothing but praise and admiration for the company because they do challenging and interesting work, and take their work on the road. I am very excited to be working with them.
You open in Eastbourne for a week and then you go to London to Richmond Theatre before embarking on a Nationwide tour. You have a family, how will they cope with you being away.
This will be a completely new experience, something that we all will need to get used to. My daughter starts preschool in September so there is going to be quite a bit of a change in our routine.
I am very fortunate in that my wife (Vanessa Hehir) is an actress as well so she understands that you have to go to where the work is. When she started in Waterloo Road, we had to up-sticks and move to Glasgow, I was in Morocco filming and when I came back I was going to be a stay at home Daddy in Glasgow but then I ended up being in the show with her. Our characters eventually ended up having an affair, it was bizarre been paid to have an affair with my own wife, which was quite nice.
This week I have been in London for rehearsals. At the moment I have a surrogate mum and dad, Gawn Grainger and Zoe Wanamaker who have been putting me up for the last week and a half which has been great! Zoe has been my fictional TV mum in Mr Selfridge. We get along really well but I think she’s taking her role too seriously as she has insisted I stay with them. I must say though, it is very nice having a famous fictional mummy who wants to take care of you.
Originally being a baker, are you addicted to the Great British Bake-Off like the rest of the country?
No I haven’t really seen it at all!
But do you still bake yourself?
Yes I bake at home, my wife loves my cooking and I shall definitely be baking a lot whilst on tour. The cast probably won’t fit into our costumes by the end of the run due to the pounds we will all put on!
Leon Ockenden plays the role of Peter Kyle in Flare Path
For more information and booking details for the Devonshire Park Eastbourne click here.
For further tour details click here