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“It’s unlike any other theatre – it’s so liberating”. An interview with Naoko Mori

12 June 2017 | Will Rathbone

On The Town is the inaugural musical of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s 2017 season. It is also the full directorial debut of Drew McOnie – choreographer of last year’s Olivier Award-winning Jesus Christ Superstar at the same venue (returning there later this year) – and marks the return to the stage of actor Naoko Mori. We spoke to Naoko, and took a visit to see the show.

On The Town, a 1944 Broadway smash with music by Leonard Bernstein is, in the words of star Naoko Mori, “about three sailors on twenty four hour shore leave in New York. Gabey’s looking for ‘the one’, for love; Ozzie’s looking for some fun; Chip wants to see the sights. It’s a musical romcom, if you like.” The story follows these three sailors as they tear around the city, each with their own partner in tow. It’s very much a product of its time, and Mori agrees “the book is light on the plot – but there’s so much energy and warmth to the show.”  It’s a feel-good musical, albeit one that, New York, New York aside, “not a lot of people know. So it’s nice when people have really enjoyed the show, and didn’t realise there were all these amazing numbers with great lyrics. Leonard Bernstein’s a genius!” 


Image Credit: Jane Hobson
 
Mori began her acting career on stage, starring in Miss Saigon as part of the ensemble, and later as Kim, becoming the first Japanese national to play a lead role in the West End. Further stints in TV and film – most memorably as Julia Sawalha’s best friend Sarah in Absolutely Fabulous - sandwiched a part in Avenue Q in 2006. “I’ve been lucky to play all sort of characters – variety is important to me. Having been away from the stage for a while this was a great chance to come back to it in a light-hearted, fun way.” So it’s good to be back on stage? “Yes! It’s really liberating to do theatre – it’s something I always want to do every once in a while. A lot of actors say that, because it brings you back to why you love doing the job. In TV or film you’re shooting out of order, and there’s a lot more you have to be aware of – cameras and all that stuff – so one of the biggest joys in doing theatre is that it’s all in real-time.”
 
Mori plays Lucy Schmeeler, the roommate of Ozzie’s taxi-driving love-interest Hildy. Lucy is “like a distant cousin to my character Sarah in Ab Fab. She has a good heart, but she’s quite a character – slightly dopey, and not quite socially adjusted!” Although the role does bring back memories of Sarah, she’s a far cry from Mori’s more recent screen roles in the BBC’s Dr. Who spin-off Torchwood and 2015’s biographical adventure film Everest. “It’s a nice change because I’ve played fairly intense roles on screen for the last few years and I wanted something fun and light-hearted to do.”


Image Credit: Johan Persson
 
There has been a lot of anticipation surrounding Drew McOnie’s directorial debut, and Mori herself was excited to work with him. “I’d heard so much about him. What he’s done amazingly with this show is bring a real energy and pace to it. It’s a very dance-heavy musical and he brings a vibrant nature to it which is great – especially with a Bernstein score!”
 
The choreography certainly is superb. McOnie captures the hustle and bustle of New York City perfectly in the Act 1 finale, and an earlier scene – entirely wordless – where a sailor finds comfort with another man is beautifully realised. A motion where the dancers physically push down, suggesting a suppression of feelings that is both enforced and voluntary (this is set in WW2 after all), is a motif that returns in a glorious Act 2 dance sequence. It gives McOnie a chance to put his own, modern stamp on this decades-old musical.


Image Credit: Johan Persson
 
The theatre itself is simply stunning. If you’ve never been to Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, we very much urge you to change that. The lighting is incredible and when, at the interval, the stage lights turn off there is an audible purr from the audience. Lighting is introduced so subtly that its sudden absence is the first sign it was there in the first place. When dusk falls, if you’re fortunate to attend on a clear, balmy evening, warm reds perfectly compliment the deep, dark blue of the sky. A series of bulbs come on one by one early in Act 2 whilst birdsong is forever mingling with the live orchestra – it’s magical. Mori always “wanted to work at the Open Air. Having seen a show there I remember the experience, and it’s unlike any other theatre – it’s so liberating. It’s quite magical and unusual, because you’re outdoors and yet it feels so intimate.”
 
Mori is also taking advantage of the wider location. “I’d forgotten how amazing Regent’s Park is. It’s absolutely beautiful, and to be able to walk into work and spend a couple of hours enjoying London. I love London. There’s so much happening in the summer, and I just love being able to stroll around when it’s not raining! There’s a Japanese doll called teru teru bōzu that we use because it’s a talisman you hang to get rid of the rain. He’s done a great job so far!”
 
On The Town is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre till July 1. Tickets from £25.  
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