Since starring in shows such as The Community and A Comic Book Ending, actor Ross Virgo can currently be found showing off his comedy action skills in the brilliantly clever and wickedly funny The Comedy About A Bank Robbery at The Criterion Theatre in the heart of London’s West End. He is a member of the highly talented group of understudies who keep the show running every day, covering the roles of Shuck, Cooper, Warren, Freeboys and Sam. I was fortunate enough to talk to Ross about his time with the show both on tour and in London, as well as his experiences as an understudy in a time where appreciation for them is somewhat lacking at times.
How did you get into performing? Is it something that you always wanted to do?
Pretty much yeah! I think that one of the first characters I ever played was Jack Frost in a Christmas show at primary school? The acting bug has been with me since then. When the angsty teen years arrived, I had a short period where I tried to avoid anything performance related as I thought it was not ‘cool’ (Whatever that means). But, in reality, this only helped to me realise how much I did actually want to, y’know, dress up and dribble in front of people.
How does it feel to be a part of The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, a show which has proven a hit in both the West End and on tour?
Bonkers. Absolutely bonkers. Even now, after being with the show for over a year. I’ll occasionally be stood in the wings and get hit with the thought that ‘this is my job’. The fact that we get to head out 8 times a week and bring laughter to a group of strangers – for a job – is incredible. I’m so, so grateful to be a part of it.
Can you tell us anything about the rehearsal process for The Comedy About A Bank Robbery? I assume that some parts are difficult to rehearse with them being so precise and complex in places?
Ooooooooh yeah, you’re spot on. We were lucky that we could rehearse the stunts on the stage at the Criterion before heading out on the road for the tour. We did this once or twice a week from fairly early on to allow us to get as comfortable as possible with the physical demands of the show. But as for the more traditional farcical elements, there’s no secret other than meticulously breaking scenes down and exploring them beat by beat before slowly stitching them back together again.
We actually ended up doing a fair bit of text work too. Our directors Kirsty and Katie-Ann were very keen that we paid (and continue to pay) strong attention to the character’s needs and desires. A lot of the comedy in Bank Robbery is narrative driven and the most effective pay-off comes when the actions of the characters are rooted in the truth of the story being told.
What was it like to be on tour with the show, performing up and down the country?
It was my first tour so I had no idea what to expect – but I loved it. Of course it was tiring, and we really had to look after each other as a result. But it was wonderful to play in so many different cities and theatres, each with their own unique audience demographics. I think it really benefited us as a company too – the week to week changes meant that we had to be very adaptable; tweaking little bits of the show here dependent on the technicalities of the performance space.
What is it like to be an understudy in this show, covering multiple roles like you do? I imagine that you have to be prepared for anything. Is that correct?
The mantra that our company seems to have adopted is ‘never a dull moment’ ! Just last week, I was on for four different characters in the space of five days, so it is certainly a challenge to say the least! But I think its a hugely exciting one. To have the chance to cover such a range of characters, some that I would never normally be cast as, is so liberating. You can really play within the roles, pushing yourself to make new choices and discoveries all the time.
I have learnt so much since starting this job about character, stage craft, comedic technique, actor/audiences relationships – things that I have no doubt I would have learned playing one part – but to be doing so through so many different roles means the effect is supercharged! I can not speak highly enough for the support that we understudies are given either. From both fellow cast members and the creative team. Since day one, we were made to feel like equal members of the company with no sense of hierarchy or division. This feeling still prevails and it is why going on in a part is such fun. You know that you have the complete support of all of your fellow cast mates and the technical staff. They are more than willing to embrace different acting choices that we may make from the principals – or to give us a friendly nudge if we need to be a slightly different place!
Do you have a favourite character to play in The Comedy About A Bank Robbery? If yes, why is that character your favourite?
That’s tough. Warren is very dear to my heart as he was the first character I played in the show. I get to have a little sing, plus do some brilliant sequences of physical comedy too. That said, playing Sam is wonderful as I get to play someone my own age whilst indulging my cheekier side. Yet, Freeboys allows me to channel my best Matthew McConaughey impression. We are spoilt with this show really!
It is amazing to see The Comedy About A Bank Robbery and Mischief theatre as a whole being so supportive of their ‘thunderstudies’ and celebrating them so publicly. Would you like to see other shows follow that example and do the same?
Oh they are extraordinary. This is my first experience of understudying and it shocked me to discover that Mischief Theatre seem to be the exception as opposed to the norm. Generally, you tend to only hear about the existence of understudies when someone has stepped up to cover ‘a name’ at the last minute. But I do think that the tide is changing. For my money, shows and schedules are becoming increasingly more demanding – physically, vocally and emotionally. That intense work load implicitly brings with it a realisation that people working in theatre are not robots.
Theatre audiences are not simply coming to see re-runs of a Netflix series every night – everyone on and off stage is doing it in real time, normally eight shows a week, and that has to take a toll. Understudies, swings, covers, alternates and standbys are the people that allow the show to go on. I can not think why we would not celebrate, promote and embrace that. At this point, I should definitely also give a shout out to the @WestEndCovers twitter handle. They do some exceptional work supporting and championing all members of the ‘cover club’.
What do you think it is about The Comedy About A Bank Robbery that makes it such a hit with theatre-goers?
The variety. 100%. We have puns, stunts, montages, mistaken identity, singing, dancing, slapstick, compromising positions, all sprinkled with a hearty seasoning of drama and genuine sensitivity. Not to mention a gorgeous 1950’s inspired set, lighting and costume design.
It is amazing to see Mischief Theatre growing and continuing to create new shows such as Groan Ups and Magic Goes Wrong. Why do you think that the company has such a popular appeal?
It’s brilliant right? From such humble beginnings too. They’re a real testament to the power of hard work. Of trying and trying again. I think their popularity comes from their accessibility. Whether you prefer the anarchic physical gags of the Goes Wrong pieces, or the more cinematic, narrative driven Bank Robbery, or even social commentary of Groan Ups – there is something for everyone to enjoy in their work.
If you could play any character in a play or in a musical, which character would it be and why?
Hmmm. You know what, there’s a play by Duncan Macmillan called Every Brilliant Thing which I think is absolutely gorgeous. It’s a monologue piece but the narrator works with the audience to tell the story, so there’s chance for a smattering of improv too. Since seeing that two years ago at the Orange Tree in Richmond, I’m yet to experience anything that is a more wonderful celebration of live storytelling – not to mention, written ab-so-lut-ley beautifully. If the chance to play in that came along, I’d devour it like a hearty Christmas dinner.
If you could go back in time and see yourself as a child, what advice would you give your younger self?
Get out of your head. Pleeeeeeeeaaaaassse. Oh and, don’t worry; you’ll get over your fear of roller coasters. You’ll get over a lot of fears actually.
Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to get into the performing arts industry?
“Take the work seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.” One of my teachers at drama school, Mark Bell (incidentally, the original director of Bank Robbery), said that to me when I was stressing that I couldn’t get everything right. Which, of course, I eventually realised is not the point of acting – or life for that matter. Mark’s words have stayed with me ever since. Work on your craft. Read. Put in the hours exploring a script. But never be afraid to make a mistake. To risk something. That’s where all your learning happens