An Interview with James Backway

On 16th March, 2015, War Horse began its first run of shows with a brand new cast.

To get in on the action, Hotel Direct popped backstage to meet one of the latest stars to grace the New London Theatre, James Backway, who plays Albert in the show.

Here’s what he had to say:

Hi James, how are you finding being part of War Horse?

“Hey – great to meet you! Yes, it’s great, I am loving it! There’s a very special kind of feel to the whole show I think: it is not like many other shows, because it’s got such a huge ensemble of characters. There are about 40 of us, and then there’s puppeteers – it’s been a very unique experience.”

So how long have you been rehearsing for?

“The puppeteers have rehearsed for 8 weeks and the cast for 6 weeks. The puppeteers need longer as they’ve got to learn how to be horses. It’s crazy because these puppets are not only beautifully crafted, but still have to be operational. So they [the puppeteers] have this whole kind of puppetry boot camp before they start rehearsing with us!”

Are you involved with any of the puppetry side of the performance?

“There’s a whole kind of philosophy that Handspring have (who created all the puppets and help create the show). They believe in the “fourth puppeteer”, where any actor performing opposite the puppeteers has to react and work with the puppets and they end up becoming some kind of puppeteer in their own right. So we worked on a little bit of that – the guys who are playing the horses have got a bit of a mammoth task!”

I heard that someone playing the baby Joey sprained her arm today?

“Oh yes, there is quite a bit of physical strain on every person playing the horses, and everyone in the company as it is a very physically demanding show.”

You have just graduated recently, what shows have you previously worked on before War Horse?

“Well I graduated from LIPA (Liverpool Institution for Performing Arts) about 8 months ago and performed in a show at the National Theatre [New Views]. I hopped straight from that to this, which has been great. This is my dream job!”

I bet that when you got that call you were a very happy man…

“Yes I had to sit down for like a good 10 minutes. I was on the phone and I was walking towards the sofa to sit down and I ended up lying on the coffee table. Just because I couldn’t believe it! I am a massive fan of the show: I saw it when it was first on 9 years ago when I was a teenager and I was just as in love with it then.”

Have you read the book?

“Yes, I’m a big fan of the book and the film.”

How do they compare to the show and have you been able to draw on the different aspects of them?

“The film is great and it has so much going for it, but as the show came before the film, I think it’s easier to draw parallels between it and the book. The book is beautifully written, isn’t it?”

Agreed! Michael Morpurgo wrote the books didn’t he?

“Yes, I actually met him which was fun. He came in on the first day just to say ‘enjoy it and have a good stab at it’, which was incredible!”

What has the rehearsal process been like, has it been quite gruelling?

“It is a long rehearsal process with long days, but because everyone is doing it and when you love a job, the days just fly by. The past 8 weeks has just gone like that [snaps fingers] and no doubt the year will go even faster.”

So how long are you performing in War Horse for?

“We are booking until February 2016, which is good.”

It is an all new cast now isn’t it?

“10 people have stayed on and there are 30 that are brand new cast members.”

How have you found the transition process? Have you taken tips from the previous cast? Have you tried to make it your own?

“Well actually some of us saw the show and some of us didn’t. It is really interesting, I spoke to someone who recently saw both the performances, so the old and new cast within two weeks, and they said it is a completely different show now. Obviously, it is still War Horse and it still has the same storyline, but just portrayed slightly differently. The guy who played Albert beforehand has really helped with passing the baton and has been so supportive. And that is the general feel from everyone – they say you never really leave War Horse, as you’ll want to come back and people just look out for each other.”

So what would you say is special about the cast you are acting with in War Horse, as there are few different versions of it being performed around the World?

“Yes, they are doing a show in Germany and China… they have done it in Japan, Toronto, New York, a US tour, a UK tour… it’s crazy; I think there is a really electric feel about this cast at the moment. It is looking really good and everyone is appreciative of how monumental the show is. It’s an honour to be part of a show like this and I think everyone around the cast knows that and that’s what’s driving it forward. It is interesting actually, in the cast there’s a guy from the Toronto tour, Japan tour, German show, and there are people who were here two years ago who have come back. So we are drawing a lot from all that experience. The show is growing – if you saw it when it first came out, it’s changed a bit since then – it keeps evolving which I think makes it different from a lot of other shows on the West End.”

So how do you keep it fresh and constantly evolving? Is this down to the rehearsal process, or the workshops?

“I think it is down to the directors and the puppetry directors because Maryanne Elliot and Tom Morris created this beautiful production 9 years ago. And now the directors that run it are 100% respectful of the show and we have to keep it what it is and keep the magic that was produced back then. But they allow you to play as actors and want you to find new things and keep it fresh – which is great, as we have new people coming in and therefore new ideas.”

War Horse is very emotionally charged and it is a huge role, so how have you found it? Particularly because it is set in the war, how have you related to the character?

“For me and I think for a lot of the other actors, just being on stage with the horses and the amazing music and lighting that has gone into the show is phenomenal. So being on stage with all that going on, you are immediately drawn into that world as an actor and as an audience member. I will sit out during the rehearsals and have a little cry at the back of the theatre [laughs] as it is just one of those shows that takes you into that world and that is not only a story about a boy and a horse, but about his mum and the friends he makes at war and the camaraderie that happens on the way. There is that huge respect that we all pay to the people who fought in the World Wars, and that hits home with so many people. It is impossible not to get a bit emotional.”

So do you get nervous before doing a show?

“Ermm... yes, but it is fine because the good thing about this company is that everyone is positive, so that nervous energy immediately becomes excited energy which then becomes really productive, which is great.”

In your rehearsal process, you obviously get on really well with the rest of the cast, what is your best memory of the rehearsals?

“I think it is the first few days of working with the horses, I just felt like I was dreaming to be honest. There was a great buzz around it and I was really excited. Then there was that moment when everyone kind of took it on board where everyone realised they actually had to work with these puppets, and actually make it work.”

Did you have to work with real horses at any point?

“The guys who play Joey and Topthorne (the two horses) had to go away for 2 weeks of training, where they were put in front of some horses to study them intensely. That is how they get all the amazing details of the movement of the horses on stage, such as the movement of the ears, their tails, the way they breathe, the way that they move… We see the horses as characters and members of the cast, and that radiates to the audience who also see them as characters and not just puppets.”

So you started on Monday the 16th of March, but this is your first day of two performances – how are you going to find that?

[with nervous laughter!] “It is going to be good; it is going to be really really good. It is physically demanding but very very rewarding and so fun to do.”

Coming straight from drama school to a massive production like this, what have you found the toughest transition?

“It is hard say but I don’t think I have had a bad day in 8 weeks.”

That is brilliant

“Yes, people might lift their eyebrows at that and find it a bit silly, but I honestly feel that way and hope that will continue for a whole year. It has been hard work but in the best way possible.”

What is your favourite part of the show to perform?

“My favourite bit is the song man walking on: he waits for the audience to go quiet, opens up this book and baby Joey comes out. There is about a minute of just baby Joey on stage in his own natural way and it’s beautiful. It is amazing because you hear the audience file in, everyone is chatting away looking forward to their night at the theatre, and then this horse comes on stage, and it is just the horse for over a minute. Nobody coughs or sneezes or whispers: everyone is just purely absorbed. I think that is my favourite moment as we are all in the wings waiting to go on.”

How do you de-stress after the show?

“There is a good amount of socialising between the cast, because there are so many of us and the guys work so hard. On Saturdays after working 6 days straight we will go for a nice drink on one of Covent Garden’s lovely pubs!”

And at that, the call goes for James’ Pilates class – such is the busy life of an actor in the West End! However, before he went, James gave us his top to-do list for living a day in the life of his character, Albert.