Actor Daniel Francis is returning to West Yorkshire Playhouse, but this time he’s swapping tragedy for comedy. He talks to Chris Bond.
THE last time Daniel Francis was in Leeds, he was earning rave reviews for his heartbreaking performance in The Hounding of David Oluwale.
Now, two-and-a-half years later, he’s back starring in Eclipse Theatre’s production of One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show, which arrives at West Yorkshire Playhouse next week on the final stop of its national tour.
The comedy, written by American playwright Don Evans, is set in Philadelphia during the 1970s and revolves around a middle-class black family. Francis plays the smooth-talking and street wise Caleb, a comic role he has relished.
“It’s a fantastic play and when I first read it the characters just jumped out at me,” he says. “Plus I’ve not really done much comedy before. I did a bit with the RSC but I’ve never done a modern comedy and I wanted to stretch myself in that area. I’ve done a lot of heavy, weighty plays that leave you shattered when you come off stage so I was ready to do a comedy.”
The play, which also features comedian Jocelyn Jee Esien, best known for her BBC comedy series Little Miss Jocelyn, has also given Francis the chance to work on his American accent.
“I’m enjoying that, because they have different mannerisms from us. I’ve been camping it up which has been a lot of fun.”
But that’s not to say that comedy is necessarily easier than drama.
“Theatre is heightened realism and the stakes are high whether you’re doing comedy or drama. It’s the actor’s job to find out who the character is and where they’re coming from, so the approach is the same,” he says.
Even so, Caleb is a world away from the last part he played at West Yorkshire Playhouse when he took on the title role in The Hounding of David Oluwale, which tells the true story of a Nigerian immigrant who came to Leeds in the Fifties.
Oluwale fell on hard times and into a downward spiral that led to eight years in a mental hospital and a tortured life on the streets. After being repeatedly beaten by two police officers his battered body was discovered in the River Aire. The subsequent trial ended with two officers being jailed after they were found guilty of assault.
It is a shocking story and one Francis struggled with himself.
“When I came up here I didn’t know anyone at the time. I tend to isolate myself and it becomes all about the work, but this was a harrowing experience and I would come off stage after a performance and I just wanted to be alone.
“Being in Leeds made it even more potent because it’s where everything happened.
“I went to a doorway he had slept in and the police station was just across the road from the Playhouse.
“I was surprised by the emotional effect it had on me. I found doing the play and being in Leeds really hard.”
Although it was emotionally draining it raised his profile and during the past 12 months he has been working as an actor and producer on various projects in Los Angeles. Dorothy Parker supposedly once described LA as “72 suburbs in search of a city”, but Francis finds it thrilling.
“I love the energy and enthusiasm. People in LA are always dreaming big and there’s a sense of possibility about the place that really resonates with me.”
Hollywood, though, has broken more dreams than it has made over the years and his admiration for its “can do” approach comes with a caveat.
“You have to know yourself and know why you’re going out there because it can be very seductive. You can get lost there and I’ve seen that happen. There are so many myths about the place, people see it as some kind of promised land and I wanted to find out for myself what it’s really like.” And he liked what he found.
“One thing you don’t necessarily see is how hard people work, everyone goes to acting classes and they all want to improve their craft.”
As well as acting he’s been busily involved in TimeWave, an international theatre festival that fuses art and technology, due to take place next June.
“As an actor you have to have something else going on for your own sanity. Someone once told me, ‘don’t ask what the industry can do for you, ask what you can do the for the industry’ and that’s kind of my philosophy. It’s not about me sitting waiting for the phone to ring, it’s about me going out and making things happen.”
One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, from November 1 to 5.
One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show
Billed as the Cosby Show meets Restoration comedy, One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show, is a play about the lengths people will go to hide who they are.
It was written by Don Evans, an African-American playwright, director and teacher. He was also a founding member of the Black Arts movement in the early 1970s.
Evans wrote 18 plays during his career and although little-known in the UK he was hugely influential in the development of US sitcoms such as The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
He died in 2003, aged 65.