British TV star Jason Durr (Heartbeat) is spending the summer seducing women on a Caribbean island in the West End premiere of Volcano, a previously unknown Noel Coward play that sheds light on the playwright’s own hedonistic life in Jamaica. An alumnus of the RSC, where he appeared in Macbeth opposite Derek Jacobi, Durr co-stars with Jenny Seagrove and Dawn Steele in Volcano at the Vaudeville Theatre. The charismatic 44-year-old actor recently chatted with Broadway.com about the lure of Coward’s script and how Zach in A Chorus Line is like Simon Cowell.
Your last West End play, Losing Louis, was in 2005. Why so long between visits?
For me, it’s about the roles, wherever they happen to be, not to mention the understandable concerns every actor with a family has about balancing TV with theater. [Durr and wife Kate Charman have an eight-year-old daughter and three-year-old twins.] That said, I don’t want to leave it quite so long between [theater gigs] again; I’ve very much got the bug to do more live theater.
This time around, you're in an all-but-unknown play from Sir Noel Coward, one of the most celebrated British playwrights.
Yes, a 1957 play that wasn’t actually performed in Coward’s lifetime. It’s set on a fictional island [Samola], though the lead characters are thought to have been based on [James Bond creator] Ian Fleming and his muse, Blanche Blackwell, with something of Noel himself in it, too. It’s got the wiry, pithy wit you would expect, along with underlying themes of jealousy, betrayal, resentment and sadness. I suppose it might have been too much to have it performed in its day. It feels to us as if we’re putting flesh on the bones of an undiscovered gem.
That’s interesting insofar as Blanche Blackwell is still alive.
She’s soon to be 100! In fact, Blanche came to see us one evening on tour and said to me afterwards, “Darling, I couldn’t see anything and I couldn’t hear anything, but you were wonderful!” She started flirting with me, which I thought was fabulous [laughs].
Do you think Volcano will surprise people who know Coward’s more familiar plays, like Private Lives and Hay Fever?
Because it’s one of his later plays, I suppose you can see the journey he’s gone on as a writer, where he’s talking about the British stiff upper lip while at the same time doing something different. The language feels very relevant, and audiences comment on many different aspects of the play. Whether married or divorced, straight or gay, they all say it touched a note with them.
You play what the British like to call a bounder.
You’ve hit the nail on the head! Without wanting to give too much away, the character of Guy is a bounder, a cad: He’s all of those things, as well as charming and intelligent and the sort of character you both love to hate and hate to love. The difference, I suppose, is that he’s a product of his time and his upbringing and his society, so the things he does are up to the audience to view as they will. You might not like it, and I’m not asking you to like it, but at least he’s true to himself—very true.
And you’ve got the backdrop of the volcano of the title, which is certainly unlike any other Coward play!
It’s interesting: There are seven characters on stage, and the eighth character is the volcano. It becomes part of the piece and drives the narrative and becomes something exciting in itself.
Does that mean you get the Vaudeville Theatre to shake, as if the play were in Sensurround?
We haven’t got the money for that! [Laughs.] But what’s great is this parallel idea between something that is going to physically erupt alongside what is beginning to erupt between the characters, who have this overt civility where you can see the cracks forming. It’s nice, too, that the play is a swift, quick evening and trips along at a good pace. You want to know what is going to happen.
Your theater credits are diverse, including a 2003 stint in Sheffield as Zach in A Chorus Line opposite Josefina Gabrielle (Oklahoma!) as Cassie.
That was fabulous. I thoroughly enjoyed it, not least because—and this will age me!—I went with my father, God bless him, to the original London production of A Chorus Line. I must have been knee-high to a grasshopper. It affected me hugely and was so ahead of its time. You only need to look at all the talent shows that are out there at the moment to realize that A Chorus Line got there first.
How intriguing to play the only person in the show with actual power.
His power is immense! I think of him as an early Simon Cowell, in a way: He had the power to build or destroy a career, which was a fascinating thing to investigate, really, especially given that I was surrounded by such a phenomenal cast.
Could Volcano be a musical?
[Laughs.] Yes! We could all dress up in hula skirts and welcome the audience in Carmen Miranda hats and hairdos. That should be incumbent in our contract.
I’m interested that you took time away from a busy career in Britain to test the waters in Hollywood.
I had a green card, so I went and lived in California for three and a half years and was able to come and go as I wanted. I had a thoroughly good time and made fantastic friends, but we decided to come back here prior to the twins being born. I just didn’t want the kids growing up in L.A. I’m sure the people in L.A. do a fine job, but it wasn’t for me. I wanted to come back to England and rediscover my roots.
You’re sporting a mustache for this latest role: is it real or fake?
What you see is what you get: the real Jason Durr with a real mustache!
What do your kids make of that?
They think it’s hilarious. Whenever I kiss them, they say it’s too prickly and I have to shave it off. But it’s not going until I finish the run, so they better get used to it.