Q&A with Chris Harper


With award-winning comedian Seann Walsh, Chris Harper (Call the Midwife, Coronation Street) and Aden Gillett (The Crown, The House of Elliot), Iqbal Khan (East is East, National Theatre and Othello, RSC) directs a brand-new production of Yasmina Reza's fiendishly clever and hilariously funny play ART that opens a UK tour with a three-night run at Lighthouse from Thursday 29 August.

This multi-award winning play (winner of Best Comedy at the Olivier Awards, Tony Awards and Moliere Awards), presented by Joshua Beaumont and Original Theatre, is a razor sharp exploration of art, love and friendship that will stay with you long after the curtain falls.

A seemingly simple purchase of contemporary art - an all-white painting – ignites a hilarious debate amongst three close friends. What begins as a light-hearted discussion about art quickly descends into a riotous exploration of the blurred lines between art and reality.

Here, actor Chris Harper talks about the play, his career and reveals why he’s particularly looking forward to opening the tour in Poole.

How would you describe ART, in a nutshell?

It’s a brilliant and hilarious play by Yasmina Reza about three friends who discover they don’t see eye to eye in the way they assumed. They’re trying to get to grips with where they stand with each other, after all their shared beliefs have to be r-examined [when one of them pays a lot of money for an all-white painting]. So it becomes about working out how you stay friends with someone you realise is completely different to how you thought they were.

It premiered 30 years ago. Is it still as relevant today?

I first saw it when I was in my 20s, and roared with laughter, but now I’m in my 40s I realise I’ve got friends who voted Brexit, or don’t believe in vaccinations, or are into astrology. But that’s ok, because it’s going to have to be. We’ve been through a really divisive time recently and I think it’s a great moment to be re-examining this play and laughing at ourselves. It’s a play that brings people together, and I think everyone will recognise themselves in the characters.

You’ve done a lot of TV work recently, so are you excited to be coming back to the stage?

I can’t wait. I’m really looking forward to playing to a live audience again. When Tom [Hackney, producer] asked me about doing it, I read the script and just sat in a cafe giggling. Then he told me who else they were casting – Aden Gillett and Seann Walsh – and they sounded great. So in the end I just couldn’t say no.

Your character in Coronation Street, Nathan, was involved in some very heavy storylines. Is it nice to be doing something at the lighter end of the dramatic spectrum?

That’s a good way of putting it! And yes, it’s very true. The Corrie storyline [which involved child grooming] changed my life, and introduced me to some amazing people. When they told me Nathan was going to come out of prison, I rang round the charities I was involved with to check they were happy with me bringing the character back. But they said absolutely, because they needed the oxygen that the storyline had brought them. It was a very emotional moment.

What prompted you to become an actor in the first place?

I was very shy as a child, and then did some stupid things as a teenager. But I feel like a fell in with the right crowd at just the right time. They were all really into amateur dramatics, so I began acting. I won an award, which felt like a real pat on the back at a pretty dark time. I subsequently studied English and art and trained as a teacher, but then realised I was going to end up a very unhappy middle aged man, so thought I’d better go back to the acting.

Were your family supportive of your decision?

My mum was really excited when I started acting – she still talks about a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream I was in at drama school. I was lucky that there was no snobbery from my family, they were just really happy with whatever I was doing. So getting on telly was a massive bonus.

The fact you studied art is interesting given the subject of the play

I think the art world can be frustrating to people outside of it because it seems to be less about talent and more about who can talk the biggest talk. I used to come back from my degree and read Jilly Cooper novels and things like that, just to get myself out of that headspace. I took myself very seriously. One of my works was actually an all-white car seat, which is not that dissimilar to the painting in the play.

Does it help you to relate to your character, Serge?

I think Serge is also very serious about the world of art, only not as an artist but as a collector, using words like ‘deconstruction’. I get why he’s doing that, but I also understand why his friends call him out on it. That conversation is one I have regularly with my best friend, who’s a computer coder. He’s the loveliest man you’ll ever meet, but my God he can spot when I’ve climbed up my own behind! Like Serge, I definitely would be in to the white painting.

Do you think art was a good influence on your acting?

Yes and no. I think art is very cerebral, whereas as an actor you have to be much more in your body. So as much as you understand it, and think about the text, it’s also vital to be sharing the story physically – as the old adage goes, show don’t tell. My first step at drama school was to be taken out of my head and into my dance shoes.

ART is presented by Joshua Beaumont and Original Theatre. You’ve worked with Original Theatre before. What makes them such a good company?

The founders, Tom and Alastair, are brilliant people, and I love them. I just think they’ve always had their hearts absolutely in the right place. Back in the day, even when they had no money at all, they always made sure they paid their team, even if it meant going without themselves. And they were so innovative during Covid doing digital productions, including Apollo 13: The Dark Side Of The Moon which I was in. I’m just delighted to see they’ve gone from strength to strength since. Their love for theatre is unparalleled.

You also teach alongside your acting – what advice do you give to aspiring actors?

Keep it in your body, and read lots. And develop a side hustle!

How do you unwind away from the stage?

I love reading, and at the end of the ART tour I’m going on holiday to a location that was recommended to me by someone on Call the Midwife. I’ve been assured it’s somewhere that my wife and I can sit on the beach and read, while the kids play in the sea. I just thought, ‘that sounds ideal’.

Are you looking forward to visiting Poole?

“Most of my family live around Poole, so whenever I play there I fill the house with cousins. It’s going to be brilliant.”

:: Tickets available now at ART – Lighthouse (lighthousepoole.co.uk)