Next Friday sees the opening of Leave to Remain at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith. Written by Matt Jones with songs and music by Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke, this is a tale of modern love and how families can impact on any relationship. Dave Cross spoke to Billy Callum, who plays Alex about this fascinating new play.
Hi Billy, how are rehearsals going for Leave to Remain?
It’s all going well, it’s a fairly complex piece, but it has something very special about it.
How would you describe it?
It’s a modern love story that focuses on the trials and tribulations caused by family when two people form a relationship. That’s the simple answer, there’s loads of other stuff going on, layers of story within that basic set up.
Would you describe it as a musical?
I guess it is a musical, as it has songs, but it feels more like a play that happens to use songs within it. The style of the songs are not anything like your usual musical theatre, they take it into the electronic pop world, which I totally love, the songs are incredible.
And can we clear up one thing, this is not about Brexit is it?
No, it’s not Brexit the musical. Everyone thinks that from the title, but that refers to my character needing a visa to stay in the UK.
What’s the starting point of the story?
My character, Alex is from New York, working in the UK. Literally the first thing that happens is the two main characters meet in a ‘love at first sight’ moment and then very quickly we move through time and I have moved in with Obi, played by Tyrone Huntley and everything else comes from there.
What else can you tell us about your character Alex?
Alex is a former drug addict who’s been clean for five years. He’s been searching for love and is in need of stability. He’s very open with his feelings, where as Obi, his partner isn’t so much, he’s more guarded. Alex wants to move quickly and wants to get married, he’s not afraid to love in a big open way.
What can you tell us about Obi played by Tyrone Huntley?
He’s really not as open as Alex with his emotions and during the play we discover why he’s like that. Him and Alex had very different upbringings and very different experiences regarding coming out to their families and parents. Alex wants to get married, but knows he is risking a lot by asking Obi, he knows it might scare him off.
There’s all this and then we meet the families?
It’s through the reaction of the families that we learn more about the history of the characters. The first time I meet Obi’s family I realise that in actual fact they are not totally OK with him being gay. Through the comments that they make around the dinner tables my character is sussing out that this is the reason why he’s the way he is.
I think that’s something that a lot of LGBT people can identify with…
Yes absolutely. No matter what your coming out experiences with your family are, there’s always loads of social pressures to conform to. It’s later in the play that Alex finds out all the details for Obi’s coming out story and the full impact it had on him as an adult going forward.
The songs are written by Kele from Bloc Party, what are they like?
I was a huge fan of Bloc Party when I was a sixth former, their first album was the soundtrack to that part of my life. The songs are more on a pop vibe than Bloc Party, there’s an electronic edge and Kele has mixed that with Nigerian musical influences in some of the songs and they sound incredible. The combination of cultures, with the Nigerian family and white New Yorkers is reflected in the style of the music.
Kele has been very involved in the production hasn’t he?
Yes, he’s been there in rehearsals which has been amazing, although I thought I’d blown it with him…
What do you mean?
He was at my final audition, and afterwards when I was saying goodbye, I just had to tell him that the first Bloc Party album had been the soundtrack to my life in 2005, and I thought I’d blown it by saying that, but he was so gracious and obviously must have been OK with it.
This feels like the kind of complex gay relationship we don’t really see represented much?
Yes, it is a complex story that was originally written with TV in mind, and because of that it moves at a real pace and we cover a huge amount of ground. The back stories of both lead characters are explored, why is Alex an addict, and why do LGBT people seem prone to addiction, even when Alex has a mostly supportive family? Obi’s complicated coming out and how those things affect their relationship etc. But it’s not over complicated, the script is very economical and every line is packed with meaning.
What would you like people to take away from the play?
I would like people to identify with these people. It’s a play about a gay couple, but it’s not been written just because there aren’t enough plays about LGBT characters, which there aren’t, it’s been written because there is a great and interesting story to tell.