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Let Me Play the Lion too: How to be an Actor

British Theatre Guide, 15th January 2015, Philip Fisher

In Let Me Play the Lion Too, Michael Pennington gives readers of this paperback original the benefit of his three score years and ten.

However, rather than merely being a manual on how to perform and behave when working as an actor, this is a very enjoyable and practical book that rarely instructs directly.

Instead, Pennington tells anecdotes from his own history and borrows from others to illuminate the subject and inform budding actors about what they can expect in every aspect of an increasingly diverse profession.

After a brief introduction detailing a meeting with Robert De Niro and means of entering the business, the author swiftly moves into a deeply thought out section explaining everything that one could ever need to know about working in television and film.

What comes across very clearly is that this area of the business is now a necessity for any aspiring actor who wants to eat - half a day working on Holby City or in an advery potentially paying far better than a long run in a fringe theatre.

There are occasional forays into heavy technical language but, for the most part, a general reader will be able to understand and learn much, while those seeking to find opportunities to further their careers and capitalise upon them will inevitably lap it all up.

Pennington also appreciates better than most the lure of the stage for those who were probably smitten practically before they could speak. Once again, he runs through every factor that could be relevant from what to do when you are standing on a stage to how to get there or meet and work with an agent.

Fellow actors provide much food for thought, while critics are clearly not this gentleman’s favourite breed.

Straight plays, musicals and everything in between are covered in more than adequate detail.

After these two sections, which make up the bulk of the 400+ pages come three essays. The first of these entitled “Sex and Drugs and Turning up” is largely humorous explaining the difficulties of performing without clothes on and showing a passion where it isn’t felt, the problems of acting the influence of artificial stimulants and the penalties for punctuality.

This is followed by a homage to radio plays involving an imaginary conversation between producers from different eras.

The final essay takes on the knotty subject of discrimination and in particular the difficulties suffered by actors who are either from a minority racial grouping or disabled.

Next comes a witty A-Z covering everything from Availability to Zhoozh (don’t ask) before a brief section looking at some key moments in theatrical history from around the globe.

Let Me Play the Lion Too proves to be a wonderful read and is a perfect gift for any intelligent, presumably, young person considering a career on the stage.

The Independent, 8th January 2015, William Moore

Books about the acting life, Michael Pennington asserts, “wobble uncertainly between the daftly self-important and the ingratiatingly self-mocking”.

His own book is no exception. Some of the self-assured remarks in Let Me Play the Lion Too could almost have been ripped from the pages of Christopher Douglas’s spoof autobiography I, An Actor: “I was briefly granted the freedom of the city of Assisi on the strength of my work” or “I wasn’t playing Andrei, but not me”.

But, setting aside a few spots of vanity, it is easy to admire the 71-year-olds prolific career, spanning five decades primarily on stage but also on screen, radio and behind the scenes as director and co-founder of the English Shakespeare Company in 1986. Pennington draws the bulk of his acting anecdotes from this impressively wide-ranging background, although occasionally he recounts stories from other performers when he comes to a topic not covered by his own career - disability or racial inequality in the industry, for example.

If viewed as a mini-memoir, Pennington is amusing and often thoughtful, and some theoretical remarks on his craft are illuminating. His belief that a good actor should “imply the opposites in your characters without inconsistency - the tenderness in a fighter, the courage in a coward “ strikes me as dead on.

Pennington begins, unusually, with a guide to the world of soap operas before moving on to describe what one might expect from a day on a film set. But his interest lies more in “the spit and sawdust” of the stage. In theatre “the actor is a storyteller: he’s in charge. In a movie he is anything but: the storytelling is in other hands”. Actors have a degree of dispensability in film when compared to the technical side of the production “whose mistakes glare more than yours do”.

There is a sense in the early chapters that Pennington is treading water until he can start talking about theatre, when his prose fires up and his passion is evident. It is intriguing for a non-thespian reader to see the familial comradery that can exist within a theatre company: “if the anthropological need in any group is its own survival, this small human organism, a theatre company, is already beginning to support, nurture and protect itself”.

The main problem with this book, however, is flagged up by the title. If seen as a practical “how-to”, it doesn’t deliver on the “how”. The practical advice on offer for any budding thespians doesn’t amount to much - learn your lines, turn up on time, do what you’re told, be nice to people. But the structure disrupts the element of memoir, so that the anecdotes seem inconsequential, skipping from one digression to another. Perhaps Pennington believed a memoir based just upon stories from his own career would not interest readers. The purely personal parts of this book are well-written enough to suggest he was mistaken.

The Daily Telegraph, 23rd January 2015, Jasper Rees

Imagine a world in which we were as fascinated by plumbers as we are by actors. Newspapers would carry daily interviews about grappling with stopcocks and U-bends. It’s a version of dystopian tedium, so why is it that actors are daily consulted by media outlets of every stripe? It’s ot as if they’re all good at talking about what they do. Some - Colin Firth, Simon Russell Beale - are incisive. Maggie Smith has barely anything to say about acting at all.

Michael Pennington is in that tiny subset of actors who have enough to fill whole books. Having been at it for 50 years, and knowing whereof he speaks, he has now written a kind of rambling almanac to the profession.

The lion’s share of Let Me Play the Lion Too is a practical primer for young actors. It doesn’t tell them how to act but does explain what to expect on a film set, and how things pan out in the theatre, from first audition to last night. No detail is too inconsiderable. There is a deluge of information on best buys and second assistant directors, on which soaps put you up in a hotel and when to expect croissants in the rehearsal room. There are sound tips. Be nice, he advises. Develop a thick skin. Run through your lines on the bus.

Don’t slag off the script. Accept praise. Tom Stoppard once came backstage to tell Pennington he was wonderful, and he didn’t take the compliment. “All right then, you were s…,” replied the playwright.

“Whatever you like, Michael.”

For its first 200 pages the book should become a bible for those  neophytes at Rada and Lamda. Such readers will profit from the Yoda-ish sense. “The job calls for as old a head as a pair of young shoulders can carry.” Or, “A live performance is really a matter of making choices very quickly, as late as possible.”

But the book hedges its bets and supposes the older actors might be reading too. Describing what happens when the camera roll, Pennington awkwardly apologies, “to those who of you who know it all”. Halfway through, Pennington widens the scope with chapters on musicals, on Noh and ancient Greek theatre, on the changing fates of minorities in the profession, and acting on the wireless. The third section is a grab-bag of nuggets on this and that, presented as an A-Z; “J” is for Jealousy, the green-eyed monster that afflicts all actors. “M” is for Make-up, “V” for Voiceovers, etc.

Pennington positions himself somewhere between historian, agony aunt and horoscope (“This is a disconcerting jump in time for you,” he says as the notional reader gets ready to shoot a scene from another camera angle. “Don’t worry.”) Frustratingly, what the book isn’t quite - is a memoir. You rather pine for a more bounteous supply of fruity anecdotage and indiscretion. No names, no packdrill, is Pennington’s ascetic factory setting. “He sounds a tosser,” he says of one Eastenders regular who won’t take direction, but he won’t tell us who. “I could name a number of persistent corpsers.” He could, but doesn’t. He won’t identify the vested interests who influence theatrical awards for fear of getting sued. Indeed, the only time he opts for indiscretion is in relation to a critic he despises “who shall remain anonymous” (and then names him in brackets).

Pennington is good on critics, nude scenes, auditioning for De Niro, the rules and regs of compassionate leave, and good directors (though less good on bad directors). Here and there he’s waftily lazy.

For anyone looking to find an agent who takes on young clients, he recalls that Spotlight “used to run an advisory service about this - check if they do or Equity still do”.

It’s the mark of a book which hasn’t spent quite enough time with a focus puller; or in the rehearsal room, working out what it is, and who it’s for.

Theatre Royal Theatre, Winchester

Daily Echo, 25th February, 2015, John Docherty

The number of people who turned up to see the actor Michael Pennington was not large, perhaps 35 or 40 people.

But those who came were treated to an evening of fascinating stories from a man who is one of the country’s best actors.

He has been enormously successful having created, with another director, the English Shakespeare Company and played in it throughout the world.

Perhaps, though, the best part of what he said related to other actors. One was John Gielgud, who “adored” Laurence Olivier and gave him great credit - which Olivier did not often do himself to other actors.

The late Harold Pinter came in for particular praise. He was regarded as bad tempered in public, but within the theatre, rehearsing a play or film, “was marvellous with actors”.

One fascinating insight was that Michael thought actors should change a script slightly each night, to keep it fresh.

He saw Paul Scofield doing this when playing Shakespeare, by changing pitch or intonation of a certain word.

He added that he thought the standard of theatre criticism in this country was not good, though some critics could be helpful.

The critics are better in New York where they could write at greater length and are fairer.

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