THEATRE: When Sigmund met Salvador; CULTURE Terry Grimley meets Sean Foley, co-creator of The Play What I Wrote, now playing Sigmund Freud at Birmingham Rep.
Sean Foley is still mastering the art of eating with a beard. For although this particular beard is on his chin, it really belongs to Sigmund Freud.
The actor, writer and comedian is playing the father of psychoanalysis in Terry Johnson's 1993 play Hysteria, an imaginative reconstruction of a meeting between Freud and Salvador Dali, which opened last night at Birmingham Rep.
The co-founder of comedy theatre duo The Right Size, creators of the smash-hit Morecambe & Wise tribute show The Play What I Wrote, is making his performing debut at the Rep, though it turns out that this was the scene of one of his earliest theatre experiences.
"My only previous experience of this theatre was when I was eight or nine, when I came to see a pantomime here," he recalls. "My mum is from Birmingham and we lived in Dorridge.
"One of the things I like about this play - even though, God forbid, it's not in any way a panto - is that as well as being a very serious play about all sorts of things from the persecution of Jews in Germany to sexual abuse and psychoanalysis, it's extremely entertaining.
"It's quite hard to get hold of as it veers from seriousness to farce, from putting a scantily-clad girl in a closet to great long speeches about the death of God.
"So it does everything I think the theatre is capable of doing. It ticks all the boxes theatre can do."
How did Foley get from being an eight or nine year-old living in Dorridge to his recent varied showbusiness career?
"I went to school, went to Oxford, did a degree in history. The day after I finished the degree I was performing in London with the Oxford Youth Theatre.
"Unlike a lot of other people in the acting profession I grew up by creating my own work. Nobody was going to give me a job, so I created one myself by creating a theatre company, The Right Size.
"On the first show my partner, Hamish McColl, and I built the set, drove the van, did the show, took the set out, went to the pub. Over a nine-to-ten-year period we were making middle-scale shows with much bigger budgets and touring them around.
"We had exceptionally funny shows, but they were theatre shows. Quite often people found it difficult to categorise what we did. It was so funny that theatre people thought it couldn't be theatre, but comedy people thought yes, but they make these things with characters.
"We had a breakthrough with Do You Come Here Often?, which won us an Olivier Award. After that we were still making our own shows but were better known."
When they were initially approached about doing a show about Morecambe & Wise they thought it was a ridiculous idea and rejected it out of hand.
"Then we had an idea, which was basically to base the show on us, to use our double act, as it were, to reflect their greatness.
"That was a huge commercial hit which took everyone by surprise, and it was a fantastic thing to do. We had this wonderful element of the mystery celebrity guests, so we worked with Jeff Goldblum, Glen Close, Liam Neesom and Kenneth Branagh, who directed it - just an endless parade of fantastic actors and stars.
"We did 650 shows, then we let that go and some other people did it, and in fact it's still going."
Foley thinks his unconventional route into acting came about "because I'm not cut out for anything. I tend to jump around.
"We toured literally all over the world, going to some far-flung places. We were making work that was physically funny, so it overcame the language barrier.
"At the end of that process I started to pick up work as an actor, which I absolutely love doing: it always feels like a holiday."
It's easy to see how someone with his background would find Johnson's mix of the high-minded and hijinks appealing, but what about the challenge of playing a well-known historic figure? Is documentary research appropriate in this case?
"There is absolutely a place for historical research about the man and his time, but at the same time Terry Johnson has made him into a character in a play. His life is drawing to a close and the play itself is a wild imagining of what that process might be in the guy's head. One's experience of the play is oscillating between thinking is this happening in his head or in reality?
"He's an 84 year-old man who has always been played by an actor in his late 30s or early 40s, which is a very theatrical notion. But an 84 year-old actor couldn't do the part, because you're rushing about the stage all night."
The play starts off with historical fact. Salvador Dali, whose Surrealist paintings were deeply influenced by Freud's theories of dreams and the unconscious, did indeed visit him at his London home in 1938. But from there Johnson allows his own imagination to run riot.
"In the play a character turns up who doesn't know who she is and neither does Freud. Essentially she challenges his notions and puts him on the spot about what he believes in. But because he doesn't want to reveal her presence in front of his old Jewish doctor Yehuda she gets locked in a cupboard, which works it into a classic farce situation.
"It's good to be able to go to the theatre and be able to laugh, and then to be able to come away thinking about themes in the play as well. I think it's one of the great things theatre can do, and writers who grasp that make wonderful work. I'm thrilled to be doing the part."
Hysteria is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until May 12 (Box office: 0121 236 4455).
Sean Foley is playing the father of psychoanalysis in Terry Johnson's 1993 play Hysteria