By BRUCE DENNILL
Cape Town actress Lucy Tops stars as Laura in the Fugard Theatre’s production of Significant Other by playwright Joshua Harmon, who also wrote the hugely popular Bad Jews. The latter piece had a fair amount of crassness and cynicism to go with its humour, and as such offered perhaps a more real depiction of contemporary twentysomethings than many other plays.
Is Significant Other similar in that regard – challenging to watch, as well as being entertaining?
“Very much so,” says Tops. “It’s fantastic to work with a text like this, even though it’s not easy. Joshua’s writing feels very natural. There are a lot of seemingly off-the-cuff stuff; those realistic moments, like when you have an idea pop into your head while you’re talking to someone and you completely change the course of the conversation. That’s the sort of thing you recognise from your own life, and to get that into a play is incredible. There’s so much going on in the emotional sense, and that keeps sparking new ideas.”
The core of Significant Other is the relationships between Jordan, a gay man, and a number of his close female friends. Many superficial stereotypes suggest that such connections might be nothing more than “fag hag” situations, where the guy involved poses no danger to the straight man or men in the women’s lives.
“I have a scene where Jordan – Laura’s best friend – is getting on well with a prospective life partner of hers and she starts wondering if they’re flirting and thinking about how she’ll be able to do without him should something happen between those two,” says Tops.
“I used to have a best friend like that. We had moments where I’d feel like I knew everything about him and then moments when I’d think I knew nothing at all.”
If those stereotypes are true, Jordan would – surely – not be as broken by the women in his life meeting other men and getting married.
“There’s a line where he talks about being 29 without ever having had someone say ‘I love you’ to him,” muses Tops. “He feels hurt, but is worried as coming off as an idiot or desperate. There are lots of layers to him, as there are to all the characters. It’s the circumstances that affect him. You feel sorry for him because you know how it is to believe that everyone around you is succeeding while you’re standing still. He’s obsessive about it, though; he gets too deep into what he thinks he wants.”
Laura isn’t in a relationship to start with, but then begins one, so she is initially a support to Jordan, but then unwittingly hurts him as well.
“Laura is the last of the group to get married,” says Tops. “She’s a solid person, but she has also spent more time with Jordan than the others, so she knows all his triggers.”
Outside of acting, Tops is also a singer-songwriter, with music being a major focus in her career. Does she utilise different skills in terms of performance – singing versus acting; working with her own material versus someone else’s script?
“When I started studying musical theatre, I was very shy,” reveals Tops. “The drama training helped with my confidence as a singer – I was able to see the singing itself as a character to play. That also helps me as a recording artist. I’m a very chilled person and that industry is incredibly ambitious.
“I love collaborations. At the moment, I’m working with four groups of people on different types of music. It all feeds my soul. I’ve done many different things in my career, and all add to the performer I am now. I like to hustle. It keeps things interesting.”
Tops was recently the alternate lead in the Fugard’s production of Funny Girl. Are musicals a logical way to combine all of Tops’ skills, or just a single step in that general direction?
“They’re not necessarily a stronger drawcard for me,” shrugs Tops. “I audition for a lot of musicals, but they’re only part of the equation. I’ve been spending time playing in a rock show at night and rehearsing for this play during the day.”
Tops husband Alexander is, as an actor, writer and director, also an industry colleague. How is it to have that sort of understanding of a tricky industry from a partner. And does having a second performer in the house come with its own challenges in terms of conflicting schedules and so on?
“We’re sometimes ships in the night,” concedes Tops, “but it’s wonderful to be able to bounce ideas off each other – to run lines, or perfect harmonies. That isn’t always simple because we can din ourselves relating as wife to husband instead of actor to actor or vice versa. But mostly, it’s fantastic, because we understand what drives the other.”
Significant Other runs at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town from 30 May. Go to thefugard.com to book.