As the cast of Look Back in Anger prepare for opening night with a good vocal warm-up, they will surely spare a thought for Dewi Hughes, the salon:collective head of voice, who has been listening in to rehearsals
Generally giving voice support to a production is not like teaching a class. You’re not giving actors new information to take in, you’re looking at how well their voices are expressing what the characters think and feel. You might get people who are a bit quiet or who have got stuck in a character voice. So I’ve also spent time in rehearsals working on how they are using their voices.
The great challenge with a play like Look Back in Anger is that it needs to feel naturalistic. It’s no use having actors shouting the lines in order to be heard, because it would put an audience off the story. Likewise, if the actors are behaving very naturalistically, but mumbling their words so Osborne’s language can’t be heard, the audience might as well be watching CCTV footage. And they’re probably there to hear Osborne! So we have to work on finding the right balance. The Look Back in Anger cast have been a real pleasure to work with. They have a willingness to work hard, and bring great professionalism into the rehearsal room.
My first job was to help Nick, who is playing Cliff, with his Welsh accent. I get a lot of requests to teach a Welsh accent because of my name and it is an accent that I grew up with, even though I don’t sound Welsh now.
When I have to teach anyone a new accent, I start by doing an analysis of the sounds. I listen to a sample, repeat back what I’m hearing and work out what I am physically doing to make the sounds. Every accent makes a different use of voice and speech muscles, so when teaching an accent you have to work out what those differences are, and find a way to explain it to someone else.
I like to start with general things. First, every accent has a posture; a way in which the speaker rests their mouth muscles. For example, some speakers from Birmingham tend to round their lips forward slightly as a resting posture.
Another useful way in is to think about where the vibrations of the voice focus in the mouth: for example, Standard British English (RP) is at the front of the mouth, while Leeds is at the back.
There’s also the tune of the accent to consider. A good example of this is the famous Australian upward inflection at the end of the sentence. By the way, this pattern is not true of all Australians. It’s more of a rural (or ‘ocker’) Australian thing, but it’s a good hook for a non-Australian to get into the accent.
Room for risk
Once we have a grasp on the general features, then we can get into specific differences in vowel and consonant sounds.
Working on specific vowels and consonants can get very technical, which doesn’t help the actor to feel able to take risks, so when I’m working on accents I like to find opportunities for actors to play around. Nick is already confident but I often like to set up improvisations to get actors’ confidence up. If I was working with a group on an accent, I might set up a market stall in New York, for example, with customers, stallholders and passers-by talking on their phones.
An added complication is that the character Cliff is Welsh but has been living in England for a long time and has assimilated some English sounds. So the English O in ‘phone’, which a Welsh person might pronounce as ‘awe’, Cliff would pronounce as ‘owe’.