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Interview: Riley Jones, star of Live Theatre's searing new play Wet House

The 25-year-old Northumbria University graduate appears nightly at the Quayside theatre in a play set in a hostel for alcoholics

Riley Jones
Riley Jones

If Riley Jones sounds a bit weary, that’s understandable. He is currently appearing nightly in Live Theatre’s searing new play, Wet House, set in a hostel for alcoholics where the staff appear to have no real alternative to letting the residents hit the bottle.

“It is a bit heavy,” says the 25-year-old Northumbria University graduate.

“You’d come out of rehearsals and it was about half an hour before you were feeling back to your normal self.

“So, yes, a bit heavy and quite hard-hitting. But I think that’s what you want in the theatre really. Everyone likes to enjoy themselves but it’s also nice to see something that makes you think.”

Paddy Campbell’s play certainly provides that. Via a palatable mix of high drama and black humour, it introduces us to that part of the care system targeted at society’s seemingly most hopeless cases.

Riley - his stage name because there was already a Lee Jones on Equity’s books - plays rookie carer Andy whose idealistic approach to his new job is challenged as soon as he runs into Mike (Chris Connel) whose working methods are not what you’d call text book.

As is often the case with this kind of issues-based theatre, there was a period of research before lines were learned.

Riley says the cast watched an old Despatches documentary and met some people the playwright had cared for during his time working in an actual wet house in Jarrow.

“The next step up from a hostel is a house which you share with four other people and a carer,” he explains.

“These people were still living in a hostel environment but were on the road to recovery.

“They sat down and told us stories of what went on. We also had someone from the Cyrenians who came in and told us a bit about the recovery side.”

It was at school that Riley, born and brought up in Gateshead, got bitten by the acting bug.

“I can remember doing my first play at primary school and really enjoying it and then at secondary school (Kingsmeadow in Dunston) I was pleased to see drama as a GCSE option.

“I suppose I fell into acting a bit but I remember thinking: this is what I’m going to do’. It seemed to come about without me really thinking about it.”

On reflection, though, he adds: “I did have a really good drama teacher who was lovely and helped me a lot.” Take a bow, Susan Crawley.

Riley has no regrets about opting for the BA course in performance at Northumbria University.

“For me it was brilliant. I’d done an A level in drama and theatre studies but the degree course was much more practical.

“For your final performance they give you 20 minutes to show what you can do. You pick your own play and do everything yourself. It’s split over two nights and on the night I was on, an agent was in the audience.

“Afterwards she gave the lecturer her business card and asked if I could get in touch.”

So Lee - soon to be Riley - Jones found himself on Janet Plater’s books. Not long afterwards he was hired to take part in a rehearsed reading in the Live Theatre studio and was appearing with Brenda Blethyn in Vera, in a small role which was to grow.

The part in The Pitmen Painters - the dual role of the young man and artist Ben Nicholson - came after a couple of near misses, the first because he had committed himself to Vera.

But finally Riley landed the role for the national tour, taking to the road with seasoned actors including Nicholas Lumley and Joe Caffrey.

He recalls: “It was an amazing experience for me, working with people like that. Nicholas Lumley has been in about 300 plays and me and Joe are shortly to go into Cooking With Elvis.”

Rehearsals for Live Theatre’s new production of Lee Hall’s black comedy started this week, in fact, keeping Riley occupied during the day before going on stage in Wet House at night.

In Cooking With Elvis, Riley is cast as the hapless young baker while Joe, who plays alcoholic Dinger in Wet House, is to reprise his memorable performance - enjoyed by audiences in Newcastle and London’s West End - as the wheelchair-bound Elvis impersonator.

As for Wet House, it seems inconceivable that the play won’t be revived at some point, possibly for a tour or a London run.

Riley has seen enough of the acting profession to know its fickle nature. “I don’t get too carried away,” he says.

“Come Christmas I could be doing nothing. But just being involved in Wet House is brilliant and Live Theatre is a brilliant place to be doing it.”

Riley’s parents are yet to see the play as we speak. For his dad, it might strike a few chords.

Riley says that having worked night shifts in a factory for much of his working life, he bumped into an old friend one day and opted, a few years ago, for a career change.

Now, like Andy and Mike, he is a professional carer, but looking after Alzheimer sufferers rather than alcoholics.

Riley says he has spoken to him a bit about the pressures which come with being responsible for vulnerable people.

“He says the hardest thing is you can spend all day with them, go for lunch or to the cinema, but their lives are on constant repeat.

“Next day they don’t remember and you have to start all over again. Still, I’m glad he got out of the factory because he didn’t really enjoy it.”

Remember the name Riley Jones. Like fellow Wet House newcomer Eva Quinn, from Teesside, who is also brilliant as Kerry, I sense his acting CV is going to lengthen quite quickly.

Wet House is at Live Theatre until October 5. Tickets: 0191 232 1232 or www.live.org.uk


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