Alex Young interview: ‘You always have to bring a vulnerability into the rehearsal room’

Jonathan Whiting
Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Alex Young talks about bringing Cold War’s poignant love story set in the throngs of communist-Poland to the stage and how Sondheim has influenced her career from the start

Alex Young (photo: Samuel Black)
Alex Young (photo: Samuel Black)

Currently starring in Cold War at the Almeida Theatre, Alex Young is known for her captivating and versatile interpretations of Sondheim, from Anyone Can Whistle to Follies and Into the Woods. Most recently, Young created the role of Poppy in Standing at the Sky’s Edge which made its London debut at the National Theatre earlier this year and is transferring to the West End in February.

Can you tell us about Cold War?

It's based on the 2018 Polish film of the same name by Paweł Pawlikowski. It's an amazing film in black and white – it's so beautiful and devastating. It centres on a couple, Wiktor and Zula. Wiktor is a composer and pianist, and Zula is a singer. They meet because Wiktor and Irena, who I play, are archiving Polish folk songs from rural areas with a view to putting on a performance using performers from those areas to celebrate their national identity.

The acting troupe is then sort of co-opted by the Soviets and used to praise Stalin which is something that Irena doesn't agree with. That's when she exits the story, which leads to Wiktor and Zula being together. Then it follows their relationship over 15 years. It's a terrible, toxic, beautiful, complicated relationship which sees Wiktor defecting to the West and Zula not going with him, then following him, then coming back. So we go from where we started in Poland, to Berlin, then to Paris, and then we return to Poland. It's a quiet story as well as being epic. It's obviously set against a very, very complicated political backdrop, but the central relationship is its core – the life that they try to lead under very difficult circumstances.

Cold War

Elliot Levey and Alex Young (photo: Marc Brenner)

How do you approach a role that’s completely new?

It's interesting because I think that, at its core, the actor's process is always the same. You just respond to what's on the page and, with the company and the director, you try and work out the most truthful and interesting way to tell the story. But when you begin working on a new piece, the boundaries are not set. You always have to bring a vulnerability into the rehearsal room – which is a good thing – but there's an extra vulnerability when it's something new because you have to remember that if your lines get cut or if your part gets changed, it's not because they don't like you. You have to be quite robust and really ready to contribute to the creative process, because we're all just trying to find the tone and the right way to tell the story. It's one of my favourite things – it's very exciting to make new stuff.

Are there any challenges you’ve encountered?

I have often played comedy roles; I find those English middle-class roles quite enjoyable. They let me be a little bit goofy as well as having an emotional reticence. Whereas with Cold War, these characters are very direct, even if they don't say exactly what they think. There's not a lot of filter. It's been so fantastic to have so many Slavic and Polish people in the room, just to really try and understand that tone. So that was probably a bit of a challenge – to try not to cover up any lines with any funny nonsense, and to just be incredibly direct and front-footed. Irena’s really not a jolly character – she's quite serious, quite stern, and she doesn't smile a lot. It's about having to trust the text, trust myself, and trust the audience. Before I was cast, I really didn't think this role was for me. When I met the director Rupert Goold, I just thought, ‘This needs to be played by somebody tall with a great silhouette. There's no way. And I'm too much of a tit.’ But for whatever reason, he thought I could do it. So there we go. And I've really, really enjoyed playing her. I think she's a wonderful woman. She's very principled, very passionate. She's a terrific character – I like her very much.

Cold War

Katarina Novkovic, Sophie Maria Wojna and Alex Young (photo: Marc Brenner)

The Almeida Theatre is an intimate venue. How does this affect the show?

It's gorgeous there. It's a lovely space. I've never worked there before. It’s got both a modernity and an antiquity at the same time – particularly with our set. Jon Bausor designed it and it all feels like a dilapidated stately home – like a Polish palace that has been ransacked by the Second World War. Also there are some shows that make you think, ‘They really want to please us,’ but I don't think that's the case here. Obviously I hope we're pleasing the audience, but I think it’s more like opening the door a crack onto this story and saying, ‘Here it is! Have a look if you want.’ So being in a smaller space helps there. However, I reckon it could work in a bigger space too.

How did you get into Musical Theatre?

I was a musician first – I played the flute and the piccolo in county orchestras and wind orchestras when I was at school. I was so lucky because playing in orchestras and singing in choirs were my greatest joy. It's the most wonderful thing. I think it's what gives me the love of being in a company. Just making stuff with other people and being completely in tune with them, mentally and physically – I think it's a bit of magic. I was always going to study music at university. I wanted to get into drama school so badly, but I never thought I was good enough – I was too embarrassed and shy. But while I was at King's College London, I did the King's Musical Theatre Society and started directing (again, because I was thinking ‘I'm too embarrassed to perform and I’m clearly not good enough’) and I loved it. I feel like it's something I want to go back to at some point. After King’s, I bummed around for about five years trying not to audition for drama school because I was sure I wouldn’t get in anyway. Then I eventually auditioned for the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) Musical Theatre course. It was the only time I auditioned and thankfully I got in. I have been very lucky.

Alex Young with Faith Prendergast (photo: Marc Brenner)

What keeps bringing you back to Sondheim?

It's interesting because I didn't really know Sondheim until I went to RAM. I did my undergrad dissertation on Sweeney Todd but Into the Woods was my way in. We did a production of it at RAM, and I thought, ‘I love this stuff.’ It seeps into my bones a bit. I find I never really have to sit down and learn Sondheim if that makes any sense. It's so well written; the thoughts are so clear, the lyrics follow those thoughts so perfectly, and the joining of music and lyrics are so appropriate. I find bad songs difficult to learn, but never really good songs because they feel right. They are exactly what you want to say for a particular character's story and emotions. And I think Sondheim’s women are fascinating, particularly his more senior women. Often, in the rest of the canon, the parts for women start drying up slightly after a while and you get into the territory of not-particularly-exciting characters. Whereas with Sondheim, I feel that as you age as a woman, you're heading towards the interesting characters and I think that's really thrilling. They're complicated, they're difficult and, again, slightly uningratiating. They're not there to please – they're there to express difficult things. I love that. I love that they're all flawed.

Is there a dream role that you haven't played yet? Or a show you want to direct?

I think The Baker's Wife in Into the Woods was my dream role. But then again, there are other roles that I don't know about because they've not been written yet. Doing Poppy in Standing at the Sky's Edge was wonderful – I loved her so much. I think it's more about wanting to work with great people in lovely venues and doing interesting projects. I'm too old now, but god, I want to play Sally Bowles so bad – I might just have to do it on my own in my living room. Also, if I could just kick Jenna Russell in the shins, I could get at all those fantastic Sondheim senior female roles, but she'll probably get cast before me! With directing, again I'm really interested in in directing new things, adaptations. Any stories with difficult children in them would be great – I love slightly unpleasant children! Especially having my own little baby now, I think family theatre is coming up a lot. I feel like people are really appreciating it and allowing it to be elevated – it's a joy to watch.

Cold War runs until 27 January 2024 at the Almeida Theatre – for tickets and more information, visit