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The Comedy of Errors

Interview: Alistair McGowan

6 April 11 interview: Jared Wilson
photos: David Baird

Alistair McGowan is best known for his work as an impersonator on prime-time TV shows like The Big Impression and Spitting Image. But as well as being able to turn his tongue to just about anyone, he’s also an experienced actor and writer, having been awarded a BAFTA and nominated for an Olivier. So what’s he doing spending the best part of April in Notts you might wonder…?

How did you end up doing Oleanna?
It was a play I first saw in 1993 and it had a profound effect on me. I can remember leaving the theatre with Ronni Ancona and two other friends talking and arguing about the issues of the play for an hour. As an actor and a writer you always hope the work you make will provoke discussion and passion. It rarely does! Oleanna always remained at the top of my list of plays to do and I once told Matt Aston this over a glass of wine at a party. Luckily, he remembered and so I was thrilled when he offered me the part of John.

What is it about the piece that particularly appeals to you?
I like the issues contained in the play and the masterfully ambiguous way in which they are presented. You really don’t know how to feel or what to believe in the end. Just what does constitute sexual harassment and if cultural definitions of it differ between generations and genders, how can we ever answer that question? What kind of world do we live in where one man’s kindness is another’s oppression or violence?
It also offered the chance to try and perform Mamet’s incredibly difficult dialogue. He has his own voice and his own grammar. I have seen this done brilliantly by Jonathan Price and very badly by other people I won’t mention.

Tell us about your co-star Clare Foster...
I first saw Clare in Chichester several years ago and have always remembered how impressed I was. She is a terrific actress and I’ve also worked with her boyfriend in Chichester. He is a very lucky man!

What’s it like being directed by Notts’ own Matt Aston?
Matt is very calm and very clear in terms of what he wants. This is essentially how it should be to serve the writer and get the very best out of his cast. Matt also makes the best hot chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had.

You’re best known for your impressions, but you’re not exactly new to treading the boards either. Which roles have you been most proud of in the past?
I was Olivier-nominated for my performance as the dentist in Little Shop of Horrors in the West End in 2007, but it was playing the Emcee in Cabaret which was my biggest thrill. I genuinely think that’s the best thing I have ever done anywhere. Sadly, it closed only two months after I took over from Julian Clary. I would love to do it again some day; I still have the basque!

You’ve done quite a bit of Shakespeare too. What’s your favourite play by the bard?
I loved playing the Duke in Measure for Measure opposite Jason Merrells’ Angelo – the power of those words in your mouth is quite extraordinary. My favourite Shakespeare play, however, is Richard II. I’ve always wanted to have a go at that part but I think I’ll be getting a little old for it unless someone offers it to me soon. I’ll have to have another glass of wine with Matt...

What are your experiences of Nottingham?
I performed at the Playhouse in 1998 in Kafka’s Dick (directed by Philip Franks) and in Endgame with James Bolam (directed by Martin Duncan) the following year. I really enjoyed being in the city and this is my first time back, apart from one night back at the Playhouse in 2009 on my stand-up tour and a date at the Concert Hall last January in The Mikado. I’m looking forward to a few games of tennis at the NTC in my time off.

What’s your ideal night out in the city?
Watching something at the theatre and then having a curry at Chennai on Smithy Row. I went there in January and was very impressed and full afterwards.

Why is the Nottingham accent so hard to place? How would you begin to do an impression of it?
I have to say, I can always spot it. I had to study it for a production of Stephen Lowe’s Touched that we did at my drama school in 1989. I remember my tutor seeing me after the play and saying “What was that accent? Nobody speaks like that! It’s like a mix of Leeds and Birmingham.” I said, “Well, that’s Nottingham for you!” I really like the accent!

A bit of research tells me that you’re also something of an activist. What do you think to the proposed (and now hopefully failed) sell-offs of national forest areas like Sherwood Forest?
I thought it was a shocking idea. Perhaps the forests could be better managed but the thought that they could be falling out of our hands and into the hands of developers was horrific. Our forests are our history and provide so much pleasure for so many people, as well as homes for so many beautiful creatures. They are the lungs of the world. Need I go on?

What’s the last thing that made you laugh?
I’m a big fan of Larry David’s Curb your Enthusiasm and have been catching up on quite a few of those recently.

What’s the last thing that made you cry?
Unoriginally, I was very moved by The King’s Speech; the friendship of those two men is what makes the film succeed. I find kindness more moving than anything. I think we are slowly rediscovering the simple joy of being pleasant to each other.

Forest or County?
I had a life-changing experience at County in the early eighties when I realised, while watching them beat Cov 5-1, that I wanted to perform in front of crowds and that I should definitely pursue the career I have had. So, I always have a fondness for them. But that Forest team of the late seventies and early eighties will always be a part of my life. The idea of a team now emerging from the Championship to win the Premiership the following year and then the Champions League the next is so far from possible. That team, for me, represents everything we have lost in modern money-mad football. And Cloughie was a God – even if he did ruin my beloved Leeds United team.

DH Lawrence or Lord Byron?
Lawrence. I don’t actually know much Byron but I loved reading Lawrence as a teenager – and not just for the obvious reasons.

Anything else you want to say, me duck?
Shane Meadows is a genius, mate.

Oleanna is showing at the Lakeside Arts Centre from Friday 8 - Saturday 23 April.  Tickets are £5 - £15 and available by calling 0115 846 7777.

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