One Man, Two Guvnors: Shaun Williamson talks stage and screen
Northern Soul’s Rich Jevons talks to Shaun Williamson about his role in the farcical comedy One Man, Two Guvnors, the art of improv, breaking the fourth wall (for better or for worse), panto and musicals, working with Ricky Gervais on Extras, his film work, and his lesser known side as a serious stage actor. And there’s the small matter of Eastenders…
Northern Soul: Could you tell us a bit about the plot of One Man, Two Guvnors and your role as Charlie ‘The Duck’ Clench?
SW: The play is about a young guy, Francis Henshaw, who is played by Gavin Spokes in this production. He was originally played by James Corden. He ends up in Brighton desperate for work, he’s starving, and within five minutes he ends up with two guvnors and for various reasons he can’t let one know about the other.
He basically spends the whole play trying to please both guvnors while trying to keep them apart. One of the guvnors is a gangster called Roscoe Crabbe who has come down from London and that’s a surprise to us all because we thought he was dead, that he’d been murdered. In fact he had been murdered, this is his twin sister Rachel. It’s a shock to me because Roscoe was engaged to my daughter Pauline who has since got engaged to someone else. Also I owe Roscoe £6,000 which in today’s money is about £100,000. So I spend the whole play running around trying to get me daughter married off.
He’s a crap gangster, he can be a pretty big wheel in Brighton but, as we said in rehearsal, getting a visit from Roscoe is like getting a visit from Ronnie Kray, so he’s a bumbling gangster.
NS: Can you tell us about the play’s origins in commedia dell’arte?
SW: I did three years at drama school but we never did a commedia dell’arte play. But I was aware that originally this was a play by Goldoni in the 18th century called A Servant With Two Masters. So Richard Bean has updated it to Brighton in 1963. He’s borrowed heavily on the characters but as far as the style of playing goes it bears no relation to it really. It isn’t stylised in that way.
NS: Is there an improvised element to the play though?
SW: Certainly, it’s almost a cross between an adult pantomime and a Carry On film. There’s plenty of scope, particularly for the character of Francis, to improvise during it. There’s some very unexpected stuff that will catch the audience by surprise. It won’t be like any other play they’ve been to see, I can guarantee that.
NS: That kind of audience interaction breaks down the fourth wall, do you think that’s an important thing to do?
SW: Depends on the play. It’s important in this play but there are others where it would be the kiss of death. This play relies heavily on it, that the audience can be part of it. I know panto in some quarters is denigrated but it’s quite a certain skill to have.
NS: Do you feel comfortable doing panto?
SW: I love it, I’ll be doing it for the 15th year. It’s enjoyable, it’s like no other form of theatre that you get to do during the year and takes a particular kind of skill to pull off. You have to be prepared for anything to happen in the performance.
NS: So have you enjoyed your stage work?
SW: Yes, very much. I went to drama school very late – I was 27 and left at 30 – and was trained very well at the Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art and did Eastenders [as Barry Evans] for ten years. As soon as I’d done that I was determined to do two shows a year of whatever type because I’m making up for lost time as far as I can see it.
So I’ve done big commercial shows like this and Guys and Dolls and I’ve taken £200 a week and gone and done something very interesting and challenging. It’s important to do that. You spend ten years in a show and you’re not really increasing your skills any more, you’re just treading water.
NS: And how about the singing?
SW: I started off as a Pontin’s bluecoat and my first foray into the world of entertainment was as a singer really, so it’s something I’m keen to keep up. I’ve been in some lovely musicals like Saturday Night Fever and The Rocky Horror Show but I’d be very keen to do something like Sondheim where the songs, as opposed to being pop songs, are very much acted and stylised.
In OMTG we have a fabulous band called The Craze and when the audience come into the building they are presented with a skiffle concert evoking early 60s music and at half time they do a gig with original music by Grant Olding and they also play during scene changes. They do old-style musical turns and I get to sing at the end in the finale.
NS: One reviewer mentioned the fact that the cast of OMTG seemed to be really enjoying performing.
SW: It’s a fine line because you have to portray the play as you rehearsed it under the director’s vision and give the audience the best play that you can give them that night. But, as you say, as opposed to Chekhov, there is room in this to have a bit of fun. Once you’ve involved the audience and broken that fourth wall anything’s up for grabs. If something does go wrong you can embrace and incorporate it.
The other night a knife is supposed to land on stage during the fight and it has to stay there as it’s used later on but it just slithered off into the orchestra, so we’re all stuffed. So we made a gag of it, I had to go down and retrieve it and pretend no one noticed. In a straight play that would be the kiss of death but in this the audience loved it, they roared with laughter.
NS: What is the famous food scene in OMTG?
SW: I’m not in that scene so I sit in my dressing room and hear waves of laughter on the tannoy – it’s fantastic! It’s a big farce scene where Francis has to serve both guvnors their dinner with the assistance of two waiters, one of who is 87 and on a pacemaker, and it’s an incredible piece of farce, it’s terrific.
NS: What’s it been like working with director Adam Penford?
SW: It was absolutely fantastic. I really think he’s going to be, in 20 years time, [like National Theatre’s] Nick Hytner, I’m positive. He’s so bright, the world’s his oyster, he’s got a massive career in front of him. He’s a terrific director and I’d love to be directed by him in something else, he’s superb.
NS: How did you come to be in Ricky Gervais’s Extras?
SW: It was incredible, I really like The Office and one day I got a phone call – he’s known for not using agents, he drives agents mental – he somehow gets hold of the actor’s mobile number and just said do you want to be in my new sitcom. He said come up and meet me and Stephen [Merchant] and they got Kate Winslet as a nun etc. And I said if these people are making a fool of themselves then count me in.
I was in a few episodes in the first series and then in every episode of the second working with David Bowie and I can’t thank them enough. They either make people’s careers or give people with established careers a boost.
NS: Did you feel like a rookie working on the film Daylight Robbery?
SW: It’s just the same as TV acting except it’s on a bigger budget and takes longer and it’s more of a setback if you mess up. So I never felt overwhelmed. I made a film last August called Houdini with Adrian Brody that comes out this August and both my scenes were with Adrian and that was a little bit daunting and it was very much on a big scale and I felt a bit of pressure doing that in Budapest.
And I was lucky enough to film in Bulgaria for Plebs which is out on ITV2 soon. It was great fun with a whole Roman city built so I was playing a Roman chariot driving instructor so I had to do Roman chariot driving lessons before I went out.
NS: Is serious theatre a labour of love for you?
SW: All the time you spend in Eastenders playing Barry the buffoon, and then reinforce that for Ricky [Gervais] and Stephen [Merchant], and every time you do that it takes you one step further away from a commercial theatre playing in Chekhov or something to show people you’ve got it. You often have to work at the smaller theatres to do this [more serious] work hoping that they’d come along and see that you can play these very heavy parts.
I was in Farragut North at the Southwark Playhouse last year which had been made into a film called The Ides of March with George Clooney and I played the part that Philip Seymour Hoffman did on screen, Paul Zara, a political animal, one of these people behind the scenes who tries to rig the Presidential elections. I was opposite Max Irons, Jeremy’s son. And I did The Road to Nirvana at the King’s Head which was an incredibly dark American play. It involved people cutting their wrists and eating shit.
So it’s there to stretch you and do something that people aren’t going to offer me in a commercial theatre.
One Man Two Guvnors plays at Alhambra Theatre, Bradford until July 26, 2014 and tours into March 2015
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