You probably know Mark Williams best as Arthur Weasley in the blockbuster Harry Potter film series, or possibly from TV’s The Fast Show. But the actor, who stars as Doctor Dolittle in the new production at The Lowry in Salford, is adamant that he’s a British character actor, not a star, and certainly not a comedian.
“I’ve never been a stand-up and I did The Fast Show more than 20 years ago,” he says.
He is, he insists, looking forward to the acting challenge of playing the eponymous Doctor, who can talk to animals and, accompanied by friends including Polynesia the parrot, heads off to Sea-Star Island in search of The Great Pink Sea-Snail, eventually – spoiler alert! – flying back to England on The Giant Lunar Moth. This new production of the show is part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the film version starring Rex Harrison with book, music and lyrics by double Academy Award-winner Leslie Bricusse. William has also been inspired, he says, by Hugh Lofting, the man who wrote the original children’s books based on his illustrated letters to children, written from the trenches during the First World War when actual news, he later said, was either too horrible or too dull.
“You can’t help but bring some knowledge of previous versions with you,” says Williams. “Obviously Rex in the film, then Tommy Steele on stage and Philip Schofield all had different approaches to it but they come from musical theatre, which I don’t come from. I come from dramatic theatre and, increasingly of late, television and films. So my take on Doctor Dolittle is more of an actor’s thing, which tends to be a bit more inside out, as it were, and I am interested in things that possibly they weren’t interested in, such as his journey of enlightenment, that fascinates me, and to communicate his enthusiasm, to show what a wonderful thing it is to be able to understand another part of creation.”
Williams started his professional acting career here in the North with Mikron, the Marsden-based theatre company who tour to, as they say “anywhere for everyone” by canal and river.
“Ah yes, I spent three years with Mikron, my first job,” he beams. “In those days, you had to have an Equity card and Mikron were one of the companies who employed young actors and gave them an Equity Card. But I loved it, travelling by narrow boat and putting shows on ashore for three years. It was right up my street.”
Mikron, where the actors do pretty much everything, from cleaning the boat to erecting the set, was a useful early introduction to “the glamour of showbiz”.
Williams says: “There really is no glamour, is there? Which is why when you see people on the red carpet somewhere and they’re grinning like Cheshire Cats, that’s because that’s as glamorous as it gets.”
As well as working alongside the likes of Brian Capron as Albert Blossom/Straight Arrow, Vicky Entwistle as Polynesia, Adèle Anderson as Lady Bellowes/Poison Arrow, Mollie Melia-Redgrave as Emma Fairfax and Patrick Sullivan as Matthew Mugg, Williams also finds himself working with some highly sophisticated puppets.
“Puppets are as old as us,” he observes. “Stone Age man animated stones and kids do it all the time. So, it’s something that’s very close to us, that takes us back to our childhood often, but it’s a very, very interesting way of looking at ourselves and other creatures. With a show like this, which has so many elements, many things like the puppets started a long time ago and the rehearsals are just bringing together all the work that everybody’s done in design, in costume, in music, in arrangement, in script. It’s all very collaborative. Of course, we’ve got a director and a producer but it’s very much a collection of people.”
“No, I was a chorister as a kid. I sang with Mikron, my dad was a jazz guitarist, a friend of mine Adrian and I had a band called Clean Vest – you had to be there. So, I’m looking forward to it and they’re great songs. Leslie Bricusse is the greatest living songwriter really, in terms of musical theatre and film. You’d be amazed at the songs he wrote like My Old Man’s a Dustman, Willie Wonka…”. Remarkably, he’s still working, and he’s even written a new song for our show.
“You’re supposed to feel some pressure, of course, that’s what gets us going really. We all work under pressure and there’s a lot of negative press about pressure, like it’s some kind of illness. No, it’s not, it’s being human. We don’t function without having goals, without being pushed. People talk about pressure and then go and time themselves relentlessly to do a marathon. What’s that then? It’s still pressure, it’s just the pressure you’ve chosen. And who said it was going to be easy? You ask any classical musician ‘does it get any easier the longer you play professionally?’ and they’ll say ‘no, you just push the terms of what “easy” is.’ I wouldn’t want it to be easy at all, in fact I can think of nothing worse.”
He adds: “It’s brilliant to be doing a Christmas show at The Lowry because it should be, and it will be such an uplifting show. There’s so much in it and I’m really looking forward to the response. I love little kids and I’m dying to see what they laugh at. I love when you hear different responses from different people, but when kids get something it’s that utter joy. I remember the first time I went to the circus as a kid and there was this one clown who was really slow and lugubrious and then the clever white-faced clown says ‘ey, come ‘ere, Lightning’ and I just thought that was brilliant – it’s a joke! I love all that and kids won’t let you get away with anything, they have got absolutely the best BS antennae in the world.”
So, why should people come and see Doctor Dolittle?
“Because it’s live theatre. You’ve got to come to a big theatre to see a big show, to get involved in something that’s happening right there in front of you, that only exists when you come to see it. You can’t rewind or pause it, you can’t play catch up, you’ve got to come and see the show. There’s nothing as exciting as sitting in the audience, waiting for the curtain to open.”
Doctor Dolittle is at The Lowry, Salford until January 5, 2019. For more information or to book tickets, click here.