InTheMiddle with Denis Lawson

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You’ve seen him as rebel alliance fighter pilot, Wedge Antilles, in the original Star Wars trilogy; you might also know him as the uncle of Ewan McGregor. But with an acting career than spans over nearly fifty years, Denis Lawson is now ready to conquer a whole new galaxy: the national tour of Art.

Having opened in 1996, the award-winning comedy has been entertaining global audiences for more than twenty years. Hailed by many as a masterpiece, this remarkable comedy, written by French playwright, Yasmina Reza, is a study of friendship and the nature of art. Denis explains that “the play is written about one of the characters buying a painting, and it causes this huge ruction, and causes a crisis in this twenty-five-year friendship.” What follows is an incredibly witty and life-affirming study of tolerance and prejudice.

I speak to the down-to-earth Olivier Award winner following the play’s successful opening night at The Lowry, in Salford. The press night was attended by members of the Coronation Street cast, both past and present, who flocked from the nearby ITV studios to catch the renowned comedy. In a relaxed, conversational tone, he tells me how “it was a fantastic night. We had 1300 people in the audience,” before commenting cheerfully on the ‘wild’ atmosphere.

Despite extensive experience on stage, Denis has never participated in a national tour before. But it’s a challenge that he seems to be very much embracing with the help of his veteran co-stars.

Image: Jon Swannell

“Nigel Havers has toured before like this, and I haven’t; he’s been a great guide to me, showing me the ropes. We’re actually just back from Dublin, which was fantastic. I really enjoyed that. I’ve enjoyed the whole tour more than expected. I find myself in places I would never have expected. We were in Plymouth in February. I was staying in Plymouth Hall right by the sea, with this horrendous weather, and I thought, my life would have never brought me here! It really is great.”

So, it appears that even the showbiz world hasn’t been lucky enough to escape the Beast from the East.

As well as his lack of touring experience, Denis is also a newcomer to the play itself. Co-stars Stephen Tompkinson and Nigel Havers have both performed the play at the Wyndham Theatre in London’s West End. But Denis’s unfamiliarity doesn’t seem to have held him back in any way, and the experienced actor didn’t encounter any trouble learning his lines.

He explains that “the writing of this   play is absolutely brilliant, so it’s easier to learn. If you have bad writing, it’s a lot harder. It’s to do with the rhythms of the language. It’s originally a French play and the writer did such a brilliant job with it, so it was a such a pleasure to work on. Actually, I worked on it a lot on my own, and by the time I got to rehearsals in January, I knew the whole play, which is quite unusual!”. He jokes that “the fact of the matter was that they (Tompkinson and Havers) hadn’t done the play for eighteen years, so they couldn’t remember it at all! So, when I walked into rehearsals knowing it, it completely threw them!”

Maybe it’s his substantial experience on stage that has allowed Denis to adapt to the script so quickly: “In the first half of my career, I did a massive amount of stage. And I’ve done musical theatre before too… I’m very at home on the stage. This play is only an hour and twenty minutes long, but it’s very intense. The three of us are on the stage all of the time and you can’t relax for a second. When you come off the stage, you feel like you’ve been run over! But it’s a kind of thing that I’m used to, I suppose.”

Image: Matt Crockett

In fact, Denis’s early stage career gives him a strong Yorkshire connection. Who’d have thought that the well known Scottish actor began his career in Leeds

“In the early part of my career I performed in Joseph’s Technicolour Dreamcoat at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, so I have very fond memories of Leeds. I also worked for Yorkshire television up there too, so I’m looking forward to going back and seeing how it has changed over the years. It has a nice buzz about it.”

Denis even reveals that the cast have a lot in common with the student population of Leeds. “After a performance, I will very quickly make three vodka-martinis,” he jests, “it’s a great way to unwind after the show.”

With the play’s imminent appearance at the Leeds Grand Theatre, I asked Denis, in one sentence, how he would convince the student population of Leeds to come and see the show. After laughing heartily, he responds:

“That’s easy! It’s very, very funny, and it’s very, very short.” He then adds that “you’re out of the theatre at ten to nine, just in time for the pub! You couldn’t say better than that!”

You certainly couldn’t. So, you’ve heard it from the man himself. Art is showing at the Leeds Grand Theatre from Tuesday 3rd April – Saturday 7th April. It’s ‘very, very funny’ and it’s ‘very, very, short,’ and if Denis Lawson’s persuasion was not enough, take my word for it – I highly recommend that you catch it whilst it is in town.

Eva Curless

(Image courtesy of Matt Crockett)