KEITH Allen is completing a hattrick of roles spread over 25 years in Harold Pinter’s darkly comic power struggle The Homecoming, on tour at York Theatre Royal from tonight.
At the National Theatre, in 1997, he played university professor Teddy, returning from America with new wife Ruth to find his two brothers, Joey and Lenny, and elderly father Max still living at their North London family home.
In 2015, at the Trafalgar Studios, London, he was cast as Uncle Sam. “Now I’m playing Max but that’s as far as I can go because I’m too old to play Joey or Lenny,” says Keith, 68. “Max is the patriarch of a very misogynistic household. Every character is repressed to the nth degree but while most of them repress their rage Max doesn’t.
“He had a very interesting relationship with his now-dead wife that has coloured his whole life and he’s in a household where they’re all playing games and trying to top each other. Everything that’s done is for a reason and it’s usually to get one over on someone else.”
Keith compares Max to a raging sheep. “If you’ve ever been in a field with a very angry tup, you don’t want to be there. I’ve been there and they don’t back down.”
Director Jamie Glover and actor Mathew Horne, who is playing Lenny, always had Allen in mind for their Pinter project “They’re close mates, and the genesis of the idea to do a Pinter play came from them. They took their idea to Danny Moar at [Theatre Royal] Bath, originally wanting to do The Caretaker, but the Pinter estate offered the rights to The Homecoming instead.”
Glover and Horne were unsure whether Allen would want to return to Pinter’s 1965 family drama, but “Max is a part I’ve always had my eye on,” says Keith. “I was very lucky to be offered it and I’m very pleased to be doing it.”
After all, The Homecoming is considered to be Pinter’s finest work. “I’ve always thought Pinter was a poet before he was a playwright and the poetry is amazing. This whole play is about language and very particular choices of words, which is why as an actor you have to be very on-the-ball about the grammar.
“I think the lyricism of the play is extraordinarily attractive and the tension has people constantly going, ‘What on earth is happening and what’s going to happen next?’.”
What does Keith recall of his first performances in The Homecoming? “That was in 1997, directed by Roger Michell, who died last September, bless him. I remember feeling I’d let the cast down in rehearsals, as I would forget my lines, make things up and trip my way through it, playing Teddy to Lindsay Duncan’s Ruth.
“But I got a handle on it in the end, and it was a brilliant way to learn about being still on stage, which is a great skill to master, when a lot of actors get scared if they’re not doing anything.”
Comparing the productions, Keith says: “I have to say that all three have had very different qualities. This one is very funny, much funnier than the other two, because the director chose that path. Jamie Lloyd’s production in 2015 was much bleaker; this one is genuinely funny but also disturbing.”
Theatre Royal, Bath, presents Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, York Theatre Royal, tonight until Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
AVOIDING the “devastation of stag and hen parties” (copyright Rachael Maskell, York Central MP), Charles Hutchinson finds reasons aplenty to venture out.
Play of the week: Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, York Theatre Royal, Monday to Saturday, 7.30pm; Thursday, 2pm; Saturday, 2.30pm
GAVIN & Stacey star Mathew Horne and Keith Allen star in Jamie Glover’s new production of The Homecoming, Harold Pinter’s bleakly funny 1965 exploration of family and relationships.
University professor Teddy returns to his North London childhood home from America, accompanied by new wife Ruth, to find his father, uncle and brothers still living there. As life becomes a barely camouflaged battle for power and sexual supremacy, who will emerge victorious: poised and elegant Ruth or her husband’s dysfunctional family? Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Outdoor gig of the week: Tom Figgins, Music At The Mill, Stillington Mill, near York, tonight, 7.30pm
SINGER-SONGWRITER Tom Figgins returns to At The Mill’s garden stage after last summer’s sold-out performance, with the promise of new material.
Figgins’ vocal range, guitar playing and compelling lyrics caught the ear of presenter Chris Evans,who hosted him on his BBC Radio 2 show and invited him to play the main stage at CarFest North & South.
His instrumental works have been heard on Countryfile and Panorama and he is the composer for the Benlunar podcast, now on its fourth series. Box office: tickettailor.com/events/atthemill.
Classical concert of the week: York Guildhall Orchestra, York Barbican, tonight, 7.30pm
YORK Guildhall Orchestra’s final concert of their 2021-2022 season welcomes the long-awaited return of pianist Martin Roscoe, originally booked to perform in May 2020.
Retained from that Covid-cancelled programme are Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite, with its combination of cheeky jazz tunes and the Russian’s mastery of orchestration, and Dohnanyi’s mock-serious take on a children’s nursery rhyme. Leeds Festival Chorus join in for Elgar’s Music Makers. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.
Eighties’ nostalgia of the week: Go West & Paul Young, York Barbican, Sunday, 7.30pm
PETER Cox and Richard Drummer’s slick duo, Go West, and Luton soul singer Paul Young go north this weekend for a double bill of Eighties’ pop.
Expect We Close Our Eyes, Call Me, Don’t Look Down and King Of Wishful Thinking, from the Pretty Woman soundtrack, in Go West’s set. The chart-topping Wherever I Lay My Hat, Love Of The Common People, Everytime You Go Away and Everything Must Change will be on Young’s To Do list. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.
Fun and word games of the week: Paul Merton’s Impro Chums, Grand Opera House, York, Monday, 8pm
HAVE I Got News For You regular and Comedy Store Players co-founder Paul Merton teams up with fellow seasoned improvisers Richard Vranch, Suki Webster and Mike McShane and accompanist Kirsty Newton to flex their off-the-cuff comedy muscles on their first antics roadshow travels since August 2019.
“What audiences like about what we do is that we haven’t lost our sense of play, our sense of fun, the sort of thing that gets knocked out of you because you have to get married or get a mortgage or find a job,” says Merton. Let the fun and games sparked by audience suggestions begin. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/York.
Homage, not tribute show, of the week: Hayley Ria Christian in Midnight Train To Georgia, A Celebration Of Gladys Knight, Grand Opera House, York, Friday, 7.30pm
HAYLEY Ria Christian’s show is “definitely not a tribute, but a faithful portrayal that truly pays homage to the voice of a generation, the one and only Empress of Soul, Ms Gladys Knight”.
In the late Sixties and Seventies, Gladys Knight & The Pips enjoyed such hits as Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me, Help Me Make It Through The Night, Try To Remember/The Way We Were, Baby, Don’t Change Your Mind and her signature song Midnight Train To Georgia. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/York.
Comedy gig of the week: Milton Jones in Milton: Impossible, Harrogate Theatre, May 21, 7.30pm
ONE man. One Mission. Is it possible? “No, not really,” says Kew comedian Milton Jones, the shock-haired matador of the piercing one-liner, as he reveals the truth behind having once been an international spy, but then being given a somewhat disappointing new identity that forced him to appear on Mock The Week.
“But this is also a love story with a twist, or at least a really bad sprain,” says Jones. “Is it all just gloriously daft nonsense, or is there a deeper meaning?” Find out next weekend. Box office: 01423 502116 or harrogatetheatre.co.uk.
Protest gig of the week: Grace Petrie, The Crescent, York, May 23, 7.30pm
DIY protest singer Grace Petrie emerged from lockdown with Connectivity, her 2021 polemical folk album that reflects on what humanity means in a world struggling against division and destruction.
Petrie’s honest songs seek a way to carry on the fight for a better tomorrow when every day you are told you have lost already. Bad news: her York gig has sold out. Good news: she will be playing Social, Hull, too on May 18 at 8pm (box office, seetickets.com). On both nights, she will be accompanied by long-time collaborator, singer and multi-instrumentalist Ben Moss.
GAVIN & Stacey star Mathew Horne has performed on a York stage only once before, appearing in The Catherine Tate Show Live show at York Barbican.
“We started the tour there. It must be five years ago,” he recalls, ahead of being joined by Keith Allen and Ian Bartholomew in Jamie Glover’s touring production of Harold Pinter’s fractious family drama The Homecoming at York Theatre Royal from May 16 to 21.
“I know York very well from going on school trips from my hometown of Nottingham, though I don’t know the Theatre Royal itself, but I’m assured by our director that it’s beautiful with very good audiences.”
Mathew initially had hoped to be touring opposite Allen in another Pinter work, The Caretaker, rather than The Homecoming, his bleakly humorous exploration of family and relationships, premiered in the West End in 1965 before winning four Tony Awards on Broadway in 1967, including Best Play.
“Really the whole seed of the idea came from myself and director Jamie Glover, an actor-director colleague and friend of mine,” says Mathew.
“We had wanted to do a play for a while, and Keith had done an episode of Agatha Raisin [the Sky One series in which Horne plays Roy Silver]. I’ve known him for 15 years, and he came on and did a guest part.
“Just after that, I did a film called Bolan Shoes with Timothy Spall, which will be out at the end of this year. I got talking to him about the last play he’d done, The Caretaker, and I thought, ‘hang on, I’d love to play Aston in that with Keith as the Caretaker’.”
Mathew duly took the idea to Glover, with the aim of mounting a production at the Theatre Royal, Bath. “But the rights weren’t available,” he recalls. “However, we could do The Homecoming, because it was offered to us by Harold Pinter’s estate.
“I thought, ‘that’s going to be a problem because Keith has done it twice already, the last time seven years ago.”
Indeed, Allen had played university professor Teddy at the National Theatre in 1997 and chauffeur Sam at London’s Trafalgar Studios in 2015. “I called him anyway, and Keith said he’d always wanted to play Max [retired butcher, brutal patriarch and Teddy’s father], which slightly blindsided me, but I was delighted.”
In Pinter’s coruscating play, university professor Teddy returns from America in 1965 with new wife Ruth to find his find his elderly father, uncle and brothers still living at their childhood home in North London, whereupon life becomes a barely camouflaged battle for power and sexual supremacy fought out with taut verbal brutality.
Amid the men’s struggle for power and one-upmanship, who will emerge victorious in this misogynistic cauldron: the poised and elegant Ruth or her husband’s dysfunctional family?
Mathew takes the role of Lenny, Teddy’s enigmatic brother. “He’s a pimp and a bit of a chip off the old block in terms of his father,” he says. “He’s a working-class boy with aspirations above his station and on the surface he appears to be a charming and amiable man but there’s a deep-seated resentment and menace about him.
“He’s a character that I always wanted to play so it felt like a no-brainer. It’s the danger and menace that’s innate in him which attracted me to the role because it’s not something I’m generally allowed to play on television or in films.
“A character with real danger and menace is something I can’t recall having done, so that’s every reason to play him.”
In a nutshell, Lenny is an enigma in a typical Pinter puzzle. “This play is particularly a puzzle because it’s a game: a struggle for power involving both a familial power play and a gender power play,” says Mathew. “Most puzzles have answers but Pinter wanted ambiguity, and that’s why people are puzzled, because you laugh when morally and ethically you feel you shouldn’t.
“Pinter is holding up a mirror to society but he does that in a very visceral way because he makes you question your own moral ethics. That’s why The Homecoming is deeply complex and deeply challenging, at times hysterically funny, but at other times sickeningly vile. That’s what theatre should do: ask you questions and challenge you.”
How do actors respond to facing a play with a puzzle at its heart? “Working out that puzzle, as actors we have to make choices and decide answers ourselves, but how we play it is to Pinter’s intentions,” says Mathew.
“There are ambiguities, and so it’s up to the audience to each decide what they think, but it’s not that we don’t have to make choices, but ambiguity is innate to the play.
“I’ve made all sorts of choices about Lenny, his background and his intentions, but how the audience reads that is none of my business. Sometimes there’s pure laughter, sometimes uncomfortable laughter, and you might even hear someone in the audience go ‘OK…’, which is really thrilling.”
Keith Allen reckons Jamie Glover’s direction has led to this production being the most humorous of his three encounters with The Homecoming. “I do concur with Keith on that,” says Mathew. “It was important for me in my early discussions with Jamie that we went down the humorous line because I’d seen the 2015 production, which was more bleak and went down the nasty path.
“We feel the only way to redeem some of these characters is to go for the comedy. It was written as a comedy, a deep, deep black comedy and it should be funny. Having seen a production that didn’t lean into that comedy, we felt we had to do that – and Keith feels this production is the closest to what Pinter would have wanted.
“You can’t control laughter, but if The Homecoming makes you laugh and then question why, it’s really exciting.”
“Puzzle” is not the only “P” word associated with Pinter. So too is the importance of “the Pause”. “The pauses mean as much as the words, and that’s how we approached it in rehearsals, really working on the silences, the pauses and the ellipses,” says Mathew.
“These are the three areas where actors are supposed to be quiet, but because it’s Pinter, they all mean something different to each of the other characters. So we worked on that; what they meant to each character, and there was only one where we couldn’t think why it was there, or what the character [saying that speech] or the other characters were thinking, but we’ve still made it work!”
How highly does Mathew rate The Homecoming among Pinter’s works? “It is his best play, simple as that,” he contends. “It’s poetic and it’s like a piece of classical music. It’s an immaculate work in terms of the writing and there’s no fat on the meat in this play. It’s deft.”
As for the play’s resonance in 2021, Mathew says: “The exploration of masculinity, male toxicity and the patriarchy is very much bubbling away throughout and that feels particularly relevant now with war happening in Europe and with the ultimate despotic patriarch at the helm.”
Presented by Theatre Royal Bath Productions, The Homecoming runs at York Theatre Royal, May 16 to 21, 7.30pm; plus 2pm Thursday matinee; 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
WHERE will David Suchet be spending Wednesday afternoon and evening?
To save you the detective work, the answer is that the beknighted British character actor, now 75, will be on stage at York Theatre Royal, discussing his 50-year career in Poirot and More, A Retrospective.
At 3pm and 8pm, he will be in conversation with Geoffrey Wansell, co-author of his book Poirot And Me, as they look back over his life and work on stage, television, film and radio.
He promises an acting masterclass too, performing extracts and revealing techniques behind his craft and characters.
To go with his dapper, discerning, dainty-stepping Belgian detective Poirot, the “and more” in Suchet’s career has taken in Shakespearean kings, Mozart’s nemesis, Salieri, neurologist Sigmund Freud and media tycoon, MP, suspected spy and fraudster Robert Maxwell.
Would many septuagenarians willingly contemplate the rigours of travelling to 24 destinations on one tour? Suchet was only too happy to do so, especially now that we are emerging from pandemic lockdown and theatres are seeking to build towards recovery.
“I wanted to bring my show to audiences around the country who haven’t had the chance to enjoy theatre for so long,” he explains. “I’ve always believed in the importance of non-elitist theatre. I don’t believe that London is the centre of the universe, as far as anything is concerned – especially the arts.
“And we actors are rogues and vagabonds. Historically we’ve always toured, going right back to the Elizabethans and before. It should be in our DNA; I think actors should put their money where their mouth is and go out and tour.”
Suchet is conscious that Covid’s shadow may lead to continuing reservations over venturing out to a live event, but he hopes his show will be a good way to ease audience anxieties. “We’re visiting a lot of theatres and regions that have meant something to me, in my career. Everything will be safe, there’s only me on the stage, with one of my very best friends,” he says.
“And I’m going to be talking about my early life; how I grew up in London; my school; my very first roles, right the way through to becoming a professional actor, then joining the Royal Shakespeare Company, getting into television and slowly moving into film.”
Among the characters he will inhabit will be Shakespeare’s Oberon, Caliban, Macbeth and Shylock, as well as the inevitable Hercule Poirot. “I’ll talk about how I developed the role of Poirot – not only textually, from the script, but how I prepared for the role, the movement, the walk I developed, and how I found his voice – which is nothing like mine!”
The global adoration of Suchet’s Poirot still staggers him. “It’s extraordinary. It’s now eight years since I stopped filming, and during Covid, my mail bag has doubled,” he says. “Because people have been locked inside, and have been downloading and buying the box sets, and watching all 73 episodes, and they write to me saying it’s got them through the pandemic.
“I had no idea, in 1987 when I started filming, that this series would have the international impact that it has. I’m genuinely humbled by the fact that people still find it so rewarding, and I’m eternally grateful, I really mean it. I never, ever anticipated it.”
On the contrary: when Suchet was first approached about the role, he had the gravest doubts about accepting, even confessing to them in an interview before the series first aired. “I said, ‘I’m frightened it may be boring’,” he admits. “I got into terrible trouble with ITV for saying that.”
Poirot had been portrayed by Peter Ustinov and Albert Finney already, and Suchet had even played Inspector Japp to Ustinov’s Hercule in Thirteen At Dinner, a 1986 TV film. Returning to Agatha Christie’s books, however, he set his little grey cells to work creating a version all his own, now regarded as definitive.
“I never set out to be better than anyone else, or even different – it just happened,” he says. “I reread the stories and engaged with a little man that I hadn’t seen before, and it was that little man that I decided to become.”
Developing the character was a complex, meticulous business. “I’ve always believed an actor’s job is one of creative servitude,” says Suchet. “In other words, I’m allowed my own voice as a creative artist, but never beyond what I believe the writer intended or hoped for his or her creation.”
For Poirot, this meant Suchet applying scrupulous attention to detail. Between takes, he refused to sit for fear of creasing his immaculate suit, choosing instead to rest by using a “leaning board” – an upright contraption pioneered in early Hollywood for actresses in tight, ornate gowns.
Then there was the distinctive facial hair. Poirot’s whiskers were never Suchet’s own; such a moustache would have made him too conspicuous in public. “I would never have been able to maintain it. Over a 13 or 14-hour shooting day, it had to be repeatedly taken off and redressed, so it had to be false.
“It did vary a little bit – I think Christie herself had about eight versions of the moustache in her books – but as near as dammit, we tried to match the one that she describes in Murder On The Orient Express.
“I had to have my dresser and my make-up artist with me constantly, and my dresser would stop a take halfway through – we all gave him permission because I was so particular – and if, say, the bow tie moved, he would come in and straighten it, and we’d have to start the scene again.”
This was not always easy for Suchet’s colleagues. “It would drive the film crew and directors crazy,” he says.
He has firm views on the performer-director relationship: “If a director tells me how to act, then we don’t get on,” says Suchet. “A director should point you in the right direction, not tell you how to drive the car.”
He has never been shy about insisting on the integrity of his characterisation. “There were more than one or two occasions when I had to dig my heels in, and there were many contretemps,” he admits.
“Christie never changed Hercule Poirot throughout over 70 stories. He was given small differences: he tried a wristwatch at one point, and he tried changing the width of the stripe of his trousers. But as a person, he never changed.
“You’d be amazed over the years how many directors came in and said, ‘I want to do something completely different with Poirot’. And I had to say, ‘look, I’m terribly sorry, but you can’t’. He’s got to stay the same, because of my ethos of serving my writer.
“So I became his defender in a way. I have a lot of sympathy for all the directors that worked with me, I do! But it’s not me being difficult as an actor. It’s just me protecting the character.”
Suchet’s contract for Poirot was renewed on an annual basis. Each year, he found himself once again unemployed, but those stressful periods turned out to have a glittering silver lining. “It was difficult at the time. I’m a typical Taurean, I like things in their place. Like Poirot, I like order and method, and I’m not very good at uncertainty. I had to put faith in choice and the future, already in a very insecure profession.
“But actually, what a gift! I could fill that time with my theatre work, and other film work in America, and do tours, because I wasn’t contracted. So, my theatre career grew, and thanks to Poirot I was ‘bums on seats’. People wanted to see me.”
This enabled Suchet to tackle meaty drama by Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill and Terence Rattigan: “not popular commercial stuff, but big, heavy character roles – major leads in the British theatre, at the same time as doing this mega TV series. Wasn’t I lucky? It couldn’t have worked out better,” he says.
Suchet is an actor with a very strong visual sense. Indeed, he is an accomplished amateur photographer, having learnt the craft from his grandfather, renowned Fleet Street snapper James Jarché.
He brings that artistic flair to vividly describing his richly varied life and career – with all its intricacy, good fortune and rewarding choices – as “a spider’s web”. “I am a spider, we all are,” he says. “We spin our life, and we can’t see what we’re spinning. We don’t know what’s going to happen to us tomorrow.
“Every spider spins a different web. It’s a miracle of nature. The spider spins from behind, and it’s only at the end of each thread that he can turn around and see how his web is forming. That’s how I’ve lived my life. I have no idea what’s happening to me, and then when I look back at my web, I can see all the different patterns. And my goodness, how magnificent my web – my life – has been.”
Among the many highlights, he has played Iago to Ben Kingsley’s Othello at the RSC; Miller’s Joe Keller in All My Sons, where Zoe Wanamaker portrayed Joe’s wife, and George in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, when he starred alongside Diana Rigg.
By contrast, he also cherishes Mole, in Toad Of Toad Hall, and his 2015 take on Oscar Wilde’s theatrical gorgon, Lady Bracknell, in The Importance of Being Earnest. “It was huge fun, and a huge challenge to create a real person, and not to turn her into just a pantomime dame,” Suchet recalls.
“I had to be very brave. It was demanding, every night, especially when I started getting big laughs, not to be tempted to over-elaborate, but to be disciplined and truthful.”
In 1993, he seized the opportunity to work with Harold Pinter, “one of our greatest men of the theatre, of all time”, he says. Pinter directed Suchet and Lia Williams in the Royal Court’s British premiere of Oleanna, David Mamet’s controversial play about campus gender politics.
“Working with Harold, I discovered a complete and utter soul mate,” he says. “It felt as if he knew me – the person I was, the way I worked. We became very close.”
Suchet also appeared in Pinter at the Pinter, the Jamie Lloyd Company’s 2018 retrospective season at the West End theatre now named after the playwright. “It was an enormous privilege. I dedicated my performance to Harold,” he says.
Looking back at all the characters he has embodied, he still thinks about many of them, and even misses them – Poirot above all, with the recollection of Curtain, the final, deathbed episode in 2013, still a wrench.
“It was as if I had to kill my best friend,” he says. “He wasn’t just a character to me. He gave me my career. He changed my life.”
Given the benefit of hindsight, would he have done anything differently? “I wouldn’t change a single day. My only note to myself as a young actor would be – never be scared. Don’t try to get it right all the time. Have the courage to be wrong. You may do things that people won’t like, but you never fail. You never fail. So always dare.”
David Suchet: Poirot And More, A Retrospective, at York Theatre Royal, October 13 at 3pm and 8pm. Tickets are still available for both shows on 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
CHALMERS & Hutch apply Southgate’s template for an all-inclusive future in the latest Two Big Egos In A Small Car podcast.
Under discussion too are Nadine Shah and the streaming dilemma; Alan Ayckbourn vs Harold Pinter; why British avant-garde novelists fall behind their progressive counterparts, and the future of York’s Pop Up Piccadilly artists.