SOAP icon Adam Woodyatt, EastEnders’ longest-serving cast member, has taken to the stage in a play for the first time in 40 years.
After playing Ian Beale in the BBC series since 1985 – or about 1748, as he jokes – Adam is starring as Tom Bryce in Shaun McKenna’s world-premiere stage adaptation of Peter James’s crime thriller Looking Good Dead.
His next port of call from Tuesday will be the Grand Opera House, in York, in the wake of earlier conversions from page to stage of James’s Detective Superintendent Roy Grace series, The Perfect Murder and Dead Simple.
Welcome to York, Adam. “I was there last April actually, because I came up to see a friend. First time I’d been there,” he says. “What a lovely city…but sort your roadworks out!
“I went and did some cycling up there on the trans-Pennine route, and I went out and found some lovely woods over to the east of York. Really enjoyed it.”
Adam, 53, is on the second leg of a tour that began last July. “It’s been a lot of fun and we’re still having a lot of laughs,” he says. “You do always get a lot of dark humour out of situations in thrillers!
“As we’ve discovered, people laugh at the weirdest things. We’ll be thinking we’ll get a laugh out of them for something, then we don’t, but then they’ll laugh at something else and you think, ‘they laughed at that?’.”
No good deed goes unpunished in Looking Good Dead, where, hours after finding a discarded USB memory stick, Woodyatt’s Tom Bryce inadvertently becomes a witness to a vicious murder.
Reporting the crime to the police has disastrous consequences, placing him and his family in grave danger. When Detective Superintendent Roy Grace becomes involved, he has his own demons to contend with, while he tries to crack the case in time to save the Bryce family’s lives.
“Tom is a husband, a father, a businessman. It’s a very normal family unit,” says Adam. “The rowing husband and wife! The stroppy teenager! Everyone will be able to identity with that!
“When Tom finds the USB memory stick and tries to do a good deed, it sets off a chain of trouble for him.”
Cue the combination of dark humour and Peter James’s trademark thriller tension. “If you’ve got a comic on stage, he looks for laughs. In this show we’re trying to get gasps, the shock factor, and we do that,” says Adam.
One component has changed since the first leg: Woodyatt is now playing opposite Laurie Brett, who just happened to play wife Jane to his Ian in the bickering Beale couple in EastEnders. “Gaynor Faye did the first leg up until November, but then she had another gig booked, and so Laurie has come in and she’s been brilliant to have in the show,” says Adam.
“It was great working with Gaynor, but there’s no denying there’s a connection with Laurie [who played long-suffering wife Jane from 2004 to 2017 in EastEnders]. Like when she looked in my eyes on stage as if to say, ‘well, that isn’t in the script’ when I’ve said my line!”
Adam recalls last being in a stage play in 1981. “It was On The Razzle at the National Theatre. Yes, I did have a career before soap – though I did start so young in EastEnders. I joined Sylvia Young’s [theatre school] at the age of nine in 1972 and I worked constantly until joining EastEnders in 1984 before the show opened in February 1985,” he says.
Adam, who was honoured in 2013 with the Lifetime Achievement Award and in 2015 with Best Actor at the British Soap Awards, has not cut his ties with the soap. “I haven’t left yet!” he protests.
Ah, but will he be back? “Look, it’s too many things. It isn’t just my decision. It’s their decision too. But there was never a case of ‘I’m leaving’ or ‘You’re leaving’. I just wanted to go off and do this play,” Adam explains.
“I fancied doing something different. Shane Ritchie said how much he’d enjoyed doing Peter James’s Not Dead Enough and The Perfect Murder. I’d looked at the possibility of doing The House On Cold Hill, and then this opportunity came up.”
Adam notes one contrast between working on stage and the small screen. “If you work in TV, you won’t find out if people like it until later, whereas in the theatre, the reaction is immediate,” he says.
“You don’t have a second take, so every show is slightly different, like when someone walks off stage before you deliver a line, or they use a slightly different intonation, or you do. That’s what makes every show unique – and I must admit I love it.
“We’ve had understudies throughout the tour [the ebb and flow of the actor’s Lateral Flow Test life in Covid times], and each actor’s tone or pace can be slightly different, so you have to react to that. That’s live theatre!”
EastEnders may be infamous for its suspenseful finale to each episode but Looking Good Dead has far more! “There are various cliffhanger moments throughout this play. Several you can see coming; some you can’t. It’s fast paced; it’s entertaining. It’s like watching telly for two hours, but on a much wider screen!” says Adam.
Does he have unfulfilled stage ambitions? “I’ve done panto – the last one was at Swindon in 2019 – and it tends to be the more comical baddie that I play, there to have a laugh,” he says. “I keep offering to play dame, and one of these days, I hope they say ‘yes’,” he says.
“Maybe I could play Ugly Sister first. I’ve got someone in mind to do it with before they retire!”
Looking Good Dead runs at Grand Opera House, York, from March 29 to April 2. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/York.
Copyright of The Press, York