Interview with actor, Sean McKenzie by Nigel Powlson
As a long-time fan of playwright Jim Cartwright, Derbyshire actor Sean McKenzie is delighted to be enjoying a double helping of his work.
Sean recently played Ray Say in Cartwright’s most celebrated play, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough – the seaside resort where the movie version with Michael Caine in the same role was filmed.
And now Sean takes on multiple roles in TWO, another telling slice of life from Cartwright that brings the actor back to his home county and his beloved Derby Theatre.
Sean says: “When I went to RADA, Jim Cartwright was the name on everyone’s lips and I went to see the very first preview of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice at the National Theatre with the great Pete Postlethwaite playing Ray Say and Jane Horrocks and Alison Steadman. That play spoke volumes to me as I knew that world very well, so playing Ray Say last summer, and meeting Jim, was absolutely wonderful. He’s a warm man who writes about hard issues and topics with great truth.
“When I first saw Little Voice all those years ago I thought to myself that I would love to play Ray Say one day, but I had to wait 25 years to be old enough, and gain the experience you need as well. It was a wonderful production in the round and I loved playing Ray, as he’s a bit of chameleon and you have to show all the sides to him. It’s also a darker play than people think. The moment it won the Best Comedy award it was then often played largely for laughs, but it’s also a terribly dark play in reality. It’s funny because it is dark, not because it’s farcical – and that’s what TWO is like as well.”
In fact, Sean hopes that audiences who saw the Derby Theatre production of Little Voice in 2014 will also be eager for a second slice of Cartwright and he believes that TWO is just as good.
He says: “I know Little Voice is Jim’s most famous piece but TWO is a really brilliant play, and I’m always surprised it’s not done more often. It’s the rhythm of his writing, there’s a poetry, a
musicality to it and it’s a very northern voice. For me being a working class northern boy, Jim’s work is ingrained in me.”
TWO is set in a pub with Sean and Jo Mousley playing the publicans and a string of other characters as well. The audience will feel like customers eavesdropping on the bar talk thanks to the way the auditorium will be used.
Sean says: “It’s set in 1989 and having seen a model of the set I know it will really capture that dilapidated late 80s lounge bar feel. They will bring the set forward right into row D of the auditorium, giving people the chance to sit within the parameters of the bar. Hopefully we can have some fun with that. The landlord speaks directly to the audience and I will really be able to get amongst the people, and I love that kind of thing.”
Sean will take on six different roles, a challenge he believes suits his talents. “I think one of the reasons I have been able to have a good career is that I can adapt physically and vocally with only a slight bit of a costume change, such as a hat or a scarf. I’m wary of making these huge changes that you see sometimes. I don’t want to get too bogged down in costumes and voices and things like that – subtle shifts of character are more important for a play like this.
“I’m a great believer in what the playwright’s written. So much of the work has already been done and if you are honest and truthful to the playwright’s intentions, then you find those characters without changing your voice or body that much. You want the audience’s imaginations to do some work as well and that’s what’s brilliant about this play – you might have one line as one character and with barely a beat or pause you are into another one, so there’s isn’t always time for grand costume changes and it has to be about the truth of what you are saying.”
In any two-hander, the chemistry with your co-performer is all important.
Sean says: “It’s about mutual trust, enjoying each other’s work and looking after each other as the job’s hard enough without not being able to get on and do it properly.”
The other big attraction for Sean is that this production brings him back home to a venue he knows well and gives him a chance to work with Derby Theatre’s Artistic Director Sarah Brigham.
“I have known Sarah since she first came to the Theatre and we chatted about Derby and its audience and what she has done for the venue has been amazing but I have never had a chance to work with her until now, so I’m delighted.”
Although he hasn’t worked with Sarah before, Sean’s relationship with the building goes back more than two decades.
“It’s almost 22 years to the day when I start work on TWO to when I did Alan Ayckbourn’s Time of My Life directed by Robin Herford,” he says. “Every show I have done in Derby since, I have absolutely loved.
“On the Piste (2001) was one of those shows that seems to live long in people’s memories and people still come up to me and talk about it now, even though it is the best part of 20 years. I have really fond memories of that show and Up ‘n’ Under.
“Then more recently it was The Snow Queen and playing Toad in The Wind in the Willows, which was fantastic, although I lost two stone in 12 weeks!
“It’s just a great space to work in and the audiences have always been really kind to me there.”
In between the Jim Cartwrights Sean has been playing the dame in the Theatr Clywd panto for the second year in a row.
He says: “It was one of these things I always wanted to do so when I got the chance I grabbed it with both hands. And it seems the frock fits rather well!
“I approached the dame like any other part and researched it properly. I have done panto before and have never been frightened of talking to audiences. I have been lucky that they have always seemed to take to me. Growing up in the variety world, maybe I have always had that bit of a twinkle in my eye or something in my heart and soul.
“For me playing the dame is as a big a role as playing Hamlet or Ray Say. It’s so firmly entrenched in our theatre traditions and someone told me that as soon as you put the frock on you never want to take it off and they are right!
“I had to follow a guy who had done the dame role for 15 years, so it was a big deal trying to win over that audience, and I was delighted that I was able to do it and that they wanted me back.
“It’s 84 shows – one of the longest runs of any pantos in the country. All the costumes and everything are done in-house. It looks fantastic and it’s a rock ‘n’ roll panto so you have to sing, dance and act and I have been losing weight, which is good, as I want to be fit for TWO.”
Sean was busy learning the script for TWO in between panto performances as he only had a two week gap between Sleeping Beauty closing and rehearsals starting in Derby.
He says: “There’s a lot of dialogue to learn so that’s what I have been doing when I have had any free time. Three weeks rehearsal and then all guns blazing.”
But Sean will now finally be able to enjoy some time at home in Derbyshire.
He says: “My family, my wife Heidi and my two boys, Jude and Gabe, have had to spend a lot of time without me for the last six or seven years and have been so supportive so it will be really nice to finally be working at home for the first time since The Wind in the Willows (in 2010).
“It’s also a real honour to be doing this play, to be working with Sarah and to be back In Derby.”
Sean had talked to Sarah about coming back to Derby Theatre before, but long engagements with War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time have kept him busy and on the road.
He says: “Sarah has really brought the venue back to life and it’s in a terrific place. I’m so excited, and also a little bit nervous, as I don’t want to let anyone down. I’m very passionate about getting this right and to give everyone a great night out.”