Best known for his impressions of celebrities and sports stars, Alistair McGowan is once again working with puppets for the first time since his early days on Spitting Image. He can currently be found at the Duke of York's starring alongside a super-sized plastic plant in the Menier Chocolate Factory transfer of Little Shop Of Horrors. McGowan spoke to Matthew Amer before joining the production, and was more worried about dodging a cold than his large rubbery co-star.
"I think it must be similar for the cast involved in the show as it is for everybody watching it," explains Alistair McGowan, nursing a cup of Lemsip. "There must be moments where you think 'Am I actually watching a show about a man-eating plant here?'" But McGowan is not just watching a show about a herbaceous carnivore, he is starring in one.
It is all a bit different from the character comedy for which most of the television-watching nation knows McGowan. The 42 year-old star of The Big Impression has left his multiple celebrity personas behind to play psychotic dentist Orin Scrivello in the Menier Chocolate Factory production of Little Shop Of Horrors, which opened at the Duke of York's on 12 March.
For the well-turned out – suit and open collared shirt – thoroughly amiable McGowan, it was the chance to play someone a little bit nasty that drew him to the role. "The inherent violence of him is something which I'm not used to playing," he explains. "Even in the Big Impression we did a whole swathe of different characters, but the most violent person I ever did was Vinnie Jones, and I only did him sitting down in a bar!" Friends and colleagues have, in the past, suggested that McGowan take on an evil role, yet this is the first chance he has had to sink his teeth into one.
The young McGowan almost didn't make it into the theatrical world. At 14 the sinking of teeth into things fascinated him so much that he set his heart on the life of a dentist. That was until a friend pointed out that at medical school he would have to slice up cadavers – "I'd never heard this word before" – and the self-confessed squeamishness of the actor took over, forcing him to rethink a career manipulating molars.
"Nothing really prepares you for eight shows a week"
The nice thing is, of course, that in playing a dentist in Little Shop Of Horrors, McGowan achieves two ambitions in one go; he finally gets to wear the white coat of dentistry and perform in a West End musical. He is also excited about working with the production team from the Menier Chocolate Factory – where the show originally opened last year – who seem to be turning everything they touch into theatrical gold. Little Shop Of Horrors is the young fringe venue's second West End transfer in two years. The first, Sunday In The Park With George, recently collected five Laurence Olivier Awards.
McGowan is the only new cast member for the transfer, replacing Jasper Britton who played Scrivello at the Menier. While the rest of the cast had weeks of rehearsals and a run at the London Bridge venue to prepare for the West End, McGowan enjoyed three rehearsal days, a technical rehearsal and a dress rehearsal before his role debut. With such a short amount of time to prepare, he took the decision to see the show and get an idea of the character he needed to create. For someone who has made his living watching people and impersonating them, this could have been a recipe for dishing up a Britton-alike performance. McGowan admits that he was worried this could have been the case, but found he had his own view on the role, which, when I talk to him, is shrouded in secrecy.
He also has his own view on the show, saying it is "quintessentially a lot of fun… but there is meaning there if you want to wrestle it". The meaning he talks about is the Faustian 'pact with the devil' or, in this case, pact with a blood-thirsty bush that brings you celebrity but also enjoys chowing down on heaps of haemoglobin. He also points out that from his point of view as a committed environmentalist, there is a second reading that warns about the idea of toying with the environment. As he phrases it: "mess with nature; nature will get its revenge".
At this point in proceedings, McGowan gives away the romantic side of his nature, as the conversation moves from flesh-hungry flora to the love story at the centre of Little Shop, and one song in particular: "I do think that Suddenly Seymour is one of the most romantic songs in any musical: suddenly this man will change her life, suddenly everything will be alright again for her because he’s there standing beside her. I don't know if it's played at weddings, but if I was the sort of person who wanted to play a naff song at a wedding I'd choose that one, I think… if I was marrying someone called Seymour… which is unlikely."
"I used to get very annoyed because people would say 'Can you act as well?'"
McGowan's sentences are frequently punctuated by a sniff which, in the echoing surrounds of the Menier's rehearsal room, perched atop the theatre overlooking the railway line, resounds. With Lemsip in hand he is fending off a springtime cold as best he can. It is probably the last thing he needs, as the last four months has taught McGowan that you can't afford to be feeling under the weather when you are performing in a musical.
This lesson was learnt at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, where he was performing alongside Haydn Gwynne, Scarlett Strallen, Dame Judi Dench and Simon Callow in Merry Wives – The Musical, his first taste of professional musical theatre. "Nothing really prepares you for eight shows a week," he admits. The physicality, athleticism and stamina needed to perform a musical for a lengthy run entirely took him by surprise, while his body changed shape and his chest became sore between December and February under the exertion he was placing on it. The experienced cast around him offered advice about early nights and correct times to eat, but the phrase that sticks most in his mind came from Callow. In the retelling, McGowan, as one would expect, takes on the thespian's recognisable tones: "If one is doing a play and one is slightly tired, you can always get away with it, but with a musical you can't, because you have to go on stage and you have to blaze."
As an introduction to musical theatre, McGowan found Merry Wives – The Musical "immensely fulfilling and challenging". From the cast's point of view, the production was strong, the music was wonderful and they were turning in impressive performances. The critics, however, didn't warm to it, which took everyone by surprise and knocked the stuffing out of McGowan. "We had a very difficult two weeks when the reviews came out," he says, though he didn't read them himself. "You become aware because people started to tell you or look at the floor when they walked past you in the street, or people outside the stage door go 'those reviewers don't know what they're talking about, we thought it was really good.' We got the message that people didn't like it in the press."
It was a message that clearly still wrangles with McGowan, who is the first to admit that he is a bit of a perfectionist. Like the sportsmen he is famous for impersonating, there is a hint of competitive spirit about McGowan. The upset he feels at Merry Wives not receiving the critical response that he thought it worthy of is akin to the loss seen on the faces and heard in the speech of sport's losing finalists. He clearly likes to always give his best, and enjoys the feeling of winning and success.
There is this same mixture of anger, frustration and disappointment when he talks about detective series Mayo, which he filmed for the BBC. He was employed to play the eponymous detective with a quirky line in sarcasm and correct use of English, though if what he says about the production process is true, he ended up, along with three of the other main protagonists – Huw Rees, Loo Brealey and Jessica Oyelowo – adding to the script or entirely rewriting it. It took until the end of the series for the cast and production team to really get to grips with the characters and relationships, by which time the BBC had decided not to commission a second series. "It didn't get enough ratings apparently," says McGowan, with that sting still hiding in the lower reaches of his voice. "People were confused by it. But I think it had real potential and I really liked that character."
"I look at men with moustaches in a different light now"
There are also no plans for a new series of The Big Impression, though a one-off may be in the pipeline. Fans of McGowan's impersonating abilities will just have to interview him, as in just 30 minutes I am also treated to an uncanny Martin O'Neill [Aston Villa manager] and Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon playwright), with whom McGowan used to play tennis. The BBC's support of Dead Ringers over The Big Impression is another topic that wrangles with the actor, as is the assumption that he is an impressionist, not an actor.
His natural ability may be for canny impersonations of other celebrities, but McGowan trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and is quickly building up a long and credible list of acting roles, including Bleak House for the BBC and Endgame, Kafka's Dick and The Government Inspector on stage. "When we did the impression show, I used to get very annoyed," he says, "because people would say 'Can you act as well? Are you thinking of doing any acting?' You'd think 'What do you think we're doing now?' The sketches were about acting the impression. And they'd say 'But it's an impression!' But you look at the last three years' Oscar and BAFTA winners, male and female, they've nearly all been people doing real life characters, which is an impression. Forest Whitaker [Idi Amin in The Last King Of Scotland written by Peter Morgan] this year, before that there was Jamie Foxx doing Ray and there was Cate Blanchett doing Katherine Hepburn, Helen Mirren playing the Queen. So it shows what a difficult thing it is actually to do an impression and to act as well. It's the ultimate thing, because you're judged by something. If you get it wrong, people go 'It's wrong.'"
McGowan doesn't like not doing well; he wants to be a winner. Who doesn't? Behind the disappointment at the critical reception for Merry Wives – The Musical and the BBC not giving Mayo a chance to grow with a second series, there lies the nagging doubt that maybe they could have been better or tighter, and that possibly it wasn't McGowan's own best work. The first time he felt he performed his main Merry Wives number perfectly was in the very last performance. Being a perfectionist will leave you with that nagging sense of self-doubt.
His real ire is saved for one thing only, moustaches. Having grown one for Merry Wives – The Musical to infuse his character with glumness, he had to keep it for three tortuous months. "I look at men with moustaches in a different light now," he says seriously, but with a hint of a smile. "It's just really in the way of most pleasures of life; eating, kissing, breathing… those sorts of things. The show finished at 22:30 on Saturday 10 February, and it [the moustache] was off by 22:31!"
A final swig of Lemsip, a tale about asking Tim Henman how many languages he could say 'Deuce' in and a very clean shaven McGowan is off to perfect the art of sadistic dentistry.