As he returns to the London stage in Irish production Rank, Matthew Amer talks to Dubliner-turned-Londoner Bryan Murray about dodgy characters and never feeling settled.
“We get rain in Dublin, but this is ridiculously heavy rain.” Bryan Murray is stuck in traffic, being assaulted by an unnaturally ferocious storm on his way to a meeting. As scenarios go, this sounds like one of everyday life’s most depressing, akin to waking up in the morning to discover you have no hot water, the milk is off and your only slice of bread has gone mouldy.
Yet Murray has not a hint of frustration, anger or depression in his voice. In fact, if I didn’t know better, I could imagine him walking through a sunlit meadow while rabbits hopped playfully around his feet, such is his cheeriness. As a performer, he is going through what he calls a “good period”, which he is relishing. “Actors don’t go through that all the time, we go up and down like a helter skelter.”
This good period sees the former star of Brookside, Bread and The Irish RM currently appearing in Irish soap opera Fair City. In addition to being Ireland’s most popular home-grown soap opera, the job allows him some much appreciated artistic flexibility. As a result he has starred in three stage productions this year, the latest being Rank, which transfers to the Tricycle theatre in November.
“When I read it, the dialogue leapt off the page,” Murray says of playwright Robert Massey’s darkly comic thriller. “It was really refreshing, almost like a Quentin Tarantino for the stage… almost. [It has a] sort of dark menace for these dark menacing times.”
This is lucky, as it could have been very different and very messy. Murray became connected with the project after seeing a production of Massey’s first play Deadline in which some of his friends were performing. In the bar afterwards he chatted to the playwright and before he knew it had offered to read Massey’s then unfinished new play. As the words passed his lips, Murray began to worry about what he might have let himself in for; would the second play live up to the promise of the first, or would Murray have to choose his words very tactfully. When the script arrived, however, he was quick to ring the young playwright and insist on being involved.
“It was really refreshing, almost like a Quentin Tarantino for the stage”
Rank sees Murray play Jack Farrell, an unsavoury casino owner with a couple of irritating problems. He has a bag of ill-gotten cash that needs collecting and a pair of taxi drivers who owe him money. The answer seems simple, the cabbies can pay off their debt by getting drawn into the crime caper and delivering the money. But do they want to cross that line?
It is not the first time that Murray has taken on a character of questionable morality. His long-running character in 80s comedy behemoth Bread, Shifty Boswell, was a career criminal, while the part for which he is probably most famous to UK audiences, that of Trevor Jordache in long-running Liverpudlian soap opera Brookside, abused both his wife and his daughter before coming to an unpleasant end and famously disappearing beneath Liverpool’s most notorious patio.
“It was, I think, the last great hurrah of soaps providing a kind of platform for a hitherto un-discussed public topic,” Murray says of his time in the Channel 4 ratings winner. “We hadn’t brought domestic violence out from the closet yet at that stage. Now I think we’ve discussed everything, practically, in soaps. But then, to bring that out into the open air was a pretty major thing.”
In preparation for the harrowing storyline, Murray and co-star Sandra Maitland visited women’s refuges, speaking to both those running them and those using them to escape abusive relationships. Any thoughts Murray had about the actions of his character being excessive and over-exaggerated for the sake of television were swiftly dispelled. “That was an eye-opener for me,” he states humbly.
The Dublin of Rank, and the Dublin in which Murray currently spends the majority of his time, is very different to the city in which Murray grew up in the 1950s and 60s. “It now has these communities in the outlying areas outside of the city,” Murray says with a touch of wonder in his voice, “that have these fantastic theatres, really, really fabulous venues, and they’re right in the middle of working class areas, some of them.” Murray knows, as these are the theatres that Rank has been filling recently. “The people that are coming in are not people that would travel in to the Gate theatre to see me in The Deep Blue Sea, for example.”
“This is quite clearly where my roots are, but it’s not the same place that I grew up in and left in the 70s”
Having moved to London as a young performer, then hopped over the Atlantic to pursue a career in the States before returning to England, he has found, with his return to his native city, that the old rock ‘n’ roll adage might well be correct: “You can never go home again. Once you’ve left somewhere you’re no longer of it. This is quite clearly where my roots are, but it’s not the same place that I grew up in and left in the 70s. It has its new personality; I still recognise it, but it surprises me which, I suppose, is a good thing.”
In his broad, lilting Irish accent, Murray says he always knew that he would end up in London, something drew him here. The vastness and anonymity of the English capital was a stark contrast to the Dublin in which he grew up, “where the woman that you met on the street yesterday lived across the road from the man who used to work with your Dad”. London, with its many faces and “unsentimental heart”, is where Murray felt and feels most at ease.
Yet there is a sense about Murray that he is a bit of a wanderer, never entirely at ease in one place or state for too long. He admits that “I’ve always been willing to try different things, not to settle; [I like] that sense of not letting it settle, of it being always in a state of becoming, rather than actually being.”
Having built a career in Britain through stage work and appearances on shows such as Bread and Brookside, he moved his family to America to build a career over there. While he wouldn’t change the experience, it was not long before he felt the pull of London again. “I couldn’t find anything there that related to my sensibility”, he says of the US. “I found the culture to be much more alien than I would have imagined moving to the Middle East would have been, for example, or to Alaska, or to wherever. I found it completely alien.”
While America may not have been conducive to his state of mind as an adult, the Dublin of the 60s and 70s was not the easiest place for an aspiring actor. “I’m from good working class Dublin stock,” Murray explains, “and my Mum gave me the advice that a lot of good Dublin Mums would give, which was: ‘You can be an actor, whatever that is – we don’t know those people and we’ve never even met one – but you’ve got to have something to fall back on.’”
“The noble profession that I feel that I’m so lucky to have been a part of is something that’s being lost over time in this culture of distraction that we live in now”
He received a grounding as an electrician – fixing lights, rather than seeing his name in them – but also pursued his dream at the only place he could, Dublin’s Abbey theatre. It was there he learned his trade, spending seven years working on its stage before making the transition to London. His face might be best known for its screen appearances, but theatre is very much where Murray, the actor, was born, and where his heart will always be.
“I was like the Cheshire Cat for the month,” he says, describing his time in Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea earlier this year. “When you do theatre, you realise that’s why you came into the business really.” What screen acting lacks, and what really seems to spark Murray’s imagination, is the immediacy of theatre and the interactivity with the audience. “That’s why Dylan goes on the road, I’m sure, on the never ending tour,” he suggests, giving away the 70s rock ‘n’ roll roots which influenced him, he says, almost as much as acting.
The interactivity, the need to react, the wish to fit each performance to a particular audience; it all fits together with Murray’s need for an evolving, never-too-stable state. “You don’t want to settle, you have to be on your toes, waiting for the new atmosphere, the new audience. I don’t think a good play, a good production should ever settle.”
This is one of the reasons he is so excited about bringing Rank, which until now has only been seen in Dublin, to London’s Tricycle theatre and a brand new audience. “We share the same language, sort of, and we have the same kind of outlook, sort of, but there are fundamental differences and it will be interesting to see how they show up in reaction to the play.”
Once his time at the Tricycle has passed, it will be back to Ireland for the Londonphile Dubliner, to continue recording Fair City and to explore the possibility of more of his beloved stage work. And though his good period shows no sign of ending and he sounds happier than a cabbie who has just found out he doesn’t have to work for a criminal boss, there is a little niggle that sneaks out. Like the Dublin he grew up in and the rock ‘n’ roll scene he enjoyed in his formative years, the profession he strove to join has changed. While he is all for progression, evolving and not remaining static, change is not always for the good: “The satisfaction that’s to be got and the noble profession that I feel that I’m so lucky to have been a part of is something that’s being lost over time in this culture of distraction that we live in now. It would be nice, in my time, to see actors being appreciated again.”