On stage for the first time in years in one of London’s most uplifting shows, actor Denis Lawson is enjoying the lighter side of life, finds Caroline Bishop.
Denis Lawson has not played the happiest of characters in his last few television roles. He was eccentric, depressive John Jarndyce in the BBC’s serialisation of Bleak House, a husband struggling with late middle-age in melancholy sitcom Sensitive Skin, and before that, a flamboyant but alcoholic surgeon in hospital soap Holby City. “I think of myself as a light comedian actually,” Lawson smiles. “I don’t really get the opportunity to do that much on television.”
Instead, it is in making his return to the London stage after a 15-year hiatus that he has found the opportunity to indulge his lighter side. La Cage Aux Folles, Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s 1983 colourful comedy musical based on Jean Poiret’s play of a decade earlier, was revived at the Menier Chocolate Factory in the spring of this year and has now transferred to the larger Playhouse theatre, where Lawson joins the cast.
The 61-year-old certainly seems in his element when I meet him in his dressing room in the bowels of the Playhouse. Surfing on an audience reaction that so far has been “a bit like a rock and roll concert, it’s wild”, Lawson is thoroughly enjoying treading the boards in a musical, as he regularly did in his early career in shows including Mr Cinders and Pal Joey, for which he received a Laurence Olivier Award nomination in 1980. “I’ve felt actually very comfortable going back on,” he says chirpily in his charismatic Scottish timbre. “I suppose it’s like riding a bike, you just don’t forget.”
Perhaps it’s his eyebrows – which, darker than his grey hair, give him a certain gravitas – but though Lawson may be starring in a French farce, he is nevertheless playing the straight man. His character Georges is the owner of the St Tropez drag club La Cage Aux Folles, where his long-term lover, Douglas Hodge’s quintessential drama queen Albin, is the star attraction under the stage name Zaza. “He basically runs the club, the nuts and bolts of the club, and his partner Albin is very much the wife, and cooks and keeps everything right,” says Lawson. “He’s a sort of anchor as everything tears around him, in very heightened, crazy fashion, which he’s very used to. And that’s quite a good counter-balance to all the other performances around me.”
“I think of myself as a light comedian actually”
This is the 1970s, and La Cage Aux Folles is a deliciously outrageous haven of self-expression and sexual freedom hidden, behind gaudy pink curtains, from disapproving eyes that, in one touching scene, make Albin fearful of holding his partner’s hand in public. Against this backdrop is a plot instigated by Georges’s 24-year-old son Jean-Michel – “he spent one night with a woman, once, because he was interested to see what it was like” – whom Georges and Albin have raised together. Arriving home to announce he is engaged to the daughter of a staunchly right-wing politician and the future in-laws are coming for dinner, Jean-Michel implores Georges and Albin to pretend to be straight for the night. Reluctantly they agree, and all manner of farcical goings-on ensue as the innately camp Albin first attempts to be a convincing ‘Uncle Al’ before donning twinset and pearls to pass himself off to the conservative in-laws as doting wife and mother – which, of course, he is. Including the showstopping number I Am What I Am – heart-wrenchingly performed by Hodge – the musical is an ode to being yourself which still resonates today, even if times have changed.
“Both Dougie [Hodge] and I have felt this sense of responsibility,” says Lawson, “because gay people are in a very different place now; they can have civil partnerships, they are much more accepted into society than they were in the mid-70s, and I have this feeling that I have a responsibility towards that, not to play some kind of cliché, because I have a feeling that they’ll turn around and say ‘give me a break, that’s not what we are like’.”
So underneath the feathered headdresses and sequined hotpants, and between the high-kicking, bottom-smacking cabaret routines by the club’s dragged-up dancers, La Cagelles, there is a sensitively-drawn portrayal of the relationship between two people who are still in love decades after they first met. “I hope we have chemistry, I think we have,” says Lawson of his onstage partnership with Hodge. “I always want to get on well with my leading lady if I’m playing opposite somebody, and Dougie’s exactly that, he’s my leading lady!”
The show is also about the parent-child relationship, one that Lawson, who has a 29-year-old son Jamie, can identify with. “When he [Jean-Michel] comes back he tells me he’s going to get married – the sense of losing him, the sense of him moving on, that’s very powerful and that I can tap into absolutely,” he says.
“The first bit of directing I ever did… was working with Ewan when he was 15”
Lawson can also recognise the son’s fear of being embarrassed by his father. “Kids don’t want their parents to be different,” says Lawson with a grin crinkling into his face. He relates the time he attended his son’s first musical recital at Westminster School. “At the time I was playing this character on television who had long hair and a beard and an earring. And he [Jamie] said to me, ‘now look, when you come tonight don’t wear the earring’. And I said to him, ‘well, since you’ve asked me, I’m definitely wearing it!’ So I turned up in a very, very good Armani suit, a full-length white coat, and an earring – poor boy!” He breaks off into laughter, a loud, full laugh which frequently punctuates his conversation and fills the small space of his dressing room.
Those days are over; Lawson says his son, who is not an actor himself, is “brilliant” about supporting his career. But another family member has been more directly involved in Lawson’s work in the years since he was last on stage. Ewan McGregor is Lawson’s nephew, and they have twice worked together in the last decade, with Lawson directing him in Little Malcolm And His Struggle Against The Eunuchs at the Hampstead and Comedy theatres, and again in a short television film, Solid Geometry.
“Ewan rang me and said [he] wanted to do a play and would I direct him in a play, and so I found Little Malcolm,” says Lawson about his debut as a stage director. “So that was the kind of kick-off. But I was already there – I’d directed a film [Bass Player] and I was working on another theatrical project when Ewan got in touch with me.”
The two are close; McGregor has previously cited Lawson as his inspiration for pursuing an acting career, and Lawson says he often advised his nephew during his early days as a fledging actor. “In a funny way, the first bit of directing I ever did, I would say, was working with Ewan when he was 15; I just helped him with a couple of speeches to try and get him into a foundation course in Scotland.”
Little Malcolm And His Struggle Against The Eunuchs coincided with McGregor’s appearance in the first of the Star Wars prequels in 1999, something which Lawson evidently didn’t advise his nephew on – the older Scot played Wedge Antilles in the original trilogy but mention of the films provokes a wry smile and “it bores me to death”. However, McGregor’s film-star profile contributed to the production being one of the most sought-after tickets in town.
“I love directing, I’m quite itchy to direct again”
For Lawson, directing the play allowed him another string to his bow which he has since developed further with Solid Geometry on screen and a production of Bill MacIlwraith’s comedy The Anniversary, starring Sheila Hancock, at the Garrick theatre in 2005. “I love directing, I’m quite itchy to direct again actually,” he says. “It took pressure off me as an actor because I felt, well, this isn’t all I do. But also when I’m directing I think, this isn’t all I do. I like variety, I like to do different things and work in different mediums. It can be quite stressful to direct, it really can. But of course I’m very comfortable with my fellow actors, and what I bring to the table as a director is that I am an actor.”
He may not have the stress of directing La Cage Aux Folles – that is left to Terry Johnson – but Lawson does have to cope with performing eight shows a week in a West End musical, something which he says is “pretty well the most physically demanding job you can do as an actor”. However, though it’s been a while since he last subjected himself to the rigours of the stage, Lawson’s recent years as a television actor have hardly been less demanding. His 18-month stint playing surgeon Tom Campbell-Gore in the BBC hospital soap Holby City imposed a head-spinningly tough schedule. “I got a huge amount out of Holby City as an actor and it was a great experience,” says Lawson, before launching into an explanation of the filming process which involves learning up to six scripts at once and shooting four of them simultaneously. “So by the time I hit both Sensitive Skin and Bleak House, I was so in tune and so on the ball; nothing else is ever as much pressure as that. It really helped me a lot.”
Working hard became something of a blessing for him when his wife, the actress Sheila Gish, with whom he had had a 20-year relationship, died of cancer in March 2005 after a long illness. “Around the period where Sheila died I was incredibly busy… and actually in the circumstances it sort of saved my sanity really. I was two days into Bleak House when Sheila died, and so that was an extraordinary job to have, it was like a gift to me. It’s like someone was helping me out, you know,” he pauses, “and so yes, absolutely, work just saved me.”
“She was such an actress, to her bootstraps, Sheila,” he says of his late wife, whose last stage appearance was in The Seagull at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2003. “It was her life, she just lived for it, and she understood where my future was. She would have loved this,” he adds with a smile.
More than three years on and, happily, Lawson has reason to smile again. Not only is he appearing in one of the funniest shows in the West End, but, as he readily points out, he has a lady in his life to share it with who is “fantastic and lovely and it’s been great for me; she’s fabulous”. And they met in a manner that somehow seems wholly appropriate for La Cage Aux Folles. “I met Eleanor at the wrap party for The History Boys movie, because I knew a few of the actors there,” he recalls, “and I danced with this blonde woman who fell on her back and I fell on top of her. I’ve been seeing her for the last three years!” He sits back in his chair as his laugh fills in the air once more.