Karl Theobald is an intriguing character. Over the past six years he has gone from struggling actor and touring stand up comedian to starring in one of Britain's few acclaimed new television comedy shows – Channel 4's Green Wing – and being offered a part in a West End farce, Donkeys' Years. Yet the monumental climb to even greater success seems ever so slightly lost on him, as Matthew Amer found out.
"It's odd, because only in comparison with the past can I know what it's like being me at the moment. Compared to the past it's fantastic being me at the moment, but compared to the moment, it's alright," Theobald laughs, while his philosophical deconstruction of what it is like to be him at the moment slowly sinks in. The answer is quite typical of the actor who is thoughtful in the extreme; almost every question prompting the exploration of an idea. This particular thought leads him the way of ambition and satisfaction: "I wonder what it would ever be like and if there is anyone in the world that's gone 'I've achieved that, I can stop now'. What would you do if you stopped? Life surely is about little minor achievements, whether it's getting the washing done or a Hollywood career."
For Theobald, it seems, starring in the West End is great, but now he has achieved it the niggle of needing a new challenge is gnawing at him, which is odd for a man whose reaction to a job offer can be summed up in a heavy sigh. "Almost any job I'm offered, my heart sinks. I'm completely the antithesis of most actors who just want to work. Any job I'm offered I think 'Errrr, do I want to do that? I quite like hanging out and just listening to music," he says, again laughing at the thoughts that flow forth from him.
"It’s like Jenga; you take one piece out and it will all fall apart."
Theobald has joined the cast of Donkeys' Years following the departure of original member Mark Addy; Theobald replaces him as Snell. Coming in midway through the run and taking over in a role that has already been created has proved testing for the naturally creative Theobald, who would normally want to leave much more of his own mark on it. "You come in and you want to involve your own creativity," he says, "but then you have to make sure that you don't completely rearrange everything because it will completely f**k up the other actors."
Michael Frayn’s Donkeys' Years is a farce about a college reunion that takes a few unexpected twists and turns. Having opened at the Comedy in May, it proved such a hit that it has extended its run until December. "It's really tightly put together," reveals Theobald. "It's like Jenga; you take one piece out and it will all fall apart." With that in mind, shaping his role was even more difficult. Although director Jeremy Sams allowed him some leeway, it was a case of mixing it up within a defined structure. Again Theobald's roving thoughts start to flow: "I guess it's like having a house and taking out a door. Jeremy is saying 'Don't worry because you can have any door you like, I don’t mind.' Then you turn up with some French windows and go 'that doesn't fit, does it? When you said I could have any door I like, you meant as long as it fits.' I think what he means is the colour of the door. I’m getting really carried away with this door metaphor; I like it." Apparently, this was also the case with Theobald's accent; he could choose any he wanted, "as long as it’s Welsh".
It's strange; a lot of what Theobald says suggests that actually he's not very happy. But it seems that it is just his way. He comes across as someone who can look forward and back with great pleasure, but the present is just somewhere to be at the moment. Among the um-ing and ah-ing, to-ing and fro-ing, he allows himself to be drawn on his opinion of the play, and although he admits he would like to tweak one or two of the jokes, he is almost shockingly effusive, referring to Michael Frayn as a "living legend" and describing the play as "better than Fawlty Towers. I wouldn't say it's cooler than Fawlty Towers, I just think if you think Fawlty Towers is good because of the strands and the plots and all the different routes it takes and the layers, then I think this is like a heady Fawlty Towers." High praise indeed, especially from one more naturally aligned with playing something down than praising it.
Theobald is quite a relaxed soul. In his dressing room at the Comedy theatre he sits with his right leg lolling over the side of the chair. Beside him is a bookcase, empty bar a professional looking camera and a pair of cycling clips. While he ponders, he strokes the grey flecked beard grown especially for the role. Talk of the last job he took before joining Donkeys' Years, however, does make him uptight; it was not one of his favourites: "I just did a horrible corporate video for Lloyds; that's probably not a very good advertisement, but stuff 'em." The joy of talking into a camera about gold accounts and interest rates was lost on him.
"Being outrageous is not a substitute for just being funny"
The professional career of Karl Theobald began when he graduated from the Drama Centre and worked with Complicite, but it was in the field of comedy, not drama, that he excelled. Hit shows at the Edinburgh Festival led on to touring as a stand up comedian and writing for the BAFTA-winning The Sketch Show. The stand up in him still threatens to rear its head when he is on stage. The urge to play with the audience wells up inside him, especially when, during Donkeys' Years, he has a small speech to give. The logical side of his brain has so far managed to rein him in at this point, as "the other actors wouldn't be too happy at all about it, and maybe quite rightly so."
His big break which, if it fits with the pattern of Theobald's other professional choices, he probably tried to dismiss out of hand before finally seeing it as a challenge and accepting the job, came in 2003, when he won a part in new Channel 4 comedy Green Wing. The hospital-set sitcom pushed the boundaries of bizarreness and taste, and added a plot to a programme that had the feel of a sketch show about it. It was both critically acclaimed and loved by the public, making stars of its cast. Some of the show's twists and turns – mother/son incest, seducing patients in a coma – ran the risk of being deemed too outrageous by mild-mannered souls and Channel 4 lawyers. Talk of treading this fine line tickles Theobald's philosophical bone again.
"I think that being outrageous is not a substitute for just being funny," he says as he considers what makes him laugh. "There are just moments, things that happen in a situation. Those little moments in life that surprise you with a ridiculous event." As if on cue, the shade falls off his lamp with a stifled thump. It had been held on by Blu Tack. "That’s so degrading", he sulks.
"I think what makes me laugh," says Theobald, picking up his train of thought, "is people improvising a song and dance in a very inappropriate moment. I think that makes me laugh. Especially if it was done with full earnestness. But it's got to be improvised."
After hearing about Theobald's borderline love/hate/ambivalent relationship with the industry he joined it's tempting to ask why. The answer that would come back is that this is what he does; he couldn't work in an office just as he couldn't play football for England, he doesn't have the ability to do it.
Then it's time for one final ponderation: "I guess it's worth it," he says, considering his life as an actor again. "I don’t know. It depends what you compare it to, and unfortunately you don't have the ability to compare it to anything other than our own life; what we hope the future to be and what the past was. Wow, that's getting philosophical.” Getting?