After years away from the stage developing his film and TV career, Mark Addy has returned to the theatre, making his commercial West End debut at the Comedy theatre in a farcical play about a university reunion, Michael Frayn’s Donkeys’ Years. The bearded Yorkshireman tells Caroline Bishop that it was all part of a 10-year plan…
He’s been Heath Ledger’s buddy, Guy Pearce’s faithful friend, David Haig’s policeman partner and, most famously, was roped into stripping in front of a room full of screaming women by Robert Carlyle. It’s fair to say Mark Addy has often played the solid, reliable “best friend of the main guy” during his TV and film career of the last 10 years. The role of Kenneth Snell in Michael Frayn’s farce Donkeys’ Years is not exactly a departure. Snell is the one everyone forgot, the one who got left off the list, the boring, unattractive one. But this time, the underdog has a triumph of sorts. “The worm turns and he becomes King Kong!” says Addy. It’s always the quiet ones.
Set in an Oxbridge college, Donkeys’ Years centres on a group of middle-aged former students who return for a reunion and discover that none of them has really changed in 25 years. After copious amounts of drink, the men succumb to their inner debauched student, except for Snell, who never really had one in the first place. “For a fleeting moment he believes that this is what he missed and he wants to try and grab that time back,” says Addy, slurping a coffee in his dressing room at the Comedy. “He has a little bit of a mental breakdown, asks for a mature studentship and wants to marry the master’s wife. He goes raging round the place trying to tear people’s heads off. So it’s a lot of fun!”
Donkeys’ Years is something of a reunion for Addy too, as he is working with several people he has collaborated with before – director Jeremy Sams, who directed him in Wild Oats at the National in 1995, and two of his The Thin Blue Line co-stars, David Haig and James Dreyfus. As this is his first stage outing for a decade, having friends around must make life easier for him. “It’s easy because you know each other, you’re not trying to impress each other, there’s no ego nonsense going on. Part of the job is making a fool of yourself and it’s easier to do that in front of people you know,” he says.
Though it’s a comedy – which descends into outright farce in the second act – Donkeys’ Years does provide some brain-fodder, too. “The play is about identity as well,” says Addy. “Are we the people we thought we were going to be when we were at university? Have we failed in what our aspirations were? Have we gone beyond that? If a guy is holding a responsible position, he’s a Member of Parliament [like Haig’s character Headingley], does that make him a different person? You’ve gone your separate ways but you’re on a level playing field, you’ve reverted back to your old selves again.”
"Part of the job is making a fool of yourself and it’s easier to do that in front of people you know"
It’s quite an appropriate theme for Addy, who is doing a spot of reverting himself – after years doing TV and film, his career has now come back around to the theatre, where he started out. “I reminded Michael Simkins [David Buckle in Donkeys’ Years] the other day that I was in the flies when he was performing in Dick Whittington in 1979, so that was a shock for him!” he laughs. That was back in his pre-drama school days, when acting was just a twinkle in Addy’s eye – instead of being on stage, he was behind it as a stagehand at York Theatre Royal, in his home town. “I started backstage, was watching actors work night in, night out, seeing how performances changed and how audiences altered performances and how it all worked, and that fascinated me,” he says.
His move into acting began when the actress Imelda Staunton, performing in Grease at the theatre, gave the young Addy the address of her old drama school – RADA. He applied, got in and returned to work at York Theatre Royal after graduation, this time as an actor. Despite this providing ample opportunity for his old crew to rib him about being on stage in breeches and a wig, starting at the bottom rung of the ladder made Addy “appreciate what’s involved.” He adds: “If I hadn’t have gone to drama school I might have been looking at set design or something on the creative side of it.”
There followed many years on stage at York Theatre Royal, Hull Truck Theatre Company under John Godber and West Yorkshire Playhouse, plus several appearances at the National Theatre, in Wild Oats and The Shaughraun among other things. However, Addy found his profile wasn’t high enough to land him a commercial West End show. “I could quite happily play big parts in the provinces or on tour but as soon as the show came to the West End they wanted to have someone from the telly or a name that people would be familiar with,” he says. So, after discussing it with his agent, he made the conscious decision to put theatre on hold and try to raise his profile through TV work. Godber then recommended him to the producers of The Full Monty, and that film was to become his lucky break.
"It was a very drunken morning. You take your clothes off, throw them on the floor, then you have to put them back on again"
“When you’re starting out, theatre, television and film are three completely separate entities and it’s hard to cross over from one to the other,” says Addy. “You need a kind of breakthrough role; you need to be lucky and you need to be offered the right part and take that opportunity at the right time. A lot of things need to come into alignment in order for that to happen, and that’s what happened with me with The Full Monty.”
Since then Addy has appeared in films such as Around The World In 80 Days, A Knight’s Tale, The Flintstones In Viva Rock Vegas and The Time Machine. But none of these were huge box office hits, and The Full Monty remains the film he is most known for. In this britflick about six out-of-work northerners who turn to stripping, Addy plays Dave, the cuddly, insecure guy who poignantly wraps his stomach in clingfilm in an attempt to look slimmer. The strip scene at the end was terrifying, he says, and though he laughs, I get the feeling it was a pretty uncomfortable experience for him personally, as it would be for anyone with a less than Chippendale-esque physique – Addy still retains the rotund figure that was essential for the part of Dave. “It was a very drunken morning. You take your clothes off, throw them on the floor, then you have to put them back on again. It was a horrible, miserable experience, over and over. It went on and on and on.” Nevertheless, that scene is, as he says, “celluloid history”.
This, and subsequent film roles, caught the eye of American producers, who signed him up to play blue-collar family man Bill Miller, the lead role in US sitcom Still Standing. He has played the part for the last four years and it has been an interesting experience, he says. “They have the sitcom thing down over there. You do 24 episodes a year, and it’s a bit like a factory, a machine churning out these shows, but a well-oiled machine. They know what they’re doing, they get it on, get it made.” The show was a hit in the States, and Addy would be happy to go back and do more, if another series were to be commissioned. “It’s big business, it’s all about money,” he says. “I would never have committed to a show knowing it was going to go four years. You say yes to 11 days on a pilot, and if you’re lucky maybe they will buy six episodes. But it kept growing and growing and in the end we did 88.”
"They’re ruining a perfectly good language but what can
Though he spent seven months of each of those four years living in LA for the show, Addy remains a Yorkshireman through and through. He enjoyed his time over there, made some good friends and liked the weather, but his hesitation on the subject suggests a tactful avoidance of his less than favourite things about the US. “You can’t ask for water,” he laughs finally, implying his Yorkshire accent was something of a stumbling block for the natives. “They’re ruining a perfectly good language but what can you do?!”
Good timing made Donkeys’ Years the play that would mark his return to the stage after so long on the telly. In February this year he had just finished filming the fourth series of Still Standing when Sams’s production came up. Feeling he should take the plunge back into theatre “before it gets too scary”, Addy went for the role of Welsh parasite researcher Snell. “You know, at 42 I think it’s time to make your West End debut,” he chuckles.
So, 10 years after he left the theatre, profile now sufficiently raised, Addy has come full circle. “It’s kind of worked!” he laughs. What comes next after this job finishes, he’s not sure. His career ambitions seem particularly modest, however. “I’d like to play some kind of villain,” he says. Any particular? He pauses, pondering. “One with a big hat would do – I don’t know why.”