Little Britain’s Matt Lucas talks to Matthew Amer about toning down his performances for Prick Up Your Ears and trying to work with the best.
Matt Lucas is inextricably linked to big, bold, eccentric characters; Little Britain’s PVC-clad only gay in the village Daffyd, Toad Of Toad Hall, his recent role as Dongalor in BBC/Comedy Central fantasy comedy Krod Mandoon And The Flaming Sword Of Fire. So it is a little surprising to find that his current role, portraying Kenneth Halliwell in new play Prick Up Your Ears, has him toning down his performance.
“Kenneth was, at times, exuberant and big,” says Lucas, who is talking to me from Brighton, where he is on tour prior to the show’s West End opening. “He spoke in a slightly eccentric way and had a Northern accent. That’s something I’ve chosen not to do in this play because I was worried that it would create a bit of distance between me and the role, and people might start thinking I was trying to be funny.”
Though he may be best known for his comic turns, Prick Up Your Ears finds Lucas trying to stretch himself dramatically. There is the sense in his chat that he has deliberately set out to challenge himself with this choice of project and that, while not leaving exuberant comedy behind, he hopes to surprise audiences with a very different type of performance.
It would, he says, have been the easy choice to have taken a role in a big musical production, playing to large houses every night and filling the space with one of his quirky characters, “but it wouldn’t be as interesting,” he says. “Doing something like this there’s no place to hide; it’s so far removed from anything I’ve done before.”
Though it is, as he says, a very different type of role for Lucas, there are similarities with previous projects. It is not, for example, the first time he has played a character from the realms of reality. In 2002, he portrayed 1980s performance artist Leigh Bowery in Boy George’s musical Taboo, so he is already aware of the pitfalls and dangers that come with that territory: “The woman doing my make up every night was Leigh Bowery’s sister-in-law and lived in his old flat. He’d only died seven years earlier, so I was very aware of a level of respect that you had to have towards the role and a level of authenticity that was important. With this, it’s slightly different. We have the freedom to do interpretation and the knowledge that not too many people are going to pick you up on ‘he wasn’t exactly like that’. It means you can make it work from a dramatic perspective.”
“Doing something like this there’s no place to hide”
Prick Up Your Ears, which is written by Simon Bent and based on both playwright Joe Orton’s diaries and John Lahr’s biography of Orton, tells the intriguing story of Orton and Halliwell, a tale of friends and lovers, both RADA graduates who dreamt of setting the world alight with their plays. But when Orton’s fame grew and he left Halliwell trailing in his wake, the relationship took a dysfunctional turn, resulting in Halliwell bludgeoning Orton to death in 1967 before taking his own life.
Forty years on, says Lucas, the world is ready to re-evaluate the crime, to understand more about their co-dependant relationship, to take into account Halliwell’s depression and, most importantly, to see what brought them together in the first place and made them lovers.
“When you see the film of Prick Up Your Ears,” he says, referring to the 1987 Stephen Frears-directed movie starring Gary Oldman as Orton and Alfred Molina as Halliwell, “it’s not always clear why the two of them are together. Most people who knew Joe and Kenneth remember Kenneth as a curmudgeon at best. So one of the aims of the play is to show things before they turned bad, so you have an understanding of why these two people were together.” To do so, the cast have spoken to those who knew the two men, including Orton’s sister, actor Kenneth Cranham and theatre producer Thelma Holt. “With the passing of time,” says Lucas, “they are not as angry as they were with Kenneth and are able to talk about some of the good times, some of what the two saw in each other when they first met.”
Opposite Lucas, Chris New portrays Orton, the playwright who wrote Entertaining Mr Sloane, Loot and What The Butler Saw before his untimely death. Though less well known than his co-star, New was one of the reasons Lucas was eager to pursue the project. He had seen the young actor make his West End debut opposite Alan Cumming in the 2006 production of Bent, which was also directed by Prick Up Your Ears director Daniel Kramer. It had a lasting impact: “I thought Dan was obviously a very talented director and Chris, I thought: ‘He’s going to be one of the greatest actors of his generation.’ To be able to work with those two people, I thought: ‘I will learn, I will learn.’ I thought Chris would probably act me off the stage, but I don’t mind because it will make me a better actor; I’ll have to raise my game if I’m on stage with him. The same goes for [fellow cast member] Gwen Taylor, who’s the real article, you know? She’s a class act.”
“David [Walliams, Lucas’s regular collaborator, which whom he created Rock Profiles and Little Britain] did a play with David Bradley and Michael Gambon last year. He has the same kind of attitude; work with the best people and they’ll make you better.”
Certainly Lucas’s latest big screen project sees him following that advice; he is playing both Tweedledum and Tweedledee in Tim Burton’s new version of Alice In Wonderland in which his co-stars include Johnny Depp, Michael Sheen, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Christopher Lee, Timothy Spall, Lindsay Duncan and Frances de la Tour.
“Work with the best people and they’ll make you better”
“I haven’t done a film in America before,” Lucas says, sounding as though a wide grin has spread Cheshire Cat-like across his face, “I don’t know if I’ll ever get a chance to do one again, but talk about landing on your feet…”
Burton, he says, was a delight to work with, allowing him freedom to experiment before shaping his performance with Lucas’s input. He laughs as he tells a story about a mobile phone ringing on set, a cardinal sin to which Burton responded not with furious anger but by mocking the phone’s owner for owning such an outdated model. It created, he says, the perfect atmosphere. Depp, similarly, had not the merest hint of the diva about him. Instead, says Lucas, he is “a man with a great sense of fun; funny and naughty and puckish and very approachable, not aloof in any way.”
Lucas is unrecognisable in the film’s trailer, his appearance transformed with the help of CGI. Most of the filming, he admits, was shot against a green screen with Burton’s fantastical fairytale sets added at a later date. “There are bits of filming which are kind of unusual,” Lucas explains, “like where you’re being chased by a giant creature and it’s actually a man holding a stick with a cross on the end, but actually, you’d be surprised how often acting feels like that anyway on film.”
This, of course, is one of the reasons he is back on the stage with Prick Up Your Ears; there is an intimacy to the performance – even with a packed auditorium watching – when there are just three actors on stage that he doesn’t get with a film crew poring over his every move. “You have to dig deep into your own emotions so there’s a truth in what you’re doing,” he explains. “I wouldn’t do that in something like Little Britain as much because the writing and acting style doesn’t require it. You need a bit more lightness when you do something like that; if you look like you’re working really hard people don’t laugh.”
That is not entirely true. Though Prick Up Your Ears is not a comedy, Lucas assures me there are laughs to be had during much of the show, even though in “the last half hour they don’t laugh as much”, and Lucas is working hard for this production. He has lost over three stone this year on a diet, partly to lose weight for the role and partly because “I wanted to feel better.” He is also keeping himself in shape to perform eight shows a week in the West End. “It’s not drinking, not smoking, staying fit, eating healthily, trying to sleep, just being sensible.” While he has never partied to excess or provided tabloid fodder, sensible, like toned-down, would not be the first word that sprang to mind to describe the man who famously donned a baby-grow to play drums on bizarre game show Shooting Stars. As he said, he likes to keep surprising people.