From the moment he donned a sailor suit to help out at his parents’ amateur dramatics society, Nigel Harman wanted to be a musical theatre star. So what’s he doing in a Pinter play at the Tricycle? The former Tommy and Mamma Mia! actor tells Caroline Bishop how his ambitions have changed over the years, and why, as much as he still likes a song and a dance, playing the slightly psychotic Mick in The Caretaker is exactly what he wants right now…
Nigel Harman’s co-star, Con O’Neill, took a bit of persuasion to sign up for The Caretaker. “He thought I was Nigel Havers, not Nigel Harman,” laughs Harman before swiftly backtracking. “Not that that means anything. Oh God, I shouldn’t have said that should I? As a big fan of Nigel Havers, as Con is, he was a bit concerned about the playing age, and then he worked out that it was Nigel Harman and then he was like, ok I’ll do it.”
Just to clarify then, this Nigel is not the 57-year-old Don’t Wait Up actor, it is most definitely the 33-year-old who built up such a fan base while playing brooding bad boy Dennis Rickman in EastEnders that the Piccadilly stage door was regularly swamped with throngs of female fans when he starred in Guys And Dolls last year.
It was Harman’s role as suave gambler Sky Masterson in Guys And Dolls, his first stage work after leaving the soap in November 2005, that led to his current role. The actor became friends with Michael Grandage’s young associate director Jamie Lloyd, and the pair approached Sheffield Theatres with a project for the Studio. It wasn’t, as it turned out, to come to fruition, but instead they were asked if they wanted to create a new production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. With a persuaded O’Neill and David Bradley (most recently seen in the guise of another caretaker, Filch, in the Harry Potter films) on board, the production began life on the stage of the Sheffield Crucible.
In Pinter’s 1960 complex and ambiguous play, Harman is the cruel and disturbing Mick, whose relationship with his damaged brother Aston (O’Neill) is altered by the introduction of a third person in their dark lives. Davies (Bradley), is a lonely, homeless drifter whom Aston brings home one day to the filthy house he and Mick share, and soon the tramp’s presence triggers psychological power games between all three.
"I went through a stage of being friendly and jovial and now I think I’m quite psychotic"
Harman has gone through quite a journey in his interpretation of his character, which bears a weighty history – Pinter himself once played Mick, taking over from Alan Bates who originated the role at the Arts in 1960. “It’s quite a verbose character, he uses intimidating words and not all of his words make sense,” says Harman. “He’s quite random when he first arrives, which is hard to get your head round, trying to work out a logical journey through something completely illogical. I started off quite manic I think, and then I went through a stage of being friendly and jovial and now I think I’m quite psychotic.”
The three-hander as a whole has “evolved massively”, adds Harman. Having worked together for some months now – the production first premiered at the Crucible in October 2006 – the trio has been able to build up a sense of trust and freedom in delivery, meaning that one will follow where the other leads. “David’s wonderful at that, he’ll just go anywhere you want to and lead anywhere.”
As MickAs a result, Harman is evidently relishing the fact that each night he gets something new out of it. The three actors – who are rarely all on stage at the same time – hook up at half time to compare notes. “We all meet up in the interval and have a crafty fag out the window and a cup of tea, and quite often we find ourselves sitting there going ‘so I thought the scene was about this tonight’, and I think that’s the brilliance of it, that’s why you can revisit it a lot and it doesn’t get tired, because there is so much to be had from it. It’s wonderfully ambiguous,” he adds. “It’s very Pinter in the extreme, the ambiguity of the characters means you can take it any way you want.”
He met Pinter when he came to the Crucible one evening. It was, says Harman, “the singular most intimidating night in the theatre I think I’ve ever spent”. Afterwards they talked about cricket. Most importantly though, the playwright gave the production his blessing.
Getting that blessing must have felt important to Harman especially, because though a veteran of musical theatre, and with several television credits to his name, the actor’s experience of straight plays is limited. It is something he says he is gravitating towards at the moment, because he finds it exciting. This comes across in the way he speaks about it, talking nineteen-to-the-dozen, endearingly like a big kid in awe of a new experience. “It’s illustrious company,” he says of his co-stars, “and I’m just happy to be up there holding my end up. And learning as well. At 33 I’m the rookie, so it’s great, I sit and ask them questions.”
Working in straight theatre is something Harman has had his eye on for a while. His acting ambitions began at his parents’ amateur dramatics society, where his father used to direct and his mother performed. “One day my dad asked if I’d put on a sailor suit and sit on the end of a sofa in the Johann Strauss operetta and so I did.” He joined a drama school in South Croydon and got a few small parts on the telly – a stock cube advert, an appearance on Alas Smith And Jones. At the beginning though, it was all about musicals, “hilariously so,” he says. “I just loved it and that’s all I wanted to do.”
"I couldn’t get an audition for a straight play for love nor money"
He got his break 11 years ago when he understudied Hal Fowler as Cousin Kevin in Tommy, and Fowler dislocated his knee. Harman was eventually offered the part full time and performed it for nine months at the Shaftesbury; the show won Outstanding Musical Production at the Laurence Olivier Awards in 1997. Unexpectedly, he had achieved his ambition to star in a quality West End musical. “I suddenly thought, hang on, I’m 23, and this is one of my life’s ambitions, I’m going to have to have a serious re-think about all of this. So I kind of jobbed around, consistently singing and dancing, and basically got a bit bored. And then I realised that what I actually wanted to do was do a bit more acting.”
Getting straight theatre parts was tricky though. Among the musical credits (he was also in the original London cast of Mamma Mia!), his CV implies he is no stranger to plays – several Shakespeares at the Open Air in Regent’s Park, Lady In The Van at the Birmingham Rep, Three Sisters at Chichester Festival Theatre. In reality though, as Harman winsomely explains, it was slightly different. “I couldn’t get an audition for a straight play for love nor money,” he says. “I used to barter my way into plays. I was doing quite well musical theatre-wise, so I used to get phoned up and asked if I’d do a bit of that and I’d say, well I’ll do that if you’ll let me be in your play that you’re directing straight after. And they’d go, alright then. So I’d end up doing my tap dancing or whatever and then they’d let me say three lines in whatever, Three Sisters. I had 10 lines in Lady In The Van. I did Midsummer Night’s Dream at Regent’s Park and I didn’t even have a line. Two and a half hours dressed as a bloody fairy.
Things have changed, thankfully, and part of that is down to his stint in EastEnders, which inevitably raised his profile and “afforded me opportunities which I wouldn’t have had before”.
Playing Dennis on the soap, Harman was thrust into the position of being Albert Square’s resident ladies’ man and magazine pin-up. “It’s weird isn’t it?” he says, bemused. “I mean, I know what I look like first thing in the morning. It amuses me more now, because it’s just an image really. They are pinning up this character on telly, it’s not me. When the calendar stuff was going on that was a bit weird, but now it just makes me laugh. People wait at stage doors with posters and prints of me that I’ve never seen before.”
It is debatable if Harman really doesn’t understand his appeal, but if he does, he is modest enough not to admit it: “I don’t even know what being sexy is. It’s not like, ‘oh I’m going to be really sexy now, watch this’, I don’t know how that works.”
Though he enjoyed his time on the soap, he is happy that public recognition has waned since he left. “I still get a lot of reaction when I’m out and about, but nothing like what it was, and I really don’t miss walking into a newsagent and seeing me and Sharon [co-star Letitia Dean] on some magazine cover which I knew nothing about.” He adds: “I get to wander around with a bit more freedom now which I have to say I love because I’m quite a private person.”
He has no frustrations about being known for EastEnders rather than his musical theatre credits though. “I know what I’ve done before, and it’s kind of sweet that people have come to see a lot of the theatre stuff that I’ve done and they are genuinely surprised, because you do get lulled into that sense of that’s all somebody can do. I like surprising people, I think that’s important.”
He may be surprising people for some time, given the amount of ideas and projects he has in his head. Ask most actors what plans they have for the future and they are reticent, muttering about it being exciting not to know what is coming next. The ever-positive Nigel Harman, however, is excited about what is coming next, or at least, what could, as he has a plethora of ideas he would like to pursue. In order to make some of them a reality, he has set up a production company with former EastEnders co-star Joel Beckett (who played Jake Moon), which, as well as enabling the pair to “sit around drinking beer and pretending to work,” does involve developing projects. At first “we went completely gung-ho and we realised we had seven projects on the go and all we were doing was keeping seven plates spinning.” They have since narrowed it down to focus on a new television series starring themselves, which is getting to “that awful stage” where they will have to pitch it to a channel.
"I don’t even know what being sexy is"
Harman’s other interests include writing, directing – “I’m sure I will at some point because I’m too opinionated not to” – performing in a two-hander with Beckett, and a spot of Sondheim. Though he says “this is just me talking off the top of my head”, he has the right attitude to make it all happen. Of the planned TV series he says: “I probably am going to make something crap. But at least I’ve tried. I’m very much of the school of thought that I don’t want to sit down when I’m 70, 80 years old and go ‘I wish I’d tried that.’ So I just think sod it, lets go for it.”
He has also dabbled in film. When he talks about his recent small role in Blood Diamond, his boy wonderment comes back again. “I was a reporter or something, an extra really. I spent the day on set and it was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. Six in the morning Leo [DiCaprio] walks in, sits three chairs up from me. I’m literally like a little school boy just staring at him. Michael Sheen is two chairs to the left – I’ve met Michael a couple of times so that was just cool.
“I went to see it [at the cinema] and I think if you’re really, really quick you can see the side of my head,” he laughs. “If I go to an audition obviously I’ll lie my arse off and tell them I had a long scene with Leo and it got cut because they were worried about me being taller than him or something.”
Naturally, he has ideas for the big screen too, though at the moment he is characteristically happy-go-lucky about any ambition to make it in Hollywood, saying cheerily “I’ve got friends out there at the moment. I might go out and see them and bugger around for a few weeks.”
And then there’s The Caretaker. The trio and director Lloyd have plans where that is concerned too – they would love to take it to New York, “in a nice warehouse venue off-Broadway. I think it would really work.”
On the other hand, all Harman’s grand plans could turn out to be pie in the sky. “We’ll talk in about five years time and you’ll say ‘so what happened to all that?’ And I’ll say ‘ah well, I decided to become a gardener.’” Somehow, that seems unlikely.
The Caretaker runs at the Tricycle until 14 April.