Lovers of family TV will know Mathew Baynton best as a shape-changing man of many characters. In both child-pleasingly silly historical hit Horrible Histories and mythical mirth-fest Yonderland he’s portrayed more personalities than you’ll find in the entire Shakespearean canon… probably.
With comic thriller The Wrong Mans, which he co-wrote and starred in alongside James Corden, his considerable talent was pushed into prime time. The tale of two council office workers who inadvertently find themselves at the centre of an international conspiracy, saw the Essex actor receive a BAFTA-nomination for Best Performance in a Comedy Programme.
With his screen stock rising, Baynton has chosen now to return to the stage, starring alongside BAFTA winner and former One Man, Two Guvnors star Daniel Rigby and Elizabeth Berrington in Tom Basden’s story of stranded plane crash survivors, Holes.
We quizzed the multi-talented writer and performer about survival, returning to live performance and his inspirations.
How would you describe Holes?
A brutal absurdist comedy about four people stranded on a desert island.
What can you tell us about your character?
Gus has a broken arm. He has spent years irritated by Ian and Marie in their office. Now they are the only adult company he has. He is desperately alone in his own personal hell. It is funny, by the way.
How would you rate your chances if you were stranded in the wild?
Very, very low. One of the things the play touches on is how far most of us in the developed western world have come from being able to fend for ourselves, from being connected to nature in that way. We’ve reached the point where some of us literally depend on our phones to direct us from place to place.
What one luxury item would you take with you to a desert island?
A guitar, I think. Something to do.
You’re better known for your screen work. How are you feeling about returning to live performance?
I started out doing theatre and live comedy. Then for a good few years I was only doing TV/film and I really missed the audience. Laughter is instant feedback that feeds your energy and sense of fun on stage. Also, the ability to go out each night and try again, see what happens differently, is liberating. There is no editor. You, and you alone, are responsible for your performance.
How did you feel about the success of The Wrong Mans?
Relieved more than anything. I always feel like I should say I was surprised but that would imply that I didn’t completely believe in it to begin with. We worked hard and had a great team of people around us. I was proud to end up with a show that lived up to the way I’d pictured it in my mind. That’s the most you can hope for. The public reaction after that is out of your control.
What sparked your interest in performing?
Attention seeking. Plain and simple.
What is your fondest childhood memory?
Falling asleep in front of Grandstand while mum and dad were cooking the Sunday roast.
Who or what has inspired you?
In comedy, Charlie Chaplin is the most inspiring figure to me. I can’t understand the accusation of sentimentality. He was an exquisite performer, visionary director and a great writer. He had the ambition to use comedy to talk about big things: poverty, war, humanity. The Kid, City Lights, The Great Dictator; these are some of the best films ever made.
What is the finest performance on stage you have ever seen?
César Sarachu in Théâtré de Complicite (now just Complicite)’s Street Of Crocodiles. I was 17 when I saw it on a trip with my theatre studies class. The show, and his performance, moved me to tears in a way I couldn’t explain. If there was one moment that I decided I had to be part of this business, it was then.
If you could create a fantasy stage production to star in, who would you cast, who would direct and what would it be?
Actually, Holes is pretty much a dream. I think Tom Basden is one the best writers around, certainly my favourite, and I think this may be his finest work to date. It is as funny and as profound as any script I’ve read. It has the confidence to go for the big stuff. Philip Breen is a classy, classy director and the rest of the cast are uniformly excellent, so right now, I can’t imagine what I’d rather be doing.
Do you have a pre-show routine or any rituals?
Yes, but not in a pre-determined way. The routine kind of emerges depending on the theatre and the play.
What do you do when you’re not performing or rehearsing?
Write. Read. Listen to music. Watch films. Eat. Breathe.
Have you made any sacrifices for the sake of your career?
Not really. I love what I do so it’s never a sacrifice to make room for it. I have a family now and that becomes a factor in making decisions. The fact that I write so much helps with that because it balances out the periods when I’m shooting and the hours are terrible.
What would you choose as a last meal?
Pasta alla Norma.
What will always, without fail, bring a smile to your face?
Matt Lucas doing the peanuts song on Shooting Stars.
What could you not be without?
What one book, one film and one album would you recommend?
I can’t choose an absolute best of anything but I go with things I’ve recently loved. The book would be The Humans by Matt Haig, the film would be A Separation and the album would be Lost In The Dream by The War On Drugs.
If you weren’t a performer, what would you be?
Do you have any advice for young actors?
One of the best bits of advice I ever got was from Cal McCrystal (who taught me pretty much everything I know). He said that acting is about giving yourself permission. Give yourself permission to think that you’d make an amazing Macbeth or Lady Macbeth. Give yourself permission to utterly commit to every choice you make, every impulse you have. If you hold back even slightly then you’re not relishing the play, you’re not having fun and neither are the audience.
And be nice to everyone.
Holes runs from 16 July. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Arcola Theatre’s website.