With his return to the stage in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Steve Pemberton proves he is up for anything, as he tells Caroline Bishop.
It must be a bit strange being in Steve Pemberton’s house. “On my shelf I have a severed head of my own head and I’ve got all these weird pictures of me dressed up as a woman with a pig nose.” Fans of The League Of Gentlemen and Psychoville would expect nothing less. But Pemberton is pleased that his latest job will allow his three young children to see their father in more normal attire.
Given his history of writing and performing in the aforementioned disturbing yet hilarious sketch comedies, it is something of a surprise to find Pemberton in a jolly American musical about a spelling competition. In fact, it is a surprise to find a jolly American musical about a spelling competition on a London stage at all. The humble ‘spelling bee’, after all, is not a concept most Brits are familiar with. But the Donmar Warehouse intends to change that with its new production of Broadway show The 25th Annual Putnum County Spelling Bee – which begins previews on 11 February – featuring Pemberton in the vital role of ‘word-pronouncer’.
When we speak on the phone during rehearsals, Pemberton says he is “aching all over” from the sheer physicality of being in a choreographed show. He has been in musicals before, but his last outing, in The Drowsy Chaperone, saw him play the role of Man In Chair which, “as the name suggests, is a pretty leisurely role,” he laughs.
Like The Drowsy Chaperone, which played at the Novello theatre in 2007, The 25th Annual Putnum County Spelling Bee is a quirky boutique comedy musical which began life off-Broadway and went on to find a big audience on the Great White Way, where it played for three years and picked up several Tony Awards. But, as Pemberton’s previous experience shows, American success does not always translate this side of the pond; The Drowsy Chaperone’s London production closed prematurely just two months after opening, despite good reviews. “But this being the Donmar and it’s a short run – only seven weeks – there’s no danger of that happening,” says Pemberton, deadpan.
“I know that I haven’t done as much [theatre] as I would have liked up to now, so I’m going to try and rectify that”
Also like his previous stage outing, Pemberton’s role is non-singing. He plays Vice-Principal Panch, a man he describes as “very proper, very well spoken, but very uptight as well. There’s been an unspecified incident five years ago where he was sacked from his job being word pronouncer, so something has happened and I think he has a bit of a temper and if the kids are acting up he can’t quite control it, and is that going to come out in this evening?”
Perhaps this suggests Pemberton could bring a splash of his trademark black humour to the role, but nevertheless, it remains a much lighter piece than the work he is best known for. The attraction, he says, was partly exactly that: “No one would expect me to be doing it”. But a further draw was the improvisational nature of the role. Each night four audience members are called up to the stage to try their luck in the spelling bee (ticketholders relax, the Donmar will be asking for volunteers before the show, rather than picking on unsuspecting theatregoers), and Pemberton must think on the hoof as he interacts with them. “We call ourselves dictionary corner, myself and Katherine,” he says of his preparation with Katherine Kingsley, who plays the spelling bee organiser. “Every time [a volunteer] needs a definition of a word or [an example of using] a word in a sentence I’m going to have to come up with something different. So it’s a nice combination of having stuff which is set and written, and stuff which you can write and improvise.”
Of course, including volunteers makes each night entirely unpredictable, and part of Pemberton’s job is to make sure that people go out of the competition at the right point. “I’ve been trying in the rehearsal process with different people who have volunteered to stand in, and there’s certain points where I’m trying to get somebody out and I give them a hard word and they get it right, or I give them what I would consider quite an easy word and they get it wrong.” So what happens if he finds himself with a spelling boffin on his hands? “We’re working out ways of making sure people do go out. I’ve got a few very, very tricky words up my sleeve.” Funnily enough, he won’t tell me what they are…
Despite the aching limbs, Pemberton is thoroughly enjoying the experience of being back on stage, another reason he jumped at the job. He raves about the energy of the young cast, the quality of Ann Yee’s choreography, and, above all, the sense of community that theatre gives him. “I just love the communal thing, you are all working towards the same end, you all muck in. And I love being part of a company, I find that very exciting. I’m not driven by something that’s going to bring me personal adulation, I really enjoy the ensemble feel of stuff.”
Bar his brief stay in The Drowsy Chaperone and a stint as narrator in The Rocky Horror Show, Pemberton’s acting work has centred more on television of late. Two series of East End detective drama Whitechapel and four series of ITV comedy drama Benidorm – which earlier this month won a National Television Award – have kept Pemberton away from the stage. “I know that I haven’t done as much [theatre] as I would have liked up to now, so I’m going to try and rectify that,” he says. “It’s not because I haven’t wanted to, it’s because I can’t just say no to an ongoing series because times are hard and if you have a job that’s ongoing you stick with it.”
“I find the writing side of things very, very creative, I get a huge buzz out of that”
Theatre, after all, is where Pemberton started. He was a drama student at Bretton Hall in Leeds when he met fellow students Reece Shearsmith and Mark Gatiss. After a post-graduation period spent in fringe theatre, Pemberton roped his friends in to help him raise funds for a theatre company he had set up. “We just said look, we’ll write some characters and do a comedy night and it will be a way of raising funds,” he says. Those characters – which included the now infamous restart officer Pauline and the disturbingly pig-nosed Tubbs and Edward of the ‘local shop for local people’ – proved a hit, so “we just carried on doing it.” Thus, The League Of Gentlemen was born.
In 1996, they took the show to the Edinburgh Festival, which changed their lives. “In those four weeks we went from nobody knowing anything about us to [having] quite a bit of a buzz about the show.” Bringing non-performing writer Jeremy Dyson on board, the Gents were able to grow their comedy stage show into a radio show, three television series and a big screen outing.
Pemberton puts The League Of Gentlemen’s success down to the chemistry between the four writers, who quickly established they had the same macabre sense of humour. “I think the huge benefit of writing with someone you know very well is you don’t censor yourself, or inhibit yourself, or you don’t think ‘oh I want to make a suggestion but they might think it’s either too stupid or too awful’.”
That freedom to experiment resulted in a cacophony of memorable characters. From German scoutleader Herr Lipp to toad-worshipper Harvey Denton, Pemberton segues, chameleon-like, from character to character, even if his distinctive cleft chin marks him out. Of course, the TV show benefitted from the vast resources of the BBC wardrobe and make-up departments, but Pemberton credits the success of the characters to their theatrical beginnings. “We used to create those characters just with our physicalities and with our voices. So that was a really, really useful training ground.”
Following the success of The League Of Gentlemen, its four creators have spent the last few years working on separate projects, though Shearsmith and Pemberton teamed up again to write and star in Psychoville, a similarly creepy television comedy which spawned characters including serial killer-obsessive David Sowerbutts and blind collector Lomax. All three performers have pursued their own independent acting work – Gatiss has just appeared at the National Theatre while Shearsmith is about to star in Betty Blue Eyes – while Dyson’s writing projects have included the hugely successful West End show Ghost Stories.
“I’m not driven by something that’s going to bring me personal adulation, I really enjoy the ensemble feel of stuff”
Would they have each found success anyway, without their collaboration? “I think collectively we were much stronger than individually, and we all know that,” says Pemberton. “We all know how lucky we are to have found each other. And then we knew when the time came to peel off and do individual projects that’s fine as well. It’s not like there’s any animosity there, it’s not like anybody’s not having success.”
Given the success of his own writing, I wonder if Pemberton gets the same buzz out of performing other people’s work. “In some ways it’s more [fun] because you are not worried about anything other than your performance,” he says. “When it’s something I’ve written I’m thinking about the words, I’m thinking about the schedule, I’m thinking about what other people are doing, because you have overall control of everything. That’s a lot on your mind, so your own performance tends to come very low down the list of priorities. So it’s wonderful to be able to just have a script and say ‘right, what am I going to do with this, who is this person?’.”
Fans of Psychoville and the Gents need not fear, however. Pemberton has no intention of neglecting the writing side of his career. “I would never like to be without something that I’m writing. I find the writing side of things very, very creative, I get a huge buzz out of that.”
With a second series of Psychoville in the can, of which he says “I can honestly say I think it’s the best stuff that me and Reece have ever done”, there is thankfully more of the unique Pemberton humour in the pipeline. It seems he has the best of both worlds: he can create himself some cracking characters while also taking on plum parts written by others. With his current commitment to do more theatre, who knows which role we may see him in next. “I’ve got to that stage now where I do want to have that challenge and try different stuff. I’m up for anything. Let that be the message!”