The multi award-winning team have left their own brand of extremely dark comedy behind to make their West End acting debut in Yasmina Reza's Art at theWhitehall. Mark Gatiss and Steve Pemberton told Matthew Amer about being the very last cast of one of London's most successful shows…
"The Goodies said no!" Comedy seems to come naturally to Mark Gatiss, whose sense of humour is evident from the moment you meet him. "We've wanted to be in Art for a long time but we've never found a way of getting into David Pugh's consciousness. It is a great play and I think the reason it has survived so long is not just because of having rolling, interesting casts or eye-catching posters, it's because it is very funny. This is the sort of play I would recommend to people who don't think they would like the theatre. The emotional kick that you get from the end draws a real response in people."
The League Of Gentlemen aren't the obvious choice for the honour of being the last London cast of Art. Their dark-as-night brand of humour has a cult following but is not everyone's cup of tea. The television show, now in its third series, focuses on life in the country town of Royston Vasey, which has a very interesting mix of people. Barbara the transsexual taxi driver, Pauline the pen-obsessed restart officer, and Tubbs and Edward who own a local shop for local people, are part of a community that is not so much dysfunctional, but just plain horrifically scary. "Some people think that we are coming to take over the play and put a League Of Gentlemen slant on it and that is not true at all," Pemberton explains. "We're just trying to do the play and hopefully people will enjoy watching it with us in it."
"Some people think that we're coming to take over the play but that's not true at all"
While the League show little sign of this dark outlook in person, Gatiss has a few horror stories to relay. He has recently moved into a new house, where the previous occupant must surely have been on the RSPCA's most wanted list. "I had something in my garden done and discovered that the man who used to live there was a serial cat murderer. The old shed, which has now been demolished, had a cat flap on it." He claims that 11 cat corpses were found buried in his garden and, sparing you the finer details, mentions something about hot coat-hangers. "There must have been a lot of posters up on the lamp-posts when he was living there." Although this sounds remarkably like a plot from the television series, Gatiss swears it is the truth, and his stony straight face gives nothing away.
Gatiss and Pemberton met co-members of the League, Reece Shearsmith (also in Art) and writer Jeremy Dyson, whilst they were studying at university. It has been a long friendship, almost precisely the same length of time as that in the play, and one that Pemberton believes enhances their performances at the Whitehall. "To be doing something like this is quite a big risk for us because we are exposing ourselves as actors. We've got nothing to hide behind, so doing it together is a safety net. We can have a laugh in rehearsals and bypass all the actor egos and getting-to-know-you. I think as a first big West End play to do, it's nice that we're doing it together."
"We've got nothing to hide behind, so doing it together is a safety net."
Together, the League have accomplished a great deal. They won a Perrier award for their live show, a Sony award for their radio show, and a BAFTA award for the first television series. Pemberton says, "winning a BAFTA meant a lot, but winning a Perrier award perhaps more because that was the beginning of it all". Having achieved success across all these mediums, do they have a preference for one over another? "It's a cliché to say it, but the response of a live audience to what you have done is really helpful. At the moment our series is going out, but you get no real feedback," complains Pemberton. "If you could make a TV programme and watch it in a theatre, then that would be the ideal." Gatiss agrees: "Tom Baker always used to say about the difference between being an actor and not, if people gave their husbands and wives a round of applause when they cooked food it would change their lives. It's instant gratification." They appear very happy to be back on the stage and playing to live audiences again.
That is not to say they are neglecting their third television series, currently on BBC2. The format of the show has changed slightly, with more emphasis on character and story. "It was a conscious decision just to keep ahead of the game," says Pemberton. "We have never contemplated doing what we have already done, which is what most people do." Gatiss adds, "doing something different is always an unsettling time, but ultimately it settles down and people start to see it as part of an ongoing process and are a lot less frightened of it."
"We're doing an opera and a ballet next"
They have not lowered their ambitions for any future projects. "We're doing an opera and a ballet next," says Pemberton, again with as straight a face as an undertaker. "No. We do want to write a screenplay, that's our next challenge that we are going to set ourselves. We have no idea, no preconception of what it will be other than we want to try and do a film." Not a play then? "A play would be hard."
We will wait with bated breath to see what the dark princes of comedy – "but never crowned!" much to Gatiss' disappointment – produce next. If the past is anything to go by, the League Of Gentlemen could be celebrating an Olivier Award in February and an Oscar in the not too distant future.