Times OnLine, November 25, 2002
by Robert Gore-Langton


 

For ‘actor’s actor’ Roger Allam, starring with Gillian Anderson could finally be the making of him

AT FIRST appearances there appears to be a mismatch of glamour. When Gillian Anderson, radiant international star of the X-Files, takes to the London stage in What the Night is For her partner on stage is Roger Allam. He’s the sort of self-effacing, slightly broke theatre actor who will take the bus home afterwards while Miss Anderson is being ferried about in a limo.

But Allam is one of British theatre’s classiest acts — funny and self-effacing, a famously nice guy who has been showered with the sort of acclaim which should have made him the household name that he still isn’t.

He’s the ultimate “actor’s actor”. It’s an epithet that makes him wince slightly. “It’s a compliment, I suppose,” he says. “There’s nothing quite as precious as being appreciated by one’s peers. I was very grumpy about going to the National recently but my arm was twisted by Trevor Nunn. It turned out to be a wonderful experience largely because a lot of the younger actors were so appreciative. But the negative thing about being an actor’s actor is that it means no one knows who you are. You go for a film or a telly job and they haven’t a clue.”

Allam is now back on stage playing an American architect who meets up with an old flame (Ms Anderson) in a hotel room. Both have long been married to the wrong people and know it. What the Night is For is a grown-up now-or-never romantic drama written by the American writer Michael Weller, an old hand who, among a host of intelligent plays, did the screenplays for Hair and Ragtime, the 1981 film that brought James Cagney out of retirement.

“It’s a naturalistic piece about two people yearning for a lost intimacy. It’s not ironic which I like,” says Allam. “I think Michael was inspired to write it because it’2s about this business of people contacting old flames on the internet. It’s direct and emotional and it’s a two-hander which I’ve never done before. Better still, I don’t have to put on drag or wear a Hitler moustache.”

Allam, 47, has been dressing up a lot lately. In Peter Nichols’s Privates on Parade he was fabulous as a military theatre queen (“Ooh that Bernadette Shaw — what a chatterbox!”). Before that he was a frightfully charming Hitler (Adolf in sherry-and-a-chat mode) at the National Theatre in David Edgar’s Speer. In this new play there’s no fancy dress, just some mild semi-nudity. He says not to worry, his bare bottom will be tastefully covered by “a trailing plant or something”.

The unknown quality in the play is Anderson. She was by all accounts terrific in Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends in New York several years ago, but she is untried on stage here. According to Weller, they picked Allam because “you need a really first-rate stage actor who’s sufficiently male to balance Gillian’s appeal”. In New York, apparently, it would have been much harder to cast the chap because all the manly talent has defected to Hollywood.

Allam’s background is solidly Anglican. His father was vicar of St Mary Woolnoth, the Hawksmoor church celebrated by T.S. Eliot. At Manchester University young Roger took singing lessons from John Hargreaves at the ENO but abandoned the idea of being a professional opera baritone and went into the theatre. He joined the RSC in 1981, playing a huge variety of roles, touring and having a ball prior to a year’s run in the RSC’s Les Misérables.

But the film or big TV break, despite a litany of fine classical parts (his Benedick in Much Ado was for him a special joy), has never happened. “When I joined the RSC I was 26 and I thought ‘Great, this is where I want to be.’ Now I’m older and have a child (a little boy, with his actress partner Rebecca Saire) I wouldn’t mind earning a bit more. But it’s all about fluke. Patrick Stewart (another RSC actor) happened to be lecturing in Los Angeles on Shylock and the producer of Star Trek was in the audience. Next thing you knew he was auditioning for Captain Picard and the rest is history.”

Allam would surely have made a terrific Klingon (his line in baddies is second to none) but how about being Picard himself? He tried as it turns out. “I had an audition for one of the Star Trek films. I gritted my teeth and thought ‘I’ll never have to worry about money ever again.’ Then reality kicked in. I didn’t get close!” Instead Allam decided to go boldly back to the stage where his most recent work — his award-winning performance in Privates on Parade at the Donmar Warehouse — won huge critical acclaim but was seen by few people.

“Yes, it’s one of the problems with small theatres like the Donmar and the Almeida, they’re wonderful places to work, icons of fashionabilty and all that, but it’s very exclusive. You can’t get in. Plus these places only function if we actors get low wages. The tragedy is that there’s no ticket equivalent of what there was when I was young. I went to see Olivier in The Merchant of Venice for 15 pence.” Allam’s commitment to large-scale work at the RSC and National stems from a belief that theatre should be big and should be available.

“Anyone who says the seat prices don’t make a difference should go to one of the theatres where they have a cheap night on a Monday. The places are heaving. It’s interesting that Olivier, a conservative figure in many ways, was absolutely supportive of the notion that subsidy subsidised seat prices. That’s gone now. Today it’s all about charging the market rate. The market rate cuts people off from the experience.”

The old days are evoked for Allam every time he steps on to the stage at the Comedy Theatre where his new play shortly opens. This is the building in which he nearly killed his hero Paul Scofield. He was working as a student in the fly tower and nearly dropped a scenery flat on the great man’s head (Scofield was in Christopher Hampton’s Savages at the time).

But now it’s Allam’s turn to hog the limelight there. As he gets up to rehearse the bedroom scene, there is a burst of enthusiasm. “I can’t give up acting,” he says. Why not? “I can’t do anything else. I’m working with Gillian Anderson. I’m making a living. You can’t complain, you really can’t.”