Nick Curtis – Go London
4th February 2020
The first time Roger Allam encountered the work of Caryl Churchill was in 1976, in a north London squat.
A newly formed, explicitly feminist company Monstrous Regiment was mounting Churchill’s witchcraft drama Vinegar Tom; Allam had been working in an office, auditioned for them at their rehearsal room in the aforementioned squat in Camden Square — unthinkable now — and became one of the company’s two male members. It was his second-ever professional job.
“It was fantastic,” says Allam in that lugubrious, treacly voice. “I was an actor, but I think they hired me because I could play various instruments and sing, do bits of lighting, this and that, manage the financial books…”
Now 66, Allam is about to appear in a Churchill play once again, in Polly Findlay’s revival of A Number at the Bridge Theatre, and this time he won’t be doing the lighting, or the books. Starring alongside Merlin’s Colin Morgan, he plays Salter, “a complete disaster, a drunk, [on] drugs, violent”, who after his wife kills herself ends up putting their young son in care. Then, missing him, he contrives to have an illegal clone of the boy made.
“He gets the chance to do it all again, and becomes kind of addicted to being a good and loving father, until the fiction he has built up between him and the second son is completely destroyed. I think it’s incredibly emotional and tragic.”
A Number is one of two Churchill revivals in London this month — next week Far Away opens at the Donmar Warehouse. Winner of the Evening Standard Award for Best Play in 2002, it was written a few years after the creation of the first mammal clone, Dolly the sheep. “The subject is now not so novel, but she writes about it in a very challenging and mischievous way,” Allam says. “The play has become more about the story of these particular people and about free will and destiny, whether we are the agents of our own lives.”
Churchill, now 81, has been in the rehearsal room. “She is such a lively, interesting and interested presence whose comments are always immensely practical. She seems to live exactly the same life she did in 1976 even though she is revered now.
“I read a piece recently that said as a writer, she is a bit like Picasso. As time goes on and a new subject comes up, she has to reinvent how to write about it in a different way. It may be my ignorance, but there seems to be less that’s avant garde than when I started going to the theatre, but Caryl seems to have been able to stay at the edge of things.”
Most actors will tell you that success is down to luck as well as talent, and Allam seems to have been unusually blessed in both departments: he always seems to arrive at just the right time, starting from his birth in the newly optimistic Fifties. His extraordinarily varied career embraces Shakespeare and Chekhov, Stoppard and Frayn, Game of Thrones and the Inspector Morse spin-off Endeavour. He was the original Javert in Les Miserables and has played Hitler, a drag queen and the founders of both the SDP and Glyndebourne on stage.
He’s often cast on screen as a shifty posho, like his sublimely self-interested Tory MP Peter Mannion in The Thick of It, but he’s from humble London stock. One grandfather was a baker who became a decorator after he was gassed in the First World War, the other was a stonemason.
His father, though, stayed on at school, got to King’s College and became a vicar, tending parishes in Putney, the Isle of Dogs and the City: one of Allam’s two older sisters is also a vicar now. Their parents “loved amateur dramatics and rambling, believed in education and also in being well-spoken as being the way upward” — hence that orotund voice.
Allam was sent on a bursary to the independent charity school Christ’s Hospital, where he excelled in music, singing and acting. His first experience of the professional stage was seeing the likes of Laurence Olivier and Paul Schofield at the Old Vic, when a gallery seat cost 15p, “the price of a Tube fare”. He studied drama at Manchester and during the holidays received singing lessons from English National Opera’s vocal consultant for £2 an hour. As a young actor, he lived in Wapping and Stoke Newington when they were dirt cheap.
Soon after his work with Monstrous Regiment, Allam joined the RSC, acting in Peggy Ashcroft’s last-ever production under the direction of a young Trevor Nunn. Les Misérables was an RSC co-production that became a massive hit, but Allam left the role of Javert to appear in an Arthur Miller play, which Miller found extraordinary.
“Arthur thought that on Broadway, people would long to stay in a big musical,” Allam says, perplexed. “Well, I’d done it for nearly a year, which felt easily long enough, thank you very much.” Ever since he’s darted back and forth between new plays, classics and the odd musical, between TV, film and theatre, ideally always doing something different to what he’s just done, always governed by the voice that says “ooh, I’d LOVE to do that”. As an older character actor he’s also lucked into a boom time in TV drama.
The one thing he was late to was fatherhood. Allam and his wife, actor and writer Rebecca Saire, have two boys aged 19 and 14 and now live in East Sheen. “I sometimes wish it had happened 10 years earlier, just so I would be around longer while they are,” he says. “It altered everything for me. Every time you play a father now it gives you a different take on it, not always a very pleasant one.” The boys have the showbiz gene: William is at Guildhall: his younger brother Thomas is “obsessed with film”.
I realise I’ve never heard him express a political view in an interview. He says he keeps quiet about it because the one time he personally posted to the Twitter account run in his name by fans — a link to a tactical voting guide before the last election — he got trolled. “But yeah, I am Left-wing,” he says. “I was nervous about a Corbyn government, although I would have supported it because a lot of the policies were good. I was far more nervous of a Conservative government but here it is, we’ve just got to deal with it.
“Life will go on,” he drawls, giving a pouchy, laconic smile, “until it doesn’t.” Someone should put him in Beckett.