THERE are more salubrious places for one of Britain’s most celebrated actors to be hanging out than a dilapidated church hall in a shabby area of south London.
But there’s a bit of a Bohemian feel to the spot that The Everyman has chosen as rehearsal space for their much-anticipated production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker.
A waft of ale-scented breeze blows furtively through the sycamores from the half-timbered pub opposite, and fittingly theatrical is the nearby road, which displays the name Othello Close.
It is in the hall’s kitchen that I meet Jonathan Pryce, who, long before dueting with Madonna or dancing on the Broadway stage, began his acting career in Liverpool.
He looks surprisingly at home on his plastic chair, sipping tea from a thin-rimmed mug, unconcerned by the blistering peach paint or the ping of the microwave as other cast members pop in to heat up their lunch.
“I couldn’t have had a better start,” he says of his initial two years at the Everyman from early 1972. “You got to do a new play every five weeks or so, and we had a mix of new writing, often with a rock band on stage, something like a Willy Russell or a Bleasdale piece.
“But we also did classical theatre.”
At the time, the company was led by Alan Dosser.
“He had a great eye for finding new talent and new writing and ran a company very well so that it wasn’t all luvvy-duvvy – it sometimes could be quite a prickly place to work in,” reveals the Welsh-born actor, 62.
“He had a focus of plays for the community, for Liverpool, and he started that thing of going out to find an audience.
“Actors would go out to the pubs and clubs to put on short plays and entertainment. The idea was if people had seen a show in the pub they would come along to the Everyman.”
Pryce was studying at RADA, when he was asked to play the part of the Singer in Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Dosser travelled down to London to check out his performance in the drama school’s end-of-year show and, despite leaving in the interval, offered him the part.
He then played Elbow in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and was in Richard III when Dosser decided to set it in a circus.
Lear was given a more straightforward treatment, except that, on the same days Pryce was performing as Edgar in the evenings, during the day the stage was transformed for the set of Winnie the Pooh.
Pryce, demonstrating the diversity of performance he would later become famous for, played Owl.
Antony Sher was The Fool by night and Christopher Robin by day.
“That was one of the few mistakes that Alan made,” laughs the father-of-three.
It’s fine for a nice, middle- class audience who might have had it read to them at bedtime but the kids that were bussed in from Kirkby, they just didn’t want to know.
“I remember coming on and saying ‘Hello, Christopher Robin, hello Pooh’ and kids just talking, talking, talking, and we’d say ‘Cut, cut, cut’ and you’d just cut to the end of the scene and get off stage. Eeyore would jump off the stage and offer kids a ride on his back just to lighten the afternoon up a bit.”
Interestingly, Pryce’s first experience of acting on the Everyman stage was a couple of years earlier, when he was training to become an art teacher at Edge Hill College.
One of his tutors was Jerry Dawson, who ran the Unity but regularly hired the Hope Street theatre for his performances.
Ironically, he says, the Unity had the bigger following and used to lure larger audiences than the Everyman could itself.
Then the female-only Kirkby College contacted Edge Hill to ask it to provide male leads. In Pryce’s words: “I went running.”
“I was falling into all kinds of things, I was young, it was the 60s,” he continues.
“I enjoyed teaching practice and working with kids. I never thought ‘Oh, my God I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life’, but I got sidetracked.”
With the very relaxed attitude of “why not, I’ve got nothing to lose”, Pryce headed off to RADA on a scholarship before starting at the Everyman.
A year after leaving Liverpool for a place at Nottingham Playhouse, he returned to Hope Street as the theatre’s artistic director, tasked with putting together a new company to replace those who had taken Willy Russell’s John, Paul, George, Ringo . . . and Bert to London.
The new members were an impressive bunch, or soon would be – among them Julie Walters, Bill Nighy, Matthew Kelly, Nick Le Provost and the late Kevin Lloyd, of whom Pryce says “that time at the Everyman certainly made them into the actors they are.”
Also in the company was Kate Fahy, whom he would marry in 1974.
While Pryce has never directed a play since, he says that, given the right piece, he might find himself tempted to do so again.
But in a career that has included Hollywood movies, seminal stage plays and musicals, he has never grown tired enough of acting to want to view it from the other side.
He is more choosy about theatre roles, he reveals, demanding of them “a depth of character that you can not only create but then go on to re-create eight times a week”.
Whereas some of his film work has attracted him for its good script and director (such as Terry Gilliam’s 1985 cult hit, Brazil), others offer an unusual character, attractive location or “nice lot of money”, he admits.
Pryce is still passionate about the role of The Engineer from the West End – and later Broadway – musical Miss Saigon, a part he was given after initially being considered as Michael Crawford’s replacement in Phantom of the Opera.
“I’d just done Macbeth and you’re beating your head against the wall half the time and you’re hoping you’re getting an emotional reaction out of the audience,” he says. “Then I went to see Les Miserables and I saw all these people being supported by the emotion of the music, and I thought this is something I’d like to do.
“The thing about Miss Saigon was that it’s all sung and there’s this journey you get on once the orchestra starts. The scary thing is I could have gone on doing it.”
That led to the 1996 film version of Evita, with Pryce as Colonel Juan Peron and queen of pop Madonna in the title role.
“She was really good to work with. She was very professional, very committed,” he reveals.
While the Everyman is less glamorous than some of his movie locations, Pryce is excited to be returning to the place where he began his career.
It was his idea to bring The Caretaker to Liverpool, and his plan had Pinter’s blessing before the playwright’s death last year.
He has performed the play before, in the role of the youngest character, Mick, rather than the tramp Davies like this time round.
After filming a TV version with no audience in 1980, the cast was asked to restage it for the National Theatre to mark Pinter’s 50th birthday.
“I rehearsed it for television in a very straight way and quite intense and odd,” he says.
“It wasn’t until I got into the theatre and was giving the same straight and, I thought, dangerous performance that the audience started laughing, because it’s the absurdity of the language he uses, coupled with the manic intensity, that makes it very funny.”
It’s been a year of nostalgia for Pryce, who recently moved back to the London street he lived on 25 years ago, and he is hoping he will experience the same sense of comfort on his arrival at The Everyman.
“The theatre gave me a sense of fearlessness about how I approached work later,” he says. “After you’ve worked at the Everyman for two years, there’s nothing gonna faze you.”
Liverpool Daily Post, September 14, 2009