1 Mar

Stage presence

Karen Glaser meets actor Paul McGann to talk about his role in his first UK theatre tour and why he can’t wait to tread the boards at Richmond.

Actor Paul McGann’s CV is long. Four full A4 pages long to be precise. Dr Who, Withnail and I, The Monocled Mutineer, Much ado About Nothing and A Lie on the Mind, the credits for the Liverpool-born thespian roll on and on and on.

But although he has been in continuous work during his 35 years on stage and screen, there are what you could describe as two surprising gaps in McGann’s illustrious career. First, he has never made a UK theatre tour. Second, he hasn’t tread the boards at the feted Richmond Theatre.

Until now. For next month, McGann makes his debut tour in Moira Buffini’s Gabriel which opens at Richmond Theatre on 28 March.

“I am so excited to finally be performing there – for actors, it’s what’s known as a home from home theatre,” he tells SO. “Physically, sonically, everything is right about the space. Some theatres like the National enjoy great status, and an actor enjoys kudos for performing there, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are good spaces to act in, that they enable you to engage with your audience well. On the contrary, they can sometimes be antiseptic and rather unforgiving places to perform. Richmond Theatre is the antithesis of those things. And I say that from direct experience – even though this will be the first time I perform at Richmond, I have been part of an audience there on several occasions, and loved every moment.”

Located on Little Green, next to Richmond Green, the Victorian building is also the best preserved of the Matcham theatres, as the critically acclaimed playhouses designed by the architect Frank Matcham’s are known. And the red brick building is widely regarded as having the designer’s most splendid interior, too.

“I am so excited to finally be performing there – for actors, it’s what’s known as a home from home theatre”

Gabriel promises to be an equally splendid production. Based in 1943 Nazi-occupied Guernsey, the story features widow and mother Jean and her efforts to keep her adolescent daughter and Jewish daughter-in-law Lily safe on an island filled with danger and fear. Her toughest test arrives in the form of the terrifying Commander Von Pfunz , played by McGann, whose romantic advances may be the only way to keep her family alive. Tensions deepen when a mysterious young man, Gabriel, is washed ashore with no memory of who he is. Fluent in German and English, is an RAF pilot, an SS interrogator an local boy with amnesia or a saviour sent from heaven?

“Nothing beats a well made play, and Gabriel is certainly that thing,” McGann tells SO. “It has strong, compelling story lines, incorporates a supernatural element and is both timely and eternal. What are people prepared to do to survive in extreme circumstances? What would we do in their shoes? In this work, extreme circumstances give the character I play the illusion that he has a chance with Jeanne, who, in turn, realises that she might need him.”

Unusually for a World War drama, Gabriel is very female-focussed. Four of the six actors are women, and the play was directed by Kate McGregor and of course written by Buffini. Was this part of the attraction for McGann? “Yes, I think it was,” he says. “You know, when I was at drama school there were two boys for every girl. At the time the justification for the gender imbalance was that this reflected the industry as a whole. It’s good that those days are now behind us.”

Theatre, meanwhile, is something McGann, born in 1959, hopes will never be behind him. Although you’ll mostly see him in films and on the television, if he had to choose between screen and stage, he’d plump for the latter. “I like both, but with stage you get to rehearse and it’s much more sociable. Plus, you develop techniques which you can take back on to film sets. For some reason, it doesn’t work the other way round.”

Gabriel opens at the Richmond Theatre on 28 March – 1 April 2017. Box office: 0844 871 7651 or visit: atgtickets.com/richmond