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20 Questions With...Malcolm Sinclair

Actor Malcolm Sinclair, making up for musical theatre time by joining the West End cast of My Fair Lady, reckons he'd make a much better culture secretary than Tessa Jowell.

By • West End


Malcolm Sinclair started his acting career in the regional theatre, cutting his teeth in myriad repertory productions before hitting the London scene, and attracting the notice of critics, in the mid-1980s.

Since then, Sinclair has worked regularly at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, as well as in the West End. His recent productions have included Racing Demon, Heartbreak House, Hay Fever, Luther, Cressida, Alan Ayckbourn's inter-linked plays House and Garden and, earlier this year, the Donmar Warehouse production of Peter Nichols' Privates on Parade, for which he received an Olivier nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Though Sinclair played the title role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's By Jeeves in 1996, his forays into musical theatre have been few and far between. That may change with his current production. He has just taken over from Nicholas Le Prevost, playing Colonel Pickering in Trevor Nunn's award-winning revival of Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady at the West End's Theatre Royal Drury Lane.


Date & place of birth
Born 5 June 1950, in London.

Lives now in
Wapping, east London

Trained at...
University of Hull, where I read drama and theology, and then Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, where I did the one-year post-graduate training.

First big break
The first thing I did for which I felt I was actually noticed was a production of Schnitzler's Anatole at the Gate in Notting Hill, around 1985, and it was one of the first plays I ever did in London. I'd done seven years of rep, including playing Hamlet and Peer Gynt, and they were very useful to have done, but no one ever came and saw them. I'd also done odd bits of television and tours, but it took a long time before I got to do anything in London. But I got great reviews for Anatole, and after that, I went to the RSC and the National and people became aware of who I was for the first time.

Career highlights to date
David Hare's Racing Demon at the National: it was a new play, a great play, a great cast, a great project, and it was lovely to have been part of that huge success. To be able to act in that company and feel like I was not letting myself down was wonderful. Alan Ayckbourn's House and Garden, also at the National, I consider one of the best things I've ever done; and of course, Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber's By Jeeves at Scarborough, the Duke of York's and then the Lyric; and Privates on Parade at the Donmar Warehouse.

Favourite productions you've ever worked on
As You Like It at the Sheffield Crucible, directed by Peter James, in which a young Alan Rickman played Jacques, Ruby Wax played Audrey, Ian McNeith played Touchstone, and I played Orlando. It was one of the most wonderful things I've ever been in. Also Cressida for the Almeida at the Albery with Michael Gambon and a cast of young actors - because of Gambon and the boys, it was a huge hoot. And Heartbreak House at the Almeida, directed by David Hare, because it had a fantastic cast.

Favourite co-stars
I love working with Alex Jennings now; other favourites include Richard Griffiths, who I did four series of Pie in the Sky on television with, playing his boss; Roger Allam in Privates on Parade; Steven Pacey in By Jeeves; and Penelope Wilton in Heartbreak House. They're all fun actors, and we complemented each other well.

Favourite directors
I love working with directors who are writers, too, like David Hare who directed Heartbreak House, or have been actors, like Michael Grandage for whom I played Molvolio in Twelfth Night at Sheffield Crucible and who also directed Privates on Parade in London. They know how to stage and tell the story properly. I don't like guru directors. I also like Richard Eyre - because he asked me to do Racing Demon and I enjoyed it so much - and Nicholas Hytner who directed Cressida.

Favourite playwrights
Alan Ayckbourn, David Hare, Peter Nichols and George Bernard Shaw: there's a lot of comic energy and vigour in their work. I love language, so it's great to be doing a musical at the moment that has a fantastic book that is mainly Shaw.

Favourite musical writers
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Lerner and Loewe are the only ones I've done, but I love Stephen Sondheim, too.

What roles would you most like to play still?
I'd like to play Benedick again in Much Ado About Nothing - I previously did it in rep. I'd also like to play George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Garry Essendine in Present Laughter.

What's the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
Elaine Stritch At Liberty in New York. She's a great, great performer - one of the greatest I've ever seen. Her material is sensational, and it's all stories about the theatre.

What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I think the best thing would be to revive regional repertory theatre. A lot of money goes to the great huge metropolitan centres, which are heavily funded as they should be, but it also means that others are completely starved of funds. And that's where I began my career.

If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I don't really know - it's all I ever wanted to do. I probably would have ended up as some miserable teacher.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
Tessa Jowell, the Minister for the Arts - not to be her, but because I want the job. I feel I could probably do a better job than she does!

Favourite book
Anna Karenina - it's the best book about love ever written.

Favourite holiday destination
New York - because of the theatre and my friends there.

Favourite joke
Knock knock. Who's there? Impatient cow. Impatient c.... Mooo!

Why did you want to accept your role in My Fair Lady?
Because I've never ever done a huge musical. I also wanted to work at Drury Lane. It's a lovely part, there's not much singing, and after doing some rather worthy stuff for little money, to do something which paid well was a bit of a consideration!

Have appeared in any productions of My Fair Lady before?
I've seen lots of productions of Pygmalion, and in fact, the first lines I spoke on a professional stage were when I appeared in a production that was my first job out of drama school, in which Anna Carteret played Eliza. I was the man from Hoxton - I ask Higgins "Where I do I came from then?" He replies, Hoxton. And I say, "Well, who says I didn't." It took me ages to find the laugh. I was also in a production of My Fair Lady at Sheffield Crucible in the late 1970s, playing various happy cockneys and Ascot gents, with Lou Wakefield as Eliza Doolittle.

Nevertheless, musicals are the exception in your career to date. Do you think they are more/less challenging than plays?
I think they're technically much more challenging than plays. The scale of them is enormous, and it needs a different sort of energy. I also find that I'm not quite used to being miked yet - it's a skill I hadn't previously had to acquire.

What's your favourite number from My Fair Lady?
"I Could Have Danced All Night" - I sing it in the wings.

What are your future plans?
I'm contracted to be in My Fair Lady until the beginning of February next year, so I don't have any other future plans yet.

- Malcolm Sinclair was speaking to Mark Shenton


My Fair Lady is playing at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The new cast - which also includes Alex Jennings as Professor Henry Higgins - took over on 22 April and will have an official opening night on 20 May 2002.


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