Let’s face it, when you’ve smeared your entire body in layers of goose fat before completing a 21-mile charity swim of the English Channel in a time that puts you amongst the top 50 cross-Channel swimmers, turning up for the first rehearsal of a play ought to be like paddling in a pool. But, bravely clutching the script of Harold Pinter’s No Man\'s Land in his hand, David Walliams seems to have had one of those sinking feelings – so he arrived at the rehearsal room an hour early. “I thought, I don’t really know what the rules are. Are we allowed to go and have a cup of tea when we want? Do we have to ask the director when we need to go the toilet?” the tall Briton of the Little Britain duo recalled.
Maybe avoiding busy shipping lanes, stinging jellyfish and scary temperatures is simply par for the course compared with preparing to play Foster, the insolently creepy manservant in No Man\'s Land. Conquering the Channel is one thing, but getting together in one room with the entire creative team and cast is another kettle of jellyfish, especially when you’re a stage play virgin and the company is led by veterans Michael Gambon and David Bradley, who ought to have no problem creating Hirst and Spooner, a couple of ageing Hampstead literary types embroiled in a typically Pinteresque twilight world of power games and shifting allegiances.
Presuming that tea was on tap and that multi award-winning director Rupert Goold allowed his actors a toilet break, there was of course always the possibility that the real reason for Walliams’ initial jitters about making his West End debut in No Man\'s Land (following an opening season at the Gate Theatre, Dublin) had more to do with knowing that he will need to find an acting style for the mercurial Foster on stage, without resorting to any of the bad wigs, freaky prosthetics, outrageous fat suits and copious layers of make-up that brought his half of Little Britain’s population of mad caricatures to life, with his comedy partner Matt Lucas providing the other.
The stage ought to hold no fears for Walliams – he met Lucas in 1990 when they were both members of the National Youth Theatre (which they both continue to support), where apparently they discovered a shared love of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer and doing Frankie Howerd and Jimmy Savile impressions. They both went on to study drama at the University of Bristol, which is where they started writing together. And the Lucas-Walliams performing partnership began on stage too, with Sir Bernard Chumley and Friends, which they took to the Edinburgh Festival in 1995. But Lucas was first to conquer the West End; he made his stage debut in 2002, outrageously costumed as Leigh Bowery in the Boy George musical Taboo at The Venue.
Loud & lurid cross-dressing
While Lucas was required to be loud and lurid, Walliams faced the trickier task of approaching Pinter’s dialogue for the first time, tackling his dramatic pauses and conveying that strange but purposeful ambiguity and edgy comedy that you get in scene after scene No Man\'s Land – no easy task when you’ve made your name turning the language of catch-phrase comedy into an art form.
Just imagine Walliams as Little Britain’s hopeless transvestite Emily (Eddie) Howard (“I’m a lady. I do ladies’ things”), mentally retarded Anne (“Eh-eh-ehhh!”), bored Carol Beer (“Computer says no...”), and the character Walliams says he personally identifies with the most, queeny Sebastian Love with his hopeless crush on Anthony Head’s Prime Minister (“Whateva”). It’s hard not to think of Walliams sometimes as the love child of Eddie Izzard and Dame Edna Everage.
But even if he does know how to play outrageousness to the max and cross-dresses as if it was in the blood (typically, he recently dolled himself up as Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s at a promotion for the first of his two children\'s books, The Boy in the Dress, published this month and which he describes as a “semi-autobiographical wish-fulfillment fantasy about myself as an 11-year-old”), his post-Little Britain performances in two recent BBC TV dramas were greeted by universal acclaim.
The great Gambon
Watching him in Capturing Mary, it was clear that Walliams had learned a lot about conveying depth and complexity in a role and delivering the menace lurking beneath lines. He played a blinder as the charismatic, yet sinister social chameleon Greville White in Stephen Poliakoff\'s psychological drama, which also starred Maggie Smith. “You have to work very hard as an actor,” he said of engaging with Poliakoff’s script. “You can’t use tricks or throw lines away. Every line is there for a very good reason, so you have to deliver a really detailed performance.”
Poliakoff shot Capturing Mary back to back with its companion piece Joe’s Palace, so he called both casts together for a joint read-through, which is when Walliams first met the “great Gambon”, who starred in Joe’s Palace. “It was terrifying. Imagine how I felt – having come from a television show where I’m mainly known for dragging up – to find myself sitting with Dame Maggie Smith and Sir Michael Gambon, and thinking, ‘Oh god, I have to read in front of them – they must think I’m shit’.”
As a follow-up, Walliams took on the role of his childhood hero, the late comedian Frankie Howerd, in Frankie Howerd: Rather You Than Me, portraying with surprising sensitivity a tortured man who was behind the “thrice nays” and “titter ye nots”, was riddled with professional doubts, conflicted by his homosexuality and plagued with depression. Walliams fitted Howerd’s “Ooooh missus” campery like Emily Howard’s gloves, but his scenes with Rafe Spall as Howerd’s longtime partner and manager Dennis Heymer were beautifully understated and up there with the best in movie acting.
And yet understated isn’t a word normally associated with Walliams. He invariably attracts adjectives such as “strange” and “weird”. “Creepy”, he once admitted, comes naturally. “Maybe I’m naturally creepy. I’m not sure I want to play the nice guy. That’s not very interesting. Think of the Batman films – who do you want to play, Batman or the Joker? The Joker, of course. Morally compromised characters are really exciting to play.”
Even so, he’s voiced Bulgy Bear, no doubt exuding all of the creature’s paw-sucking sweetness, for the forthcoming Disney film The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. And the new six-part Little Britain USA, which premiered on HBO last month, is due to air on BBC One in the autumn, so look out for familiar characters from the original UK show (Sebastian becomes Prime Minister!), as well as new ones created expressly for the American series.
Right now, however, Walliams appears to be as perfectly poised for playing creepiness in Pinter as he was tottering around as Emily Howard in Little Britain. “I’ve been obsessed with Pinter ever since the sixth form,” he told the Irish Times just before No Man\'s Land opened in Dublin to critical acclaim. “The spell he casts over the audience is extraordinary. You get it with Beckett, but it’s rare. Normally, with theatre, you’re just watching events take place, but with Pinter, there’s something else going on, this terrible sense of doom.”
Of course, don’t get the idea that just because Walliams has plumbed some new-found depths as an actor means that he’s going straight. “There’s a little bit part of me that thinks maybe I should go back to putting on a dress and making people laugh.”
No Man\'s Land opens on 7 October 2008 (previews from 27 September) at the Duke of York’s Theatre, where it’s booking until 3 January 2009. A longer version of this article appears in the current October issue of What’s On Stage magazine, which is available now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online version. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatre Club - click here to subscribe now!!