Actor-comedian Karl Theobald is best known to TV fans for his role as Dr Martin Dear in Channel 4 comedy Green Wing. His other television work as an actor includes AD/BC (a Christmas special rock-opera comedy for BBC3), sitcom The Last Laugh and drama The Virgin Queen, as well as starring alongside Lenny Henry in the hit BBC TV series Chef.
Having graduated from the Drama Centre in 2000, Theobald trained and worked with Complicite and toured extensively with Seventh Seal, playing the title role in Candide, and the Chief Clerk in Berkoff’s Metamorphosis under the direction of Justin Villiers.
He performed at the Edinburgh Festival in Custard in 2000, returning in 2001 as part of the prestigious Comedy Zone, with Rob Deering, John Oliver and Francesca Martinez. He has also performed in universities up and down the country as a headline act on the National Comedy Network, and his one-man show, Mr Tinnamen’s Travelling Medicine Show, has played at numerous venues across the UK.
On film, Theobald appeared in The Truth, and a short film for Channel 4, Buying Porn. His radio credits include Avril Crump, Bow Street Magistrates and The Last Days of Gordon Springer. He has also recorded an audiobook, Trust Me I’m a Troublemaker by the award-winning children’s author Pete Johnson for BBC Audiobooks.
As a writer, Theobald was part of the writing team for The Sketch Show on ITV1, which was nominated in the Best New TV Comedy category in the 2001 British Comedy Awards and won the 2002 BAFTA for Best Comedy Series.
Theobald is now starring in Jeremy Sams’ hit revival of Michael Frayn’s class reunion comedy Donkeys' Years at the West End’s Comedy Theatre, having taken over the role of outsider Kenneth Snell from Mark Addy.
Date & place of birth
Born 5 August 1969 in Lowestoft.
Lives now in
Kentish Town (north London), I’ve been there for four months with my girlfriend.
Drama Centre London.
What made you want to become an actor?
I don’t think anything made me decide to act; I just think it’s been a continuity of not properly growing up. I don’t think I have ever not acted. I’m a total fantasist. As a child I was constantly… it wasn’t even acting, I believed everything I said and did no matter how ludicrous. I convinced school friends that I was born in the wild and brought up by either wolves or apes, or whatever it was at the time. Then I had a period of thinking I was a Latino orphan or something. Various ludicrous things that I kind of believed myself – and still do, slightly! That sense of play never stopped and I sort of fell into acting, it was never going to be anything else. Everywhere I found myself, I was always doing a play or performing something. It’s odd to look back now and think “wow, I’ve ended up here” and it wasn’t even planned.
First big break
I went through a stage of wanting to be a singer/songwriter, and I still have that dream – but you know, I used to think I was born in the wild! A friend and I did some gigs locally in pubs and stuff. We struggled to make it happen and it didn’t happen, and then I found myself staring into an empty future and thinking “I’ve got to do something a bit more established than this” because I didn’t think it would work out. A director friend of mine said that he thought I should be a professional actor and go to acting school; the Drama Centre was the cheapest auditioning fee, so I went there. So I guess my break could have been the day I got into drama school, or it could have been the day my friend told me to go to drama school, or it could have been the day I got Green Wing. I don’t know really when the big break was. Professionally, I guess it must have been getting Green Wing. I left drama school without an agent, and without any interest from casting directors. I started doing sketch comedy with Russell Brand actually, but then he went off and did some stand-up. I thought I couldn’t do stand-up, it was just too bare. But by that time, I was so down on my luck. I think I owed about four months’ rent and couldn’t afford to buy milk, it was that really horrible feeling, the weight of poverty. I tried to get a normal job but they wouldn’t have me because on paper I’d never done a normal job so it’s not very impressive at all. In the end, my girlfriend at the time said “why don’t you just try stand-up?” so I did, and then I got some interest from casting directors.
Career highlights to date
So far, which is great, all of them. Green Wing was fantastic, it was amazing to get that and work with those people, and you’re allowed to improvise and come up with your own ideas. I won a stand-up competition, and that was fantastic. I did a film called The Truth and I met some great people and I think it’s a really great film. I’ve done a short film and I’ve not seen it yet because it’s not out, but I’ve been told by the people making it that it’s great. Again with those films, I was allowed to improvise and bring my own creativity to it which I enjoy. And now a West End play, which is just fantastic. I hope I can keep it that way because it’s so nice to be proud of the things that you do. I think success is just keeping to that principle of doing things you think are worthwhile. I’ve only done one thing, which was a corporate video, just for the money. Artists get into this whole rhetoric of selling their souls for the money, and you never quite get what they mean, or what you mean when you say it, until it actually happens – and then you think “wow, I’m saying these things and they mean nothing to me and I have no relationship with this work apart from I can’t wait for pay day”. That’s a horrible feeling, for no real elitist reason. Like any job, if you’re doing it just for the money but not enjoying what you’re doing, it’s not a nice thing.
I’ve only worked with four directors really, Victoria Pile (Green Wing), George Milton, Brett Foraker (the short film Buying Porn) and Jeremy Sams. Jeremy I’ve not worked with that much really because he’s been busy doing The Sound of Music, but he seems lovely. Vicky was great because she just let you run with it and we were on the same page I think, and she’s a great comedienne, she really is. George, who I did The Truth with, is a young guy with a very artistic imagination and he’s become a friend. And Brett, because of his American sensibility, is really interesting to work with, the way he draws stuff out of you and communicates with you.
I don’t really have any favourites. I don’t read many plays to be honest. I have favourite individual performances of plays, but no clear favourite playwrights. I don’t come from a particularly literary background, we didn’t read many books growing up. Then I think I got to about 19 and just devoured stuff. I thought Equus by Peter Shaffer was amazing, I remember enjoying that. And I quite like Bugs, a contemporary American play. And I love Complicite and Robert Lepage, but they’re more sort of play devisers as opposed to playwrights.
All the cast of Green Wing. Coming into a rehearsal room with those people having not rehearsed since the Drama Centre days was great, they were all so lovely. Zoe Telford, who I worked with on The Truth, is a really fine actress. And Devine Henry, who had a small role in Green Wing, I became very friendly with. I saw her do some pilots and bits and bobs, and I think she’s just excellent. I consider her the female, black version of me.
What are the different challenges of film & stage comedy, particularly farce?
At first I thought “oh, I don’t know, theatre takes itself very seriously”, and obviously it’s Michael Frayn’s lines, so he’s not going to be too happy with you improvising his lines and adding bits. It’s a very tight process because it’s a farce on stage, live time, so you’ve got to make sure that you’re there on that cue and that door shuts then etc. That discipline is what half scared me and half made me quite excited about doing this play. I guess that’s the difference – the disciplines are very different because it’s a much more laborious process in TV and film, but it’s also much subtler and quieter and smaller, and I love those moments, which you can’t get in a big theatre. But, in a big theatre you can be unsubtle, very playful, big, and you’ve got a live audience and that really inspires your timing to have that kind of immediate feedback. With comedy in theatre, the audience becomes part of the play, their response is part of the timing of the play. One time Edward Petherbridge, who’s a wonderful actor with such charisma, and I were on and the audience was a bit flat. He came up to me and said “they’re just not quite getting it, are they?”, and I said “oh they’ll get there in the end, they’ve just got no comic timing.” And he told me that Arthur Miller had said to him once “the problem with audiences today is they’re under-rehearsed”.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
No idea. It keeps me awake at night, that thought. Either I would have become a singer/songwriter that maybe I’d have loved to become, or an anthropologist like David Attenborough and that would have been fantastic. But would I really have done that? No, I think not. I don’t know how the hell I would have done that because I never went to university and didn’t take that course in life. So I probably would have been unemployed for a long time – I was unemployed for a long time anyway – and maybe I would have worked in a Birdseye factory. Or started a chicken farm.
What was the first stage production that had a big impact on you? And the last?
Cannon and Ball at the seaside was the first. That was when I was about ten and I thought it was hilarious. It was the first time I really enjoyed the skill of the comedy. I rarely go to the theatre to be honest. It makes me think there’s a real heaviness about it and the ticket prices are not cheap – now I probably could afford it, but I’m working so I don’t have time to go. I remember when I saw Complicite do Street of Crocodiles, I was so astonished. Before, I thought theatre was people standing around talking, but I saw this and thought “what was that?!” and got really excited about theatre. Then I saw a Robert Lepage show and that was just the most amazing, magical thing I’d ever seen – not just of theatre, but out of everything I’d ever seen. Then I saw Bugs at the Gate in Notting Hill and that was really great.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
John Updike’s Rabbit trilogy is fantastic.
Favourite after-show haunts
Wherever the smell takes me.
Why did you want to accept your role as Snell in Donkeys' Years?
The reason I did Donkeys' Years is because I need the money, as any actor does any work really. But it is theatre, in front of a live audience and it’s a traditional farce, which is a good discipline having not been in front of a live audience for a few years, and when I was it was stand-up. So it’s another box to tick, you know, sort of like doing a great series on TV, I’ve done a great film, and I’ve done some radio and I’ve done a short film, and they’ve all been things I’ve been quite proud of, so now to do a West End play is another good box to tick. I’m running out of boxes to tick. I think I’m going to have to give up and become a chicken farmer after all.
What do you think of Snell? Would you be friends with him?
I like my character. The other characters think he’s boring, but actually he’s just an amiable guy with a deep interest in the alimentary canal. The other characters are all so far up their own a***s they choose not to find him fascinating because he’s not debauched. But then he very quickly becomes debauched and quite mental. You often think that about these grey, quiet men – that there’s a dark secret waiting.
Have you ever been to a school reunion?
No, I’ve never been to a school reunion, and the lifestyle they have in the play is really alien to me. There’s a real traditionalist feel about the play itself and the character. I don’t necessarily relate to the intra-psychic landscape of the play on a surface level. But having said that, I again play the outsider or the underdog, and I’m interested in the whole scenario of people coming back after all those years and trying to relate to it and find out who they all are. And there are some wonderful lines in it. And Michael Frayn – I was told only a few weeks ago, I didn’t know this – is not only a playwright, but he’s also an existentialist philosopher. He’s written a few books that he says only 1,000 people in England would have read and understood, but I’d love to get my hands on one, I’m intrigued. He’s a really elegant man. I’ve always admired that idea of the ageing, elegant philosopher.
Are you a fan of Michael Frayn’s other plays?
I’ve heard a lot about Noises Off and I love the idea of it though I haven’t seen it. I love Copenhagen, it’s fantastic and apparently he knows everything about quantum physics. I imagine Michael Frayn could probably apply his hand to anything, whether it’s philosophy, farce, drama. It would be interesting to get him to write an episode of EastEnders or something. I reckon he’d be able to do it, not in a way people say “oh this is odd”. I think he’d do it in a way that people would accept, yeah this is EastEnders, but he’d subtly slip in his take on things. He’s well into puzzles and that kind of thing, which you can really feel with Donkeys' Years. You can imagine him enjoying working out the structure and how to drop in clues for a later act – it’s almost mathematical. It makes me realise that there’s a real tradition to things like Fawlty Towers. Michael could have easily written Fawlty. In fact, he probably did in an earlier form. I suppose Donkeys' Years is the thinking man’s Fawlty Towers.
How does it feel to be one of the newcomers to the cast?
It was really hard at first because you come into a production that’s already been directed. The pitfalls have already been found and smoothed over, and you come in with the idea that you’re going to bring your creativity, vision and mistakes to it, but you’ve only got two weeks. You waste a lot of time trying things that have already been tried and you realise that they do it that way because that’s the way it works. Oe you get over that, you can settle into the role and really enjoy it and start to put your mark on it within that tight framework that’s already been created. And then it becomes exciting pushing the boundaries.
- Karl Theobald was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
Donkeys' Years is running at the West End’s Comedy Theatre.