After leaving drama school in 2005, actor David Dawson got his big break understudying Kevin Spacey in Trevor Nunn’s Whatsonstage.com Award-winning production of Richard II at the Old Vic, where earlier this year, he returned to appear alongside Robert Linsday, Pam Ferris and the late John Normington in the 50th anniversary revival of John Osborne’s The Entertainer.
Dawson’s other stage credits include The Long The Short and The Tall at Sheffield Lyceum, Therese Raquin, The Boy in the Bed, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Calgari. On screen, he’s been seen in Up Close and Person, The Thick of It, Damage and Doc Martin.
Last summer, he played damaged sidekick Smike in Chichester Festival Theatre’s revival of Nicholas Nickleby, David Edgar’s two-part adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel. The epic, directed by Chichester artistic director Jonathan Church and Philip Franks, features a cast of more than 20 actors who tell the tale of Nicholas as he embarks on a thrilling comic journey through 1830s England.
Dawson recreated the role back at Chichester this past summer ahead of a regional tour and West End transfer, which opened this past weekend for a limited season at the Gielgud Theatre. Daniel Weyman plays Nicholas in a cast that also features father and daughter David Yelland and Hannah Yelland, and Jonathan Coy.
Date & place of birth
Born 7 September 1982 in Widnes, Cheshire, England.
Lives now in
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).
What made you want to become an actor?
Ever since I was about one, I dressed up as Postman Pat. I wasn't just dressing as Postman Pat, I was Postman Pat! I was very serious about it - just the world of make believe really. Sometimes it’s a much more exciting place to be! I'm quite a shy person myself, and I find it fascinating and exhilarating being in the body of somebody else.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I always love a good party. When I was at RADA, I used to organise all the parties there. I even organised our graduation ball in 2005. So maybe an events organiser would be fun.
First big break
My first job after I left RADA was understudying Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic, in Trevor Nunn’s production of Richard II. That was pretty cool. I originally auditioned for a small part, but I got a call from my agent asking me to come back and read for Richard. I knew Kevin was playing that part, and then I heard Trevor wanted me to understudy him. That was just very exciting - a great way to learn a lot.
Career highlights to date
Well that's one. Another one though is The Entertainer, also at the Old Vic, where I got to work with John Normington before he died. That was the last play John ever did. He was a great actor. Everyone who'd worked with him had nothing but love for him, so I was very proud to be a young actor learning from a man who was shining until the end of his career.
I loved working with Robert Lindsay on The Entertainer, and I'm really loving working with Daniel Weyman who plays Nicholas Nickleby. It’s a very close relationship that Nicholas and my character Smike have, so it’s very lucky that Daniel and I get on well in real life. I don't think it would work half as well otherwise. Daniel’s been with it since the start too, so when we both got asked to return we were very cute about it and didn't want to do it unless the other did!
Philip Franks, who co-directs this, is probably one of the best directors I've ever worked with. I also loved working with Paul Jepson when I was at RADA, on Edward Bond's The Fool. He was very exciting.
I love a bit of Howard Barker. I was in one of his plays at RADA, but don't remember the title!
I’m told you’ve written some plays of your own…
Yes I did. When I was 17, I wrote a play up in Widnes, just near Liverpool, where I'm originally from. It was called Divorced and Desperate and it was about a group of middle-aged women on a night out. The year after I wanted to bring something to London and the only thing stopping me was money. I wrote to Julie Walters and Barbara Windsor, and they kindly helped fund me to bring my play to the Tower Theatre in Islington. I love writing and find it very therapeutic. As an actor, you're being controlled by a director. Whereas with writing, everything's pouring out of your own head and you have total control over it.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
I went to see Parade at the Donmar when I had a few days off the tour. The lead in that, Bertie Carvel, is one of my friends. He was in the third year of RADA when I was in the first. I thought he was fantastic and the production was brilliant. It's one of the only really straight musicals I’ve, quite serious and very moving. I enjoyed that a lot.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Bloody hell! I think I'd want to be Edgar Allen Poe. I'd love to know what was going on in his head. He died in his mid thirties and was pretty messed up for most of his life. What made him write the stories that he wrote?
Favourite holiday destinations
I'd love to go to Cuba. One of my favourite ever places in the world is in North Wales. I haven't been there since I was a little boy, but it's so quiet there. There's a hill overlooking Conway Castle, which is just beautiful.
Well, I always make sure I check this one! It's a good way of keeping a log of what the people I went to RADA with are doing at the moment. It's good to know what's going on with them. But I'm not really an internet person – I’m not into Myspace or Facebook. Does that make me odd? If I sit there on the internet, I'd be there all day!
What made you want to accept the part of Smike in this production of Nicholas Nickleby?
I've always been a fan of Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe - that generation of writers, people fascinated with the dark side of life. I'd read the book years ago and fallen in love with Smike, so when the opportunity came along to have an audition, I made sure that I prepared as fully as I could for Smike. I thought I've either got to go in there and do nothing or be as brave as I can and go in with what I think Smike should be. Luckily, they wanted me!
How does Smike fit into Nicholas’ story?
The book follows the journey of 19-year-old boy Nicholas who’s left penniless on the death of his father. He's thrown at the mercy of his wicked uncle Ralph, who sends him off to Yorkshire to become a schoolmaster's assistant to the brutal and vicious Wackford Squeers. He runs this very corrupt school where he abuses all of the children under his power. The book was quite controversial at the time it was written, because Dickens based this on schools he'd seen in Yorkshire. Wackford Squeers' school, where we meet Smike, was based on William Shaw's school up in Greta Bridge. Smike is a 19-year-old boy who's been there since he was six and is still wearing the clothes he arrived in. He has severe learning difficulties and has been mentally and physically abused by Squeers for years - he's basically the school slave. Dickens found a grave of a boy that had died around there in a graveyard in North Yorkshire, and he based Smike around that.
You originally played Smike at Chichester Festival Theatre last summer. Has the production changed since then?
Half the cast are new so that's brought a fresh new energy into it. But also, as an actor, I feel like I'm constantly learning anyway so to have that extra year away from the text before coming back to it, I feel that Smike's a bit more enriched. Last year was broad brush strokes, but this year I can put in the finer detail and really go to town with the specifics.
What was your favourite tour stop?
Newcastle! The audiences there were very comfortable being very vocal with the piece, so you could learn a lot from the audience just from the reactions. There's one line where a Yorkshire character says (in a Yorkshire accent), "I don't care what I'm eating - as long as there's some pies." Normally that gets quite a chuckle. Newcastle was the only place where it got a big cheer from the audience!
If you’re doing both parts, Nicholas Nickleby is a long day. How do you find the energy to keep yourself going?
Really, it should be "David Dawson - sponsored by Red Bull!" I find the double days the most exciting actually. One of the best things about this production is that your character's journey doesn't end in two hours’ time - it goes on for two parts. When the same audience comes for two shows in one day, it feels like you're going on that massive journey together.
Do you have a favourite scene from Nicholas Nickleby?
There's one part I really like. When Smike and Nicholas leave Portsmouth, we exit and make our way through the auditorium. That's quite exciting, especially when children are in. Quite a few times, I've had kids tugging on my costume and waving goodbye to Smike which is great. You feel like you’re all in the story together.
What was the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that’s happened in performances to date?
I've got a kind of Smike corner backstage. I suppose that's a bit odd. But because he's so different from me, I want to give myself enough time to get into the character. So before I go on stage, I go into Smike's corner and get myself into a very dark and uncomfortable place so I'm ready to play the part. Another odd thing - in playing Smike, physically, I decided that Wackford Squeers has ripped out parts of my hair, so I have these three huge bald patches on my head. I have a bag of about 15 hats for when I'm out in public! I've been to a few bars around the country where the bouncer has said, "You're not coming in with your hat on mate, you'll have to take it off." So I take it off and they look terrified, and let me keep it on!
What are your future plans?
As long as it’s a challenge, I don't mind what I do. I've got my own shopping list of places I really want to work at though - the Donmar, the Royal Court and the National. I'd love to work at any of those. The Donmar because it’s so intimate, the Royal Court because it’s excellent with new writing and the National... because it’s the bloody National!
- David Dawson was speaking to Tom Atkins
Nicholas Nickleby opened on 8 December 2007 (previews from 5 December) at the West End’s Gielgud Theatre, where it runs until 27 January 2008.