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Brief Encounter With ... Hilton McRae

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Hilton McRae is currently performing in the UK tour of End of the Rainbow, in which he stars opposite Tracie Bennett’s troubled Judy Garland as the star’s loyal pianist. The play, which had an award-nominated West End run at Trafalgar Studios, dramatises Garland’s series of London concerts in December 1968 and the singer’s struggle with drink and drugs.

McRae spent the early years of his career touring Scotland with political theatre group 7:84. He then went on to perform extensively with the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as appearing in several on-screen roles. He also has previous musical theatre credits in West End shows such as Les Miserables and Miss Saigon.

Tell us a bit about Anthony, the character you play in End of the Rainbow.

Anthony is as understanding as a human being could possibly be of someone who is basically a monster. He tries to help Judy all the way through; he provides musical support, he provides spiritual and mental support and he does everything he can to help her overcome her demons. And he’s very amusing while he does so.

Have you formed a close bond with Tracie Bennett during your time working on the production?

We’ve formed a quite wonderful professional relationship. She works so hard and I work hard as well. We just make sure that we’re on top form all the time, as much as is possible.

What is it like to share the stage with such a powerhouse performance?

It means I can just relax more and more! She takes the brunt, which makes it nice and easy.

You’ve done a lot of work in theatre, film and television. Do you have a preference between stage and screen work?

I love working in the theatre and that’s where I do most of my work. I love rehearsing, I love sorting stuff out and putting everything in place. That’s where I’m happiest.

You’ve played a diverse range of roles in your career. Do you enjoy variety in your acting?

I’ve had a blessed time. Before I was with the RSC I was with 7:84 and I didn’t know I was an actor, I thought I was a political activist. But probably one of the happiest experiences was playing a very small part in Sam Mendes’ production of The Front Page. It was just a bunch of great actors and I had the smallest part, but it was a great time; I loved being in that company. I’ve only worked at the National Theatre once and that was an amazing experience with the great George C Wolfe doing Caroline, or Change. I’d love to be doing stuff like that all the time.

Your acting career really started with 7:84. How did you find that experience?

It wasn’t quite my first acting job, I was playing Buttons in panto at this stage, and John McGrath came along and said “would you like to come and join 7:84?” So that was wonderful, I was touring Scotland in working men’s clubs, big theatres, small theatres. It was just great, there was a lot of humour and a lot of politics.

How did you go from 7:84 to working with the Royal Shakespeare Company?

Well eventually we couldn’t maintain it and I went and auditioned for Trevor Nunn. I did Edmund’s speech from King Lear and he came up to me and put his arm around me, as Trevor does, and said “where do you come from?” I said Dundee and he said “well pretend you’re doing it in front of lots of Dundonians”. And that’s how I got into the RSC. I was there for a long time and worked with a lot of great people. That’s where I learnt my craft.

What’s next for you after End of the Rainbow?

In the short term I’m going to do The Kreutzer Sonata again at The Gate; it’s a piece by Tolstoy that we did a couple of years ago. We’re doing it for six weeks at The Gate in January and February and then we’re taking it to La MaMa in New York. 

Hilton McRea was talking to Catherine Love. End of the Rainbow continues at Richmond Theatre until 26 November.


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