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Mark McKinney: Judi Dench babysat my sister

The comedy actor is making his London stage debut

Mark McKinney
© Manuel Harlan

The London theatre scene is being veritably spoiled right now – over at the Old Vic, a crack cast of UK and US stars including the award-winning Helen Hunt and the comedy legend Canadian Mark McKinney are taking to the stage.

McKinney was once in the famous sketch group The Kids in the Hall before a small spell in SNL, before steering the much-loved series Slings and Arrows to stellar success.

He now comes to the UK in the Old Vic's production of Jonathan Spector's Eureka Day, an eerily prescient comedic drama that first appeared in 2019 (having been written over the previous two years) that explores issues around vaccine scepticism in a US school. Sound familiar much?

McKinney is no stranger to UK shores, as he explains over the phone – he performed at the Edinburgh Fringe (appearing in The Ugly Man with One Yellow Rabbit in Edinburgh and Glasgow) in 1993. Eureka Day marks his first stage appearance in the UK since then.

Casting his mind back, what did the Superstore star make of the arts festival? "It's dizzying – there's so much going on. Half of it is just being able to mingle with people doing extraordinary things, often in tiny spaces. 'Come to my dumpster!' people would say. I loved that, and I've been to a couple of other Fringe festivals – where you see acts from all over the world. It's bewildering in the best kind of way."

As for seeing shows in London this time around, McKinney admits it's proven tricky during rehearsals – "I walk to and from the room, I sleep and that's it" – but he promises he'll be out and about in theatre land as soon as possible after the run ends. One play he did manage to see was Jerusalem so, as he puts it, "standards are very, very high... it felt like I was in a mosh-pit."

By the sounds of it the opportunity to come to London is a dream-come-true: ""It's something I didn't even dare put on my bucket list, but here it is. There was nothing about this that I didn't want to do – from the cast, the place, the writing, the timing."

We turn to Eureka Day itself: McKinney is struck by the prescience of Spector's play, given the present raging questions around vaccine scepticism since 2020: "2017 it was written. 2017. It's odd isn't it. Though at the same time, when you're a character you can't see yourself as the function of a debate. My character essentially tries to keep the school, where the action takes place, together. But there's a strange kind of synchronicity for sure."

Some lines really ping out to McKinney in terms of how they inadvertently echo the debates we've witnessed: "'Nobody here's a villain' is a really good one. Is it an observation? A condemnation? A heartfelt appeal to all sides to calm the f**k down?"

But the key element to this are the punters in the room, he explains: "I have to imagine that the audience will help shape the play – they'll bring their own opinions, their own takes. It's not like we're doing a historical epic. They are full participants in the play, whether they want to be or not."

As we wrap things up, McKinney quickly throws in a fantastic "nugget": "Judi Dench babysat my sister when she was young. My Canadian parents were over in the UK and at the time knew an actor who was dating Judi Dench. While they were in London and wanting a night out, so Judi volunteered to look after her. So there you go – it's family lore."

Eureka Day has its opening night tonight at the Old Vic.