Hugh Dennis: It's weird saying exactly the same thing at exactly the same time every night

Dennis returns to the stage in ”The Messiah”, which opens this month in Birmingham

Hugh Dennis
Hugh Dennis

Hugh Dennis returns to the stage this month in the new play The Messiah by Patrick Barlow, which opens at Birmingham Rep before it kicks off a UK tour and lands at The Other Palace in London for the festive period. We catch up with Dennis to get the low-down on the show.

1. Describe The Messiah in five words.
Funny, nativity, mid-life crisis.

2. Describe The Messiah in more than five words.
It's a very funny play, (written by Patrick Barlow who did The 39 Steps), it's about two guys who are putting on a nativity of sorts, though the play is as much about the reasons for putting it on and their relationship. It's a show about pain, loss and crisis as much as nativity.

3. What drew you to the role?
Patrick asked me, and I've greatly admired his work (especially National Theatre of Brent). He's a funny, soulful man so that was what really attracted me to it.

4. What have you enjoyed about the rehearsal process?
Right now it's amazing, but as we're still in the middle of it we haven't yet reached the blind panic stage. But that comes soon.

5. How does it feel returning to the stage?
It's very nice doing something that's much longer. I've done a lot of TV recently, where you're only on for 30 minutes, so doing two hours means flexing different muscles.

6. Why is it a play for now?
The character I play, Maurice, just wants the world to be a nicer place, which I think is quite a useful message. The nativity is something everyone is forced into so we can all appreciate.

7. What do you think people will take away from it?
Hopefully they'll laugh and leave in a happy place?

8. What's the biggest challenge in The Messiah?
This might sound ridiculous but there is a weirdness about having to say exactly the same thing at exactly the same time every night. It feels very peculiar. It'd be like having this interview at the exact same time tomorrow using the same words.

9. How does your stage work differ from your screen work?
Over the years I've got used to there being an edit, and on-screen you only really need to do it once, so this is a challenge.

10. What is it that draws you to performing?
When I was at university I did it for the first time and someone laughed. And you just think "oh, that's great!" and that was a very nice feeling, that interaction with the audience. It's all definitely part of that "don't look at me, look at me" sensation that a lot of actors have.

11. What is your earliest memory in entertainment?
I started quite late, but I remember aged 18 giving a speech on school speech day. It was a report about how well everyone had done in rugby, and which universities everyone was going to, but the day before I'd been hit on the head in a golf-ball (half my hair had had to be shaved off and I had a huge scar down the side of my head). So I spent a large portion of the speech just explaining what had happened to me, which for me was the first time I'd just got up to tell a story.

12. What was your biggest passion growing up?
Until I was 18 the thing I really did was sport, though I'm now in my 50s I still feel like my career is a bit of a left turn. Even now.

13. What is your big break?
There's a myth that you need a big break but really I think you need lots. One every few years really. Meeting Steve Punt was important as I wouldn't have done anything without him, but then I was also spotted by Jasper Carrott straight out of university, and that got me to Mary Whitehouse, and then Outnumbered of course.

14. If you hadn't been an entertainer what would you have done?
For six or seven years I used to work simultaneously doing deodorant marketing for a big multinational called Unilever Monday to Friday then doing comedy for Jasper Carrott on Saturdays. That was until Unilever gave me a sabbatical to try and be a comedian full time, which was an incredibly enlightened thing to do!

15. What's the most embarrassing moment of your career so far?
There's too many – very early on me and Steve had to play trees in a sketch. I remember thinking: "What are you doing?"

16. Who are your idols?
Comedy there are loads – Eric Morecambe and Ronnie Barker for example. When it comes to American comedy, unfashionably, unsure if I can say it now, but I do enjoy the early stand-up comedy of Woody Allen. There's also an American comic called Bob Newhart who did loads of duologues but without the other half – my favourite was the driving instructor.

17. If you could go back in time and change one thing, what would it be?
We're into Doctor Who territory now! I don't think I would due to chaos theory – you know where a butterfly flaps its wings and causes a hurricane. If I went back in in time I think I'd mess up everything and the universe would collapse in on itself.

18. What have you seen recently on stage that you've enjoyed?
Caroline, or Change at Hampstead Theatre. I thought it was incredible. I also liked Girl from the North Country (I don't only see musicals by the way!).

19. What do you do to unwind in your spare time?
I do a lot of sport and get exercise basically. I have to exhaust myself when not on stage.

20. What advice would you give to aspiring performers?
Don't get obsessed by a route. There isn't one, and while there are lots of people who go to drama school, or somewhere else, that's not the be-all and end-all. The other advice is "just do it". It's the only way to know if it works. The more you do it the better you'll get.