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Brief Encounter With ... Sylvester McCoy

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I’m sat in The Old Red Lion with the Seventh (and perhaps best loved) Dr Who and a stage performer whose regeneration rate is just as impressive. A poster boy for the jobbing actor Sylvester McCoy, currently staring in Decline and Fall, hasn’t stopped working in the last 50 years. “In the 60s there were a lot of high points” he twinkles “and I did inhale, everybody did, Clinton was lying I can tell you!’”

This is a typically irreverent response for someone whose career has seen him tread the boards with names such as Laurence Olivier, Donald Pleasance (“Who really was pleasant…”), Vanessa Redgrave, Timothy Dalton, Frank Langella and Ian McKellen. He has performed as a street busker and stunt man, as an opera singer with the Welsh National Opera (Puck in Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream) and worked with Joan Littlewood and Richard Eyre. It seems that McCoy is an actor who can do a lot more than just drive the Tardis.

His eclectic work history seems to come from an insatiable need to stay interested as well as a talent for entertaining others. Even as we talk he leaps from impression to impression, his elastic features constantly shifting and his soft Scottish accent undulating wildly with excitement and passionate impressions.

It’s hard to imagine this exuberant clown ever doing anything other than perform, let alone work in City Insurance but sure enough this is where McCoy started out “I hated it…then the 60s arrived and people dropped out and I fell out! I got in the Roundhouse and sold the tickets because I was hippy who could count.” But not for McCoy the life of reconciliation and spreadsheets, and his ‘looning about’ with ticket collector and actor Brian Murphy soon propelled him in front of Ken Campbell who thought him perfect for his ‘mad’ Roadshow. McCoy was its stunt man, extortionist, fire breather and comic.

Citing Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin as influences such a physical comedian may seem a surprising choice to play the refined satire of Evelyn Waugh, but McCoy is relishing working on the text of a writer he adores “I love Evelyn Waugh…he’s rightwing and all that…but in the end there’s such humour it’s just a joy…Stephen Fry must have read him backwards and forwards, Peter Cook certainly did.”

But does he find Waugh’s crisp cutting language constricting? “It is very structured but it’s interesting doing it as performance because it’s a literary piece of work that’s meant to be read…it’s a real challenge…but Henry, who’s adapted it, has done a very good job and the cast are terrific.”

In the middle of a panto/Christmas Carol filled theatrical season Decline and Fall should prove a refreshing alternative. With a vibrant multifarious lead actor and quality text it’s bound to be entertaining, but McCoy hopes it will also inspire audiences in a time when artistic promotion is of the utmost importance. “I hope the audience will come along here and think ‘Oh my god I’ve got to go out and buy that book and get in to all of his other wonderful stuff.’ I’m still haunted by his war trilogy and I read that back in the 60s!”

Decline and Fall opens at the Old Red Lion on 3 December (previews from 30 November) where it runs until 8 January 2011.

- Honour Bayes


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