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Past/Present/Future for … Phil Nichol

Comedian and actor Phil Nichol stars in the first major London revival of Sam Shepard’s 1994 psychological thriller Simpatico, which opens this week’s at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington. Born in Scotland and raised in Canada, Nichol’s previous London stage credits include One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Christian Slater and Boy George musical Taboo in the West End. At the Edinburgh Fringe, where he regularly appears, his acting credits include 12 Angry Men, Talk Radio, Killer Joe and The Zoo Story, for which he won The Stage Award for Best Actor in 2005. Nichol has also had continued success as stand-up comic. In 2006, he won Edinburgh’s If.comedy Award (formerly the Perrier Prize) for his stand-up show The Naked Racist.

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PAST: In an odd way Sam Shepard has played a big part in my own rediscovery of my acting roots. When I was in One Flew Over the Cuckoo\'s Nest in 2004, I went to the National Theatre with the cast and I ran into Maggie Inchley, who was there with her boyfriend watching Shepard’s Buried Child. She invited me to do a project called The Zoo Story with her, so I did that and then the next year we formed the Comedians Theatre Company together. One of the first things we produced was Sam Shepard’s True West.

I was really fortunate to do One Flew Over the Cuckoo\'s Nest. It was basically put together by a group of comedians, and it starred Christian Slater and Frances Barber, first in Edinburgh and then in London. The closing night of that show at the Gielgud Theatre was a sell-out and it was such a great night. It was the highest-grossing drama in the West End in recent memory. I would certainly say that it was a career highlight for me.

The year before that in Edinburgh we did 12 Angry Men with Theatre Tours International and Bill Bailey at the Assembly Rooms Music Hall. That also sold out and was getting standing ovations, and I got to play what I believe is the best part in it - juror number ten, who is a racist and a really vile and horrible, nasty, oafish man. I really enjoyed that. When Cuckoo\'s Nest came to London, I think the expectations were quite high because of the success we had had with 12 Angry Men.

PRESENT: I love Sam Shepard’s writing. It’s such a pleasure to say the lines because they’re really deep and meaty. My character’s name is Vinnie or Vincent (who was played by Nick Nolte in the 1999 film version of the play). He’s one of three people who were involved in a racing scam three years before the action of the play begins. Basically, he has ended up being gypped in the scam and his buddy Carter takes off with his money, his car, and his wife Rosie. Now Rosie and Carter are living in a different state while my character lives in a one-bedroom hovel, with nothing but a bed. The one thing he does have is a box of incriminating photographs which were used to blackmail the racing commissioner, Darryl P Simms, as part of the scam. Vinnie has a need to free himself of the bondage of what happened and how he ended up becoming the loser.

I think it’s the perfect role for me. It’s a great role and a great play. It’s really tightly written and cryptic, and it’s fun to try and figure out all the emotions involved and what actually happened. The racing scam is never spelt out in detail so you have to fill in the details yourself.

I’ve done a lot of stand-up comedy as well as a lot of acting. They’re totally different styles of performance. A play is a collaboration between a whole group of people. You arrive and put together the piece with the director directing and the other actors all giving their input to create a certain atmosphere. Stand-up is a lot more immediate. I make the atmosphere myself and I do all the creating and rehearsing in my brain. Stand-up can be very solitary so it’s fun to work together on this play. We’ve got some great actors in the show.


When I was about 12 or 13, I had already decided I was going to be a professional actor. I started training when I was 17 and I went to drama school for four years. But the comedy is what I do for a living. It takes me all over the world and it keeps me alive and feeds me. The acting and the comedy are both valuable for different reasons, but I am enjoying getting back into the acting.

There are still lots of plays I’d love to do. I would love to do any number of Shakespearean plays. With the Comedians Theatre Company, we’re looking at some Restoration comedies and some Gregory Burke perhaps. Last year in Edinburgh we did Killer Joe by Tracy Letts, who also wrote August: Osage County.

2009 will be a busy year for me. I have my third stand-up tour around Britain coming up after this play is over, and then I’ll go into producing theatre shows and writing another hour of stand-up for Edinburgh. I feel very privileged and charmed that I have the lifestyle I have. Everything that comes to me now seems like a bit of a bonus. But obviously in the future I would like to write, direct, star in and produce a feature film which wins an Academy award in all those categories!

Simpatico opens on 15 January 2009 (previews from 13 January) at the Old Red Lion Theatre, where it continues until 31 January. It’s directed by Hannah Eidenow and also stars Gabriel Butler-Lewis and Danielle King.


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