Slightly shabby, with an air of mischief in his rasping laugh, Philip Martin Brown is the sort of teacher you wish you’d had.
Hundreds of young actors had that wish come true in the eight years Brown played Grantly Budgen in BBC1’s Waterloo Road. It’s easy to envy them when you’re sitting in the West Yorkshire Playhouse opposite the man who brought the character to life. Particularly when he leans over and says, conspiratorially, “don’t repeat this, but...” and then follows it up with a fruitily told story.
He is one of those generation of actors who has a bank of anecdotes in his back pocket that he whips out and tells with a raised eyebrow. He is decidedly old school.
He’s almost the perfect choice to play Dad in Alan Bennett’s Enjoy, the first play in the Playhouse’s season celebrating Leeds’s favourite playwright son. Why is Brown only almost perfect? Well, he has the acting chops, he has the perfect combination of likeability and cantankerous attitude to play Dad, the only downside is that Brown hails from the wrong side of the Pennines. “I’ve got special permission and my passport to come across,” says Brown, the twinkling eyes and rasping laugh confirmation that he isn’t offended by the accusation that he’s a Lancastrian taking a Yorkshireman’s job.
While we are talking Playhouse artistic director James Brining comes over and confirms what Brown has been saying about the Alan Bennett play – that audiences are in for something of a surprise when they go to see it. Brown says: “It’s such a wonderful play, but it’s so dark. The darkness in this play is not something that a lot of people will associate with Bennett, but people forget where he came from.
“When he started out he was this darkly comic writer, the type of comedy around at the time was from the likes of the Monty Pythons and Bennett was a part of all that scene.
“There are a lot of laughs in the play, but it is also going to be uncomfortable for audiences. It’s the sort of thing where people laugh and then feel uncomfortable for laughing.”
Bennett himself has said that Enjoy was perhaps the least apt title for a play that can be incredibly oppressive. Endure, he has suggested, might have been a more appropriate title.
“This image of Bennett as a teddy bear came later in his career. This was written in 1980 though, before he got that reputation and it really is a dark piece of work,” says Brown.“It’s a play that reflects the way families really are and a play that shows how couples are when they’ve been together for a long time, when they rub along together and drive each other mad.”
It is, by Bennett’s admission, the biggest flop of his career. And yet, everyone involved in the production, from the director down, appears delighted to be bringing this work to a new audience. “I bit their hand off when they offered me the part,” says Brown. “I’m particularly fascinated to see how it goes down with people who like to think they know Bennett’s work. I don’t think they’ll find the Bennett they think they know in this.”
Bringing the piece to the stage holds several other significances for Brown. He was last on the stage of the Playhouse 22 years ago, when he brought to life the brilliant, some would argue equally darkly comic, Two by Jim Cartwright. On top of that it is 18 years since Brown was on stage. “I’ve done a bit of commercial panto, but it has been 18 years since I was on stage with a play,” says Brown. “It’s a bit of an eye-opener. It’s good to get out of your comfort zone.”
Brown seems fairly unperturbed by the prospect of treading the boards for the first time in almost two decades, next week. Not surprising. He’s been at this acting lark a long time.
“Acting is acting. When you’ve been playing one character for a long time you do get into a groove, but it’s still the same. It’s still about telling the truth,” he says.
“It’s like riding a bike.”
* Runs until June 7.