You’ve got a ‘date’ with a playwright… where do you choose to meet? A dimly lit and exclusive member’s club of course.
My meeting with Tim Whitnall is for business but I soon learn that work aside… an evening (or indeed and interview) with such a character-packed man is far from a chore. With such a colorful myriad of experience behind him and a play currently on stage in London, it’s hardly surprising he has a lot to say.
The doorway to the members’ club is invisible to the naked eye; or, in my case, to contact lense covered peepsers. A dimly lit cavern full of important businessmen and artistic sorts creates a ‘playwright in a haystack’ scenario for a shortsighted journalist like me. Solitary figures sit hunched over laptops and tipples. Hmm… pick a Tim, any Tim.
Luckily, he spots me and with a cheeky twinkle in his eye, launches into conversation. He’s been working on another piece of writing but the interruption obviously hasn’t bought on a bout of ‘talkers block’. Just the way I like it.
“You know, Brad Pitt was in here recently…”
Big names mean big business. They also mean you’re forbidden from filming an interview in their midst. I guess the likes of Jude Law and Co don’t want a camcorder intruding on their gentlemanly time. Tim however, is delightfully free of ego-mania and keen to open up on camera. “What’s the strangest place you’ve ever done an interview?” he asks. “I want to go one better”.
Before we have the chance to cab our way to a crazy impromptu Tim-esque setting, a meeting room becomes available. Right, it’s time to talk shop – literally. No one in Tim’s family was ever involved in theatre so his stage ‘awakening’ began purely by chance.
“I was at a Christmas show with my parents and two drag queens asked for a volunteer. They dragged me up on stage and it was the first time I knew I wanted to be an actor. Anyone who’s been on stage will know what I mean; the rush when you’re under the lights and in front of a crowd… it really was an amazing moment that I’ve never forgotten. It still feels the same now.”
Tim has no problem admitting that his launch into theatre was largely accidental. “I’d always shown off and done impressions of teachers at school. I remember one teacher telling me there’s no living for a boy who does that”.
Luckily for us, they were wrong.
For someone who went straight from sixth form into a fully-fledged acting career, Tim is extremely willing to credit plain old luck. “I was studying at the time that Elvis Presley died. There was a kid at school who thought I looked like Elvis (it must have been my luxurious hair).”
At the time, Tim sang in a band and there was a show on the West End about Elvis. They were looking for three men to fill the role of ‘The King’ throughout the various stages of his life. “They couldn’t find short Elvis… I ended up leaving school on a Friday and playing the part on the Monday”. If only life were always so easy.
When quizzed on the famous Elvis dance techniques Tim laughs. “I’d already mastered the pelvic moves and I still play the guitar.” As for whipping out impressions as party tricks? Only if you’re lucky. He never thought he’d make a living from it but as the narrator of various television shows, including the Teletubbies, he’s accustomed to voice-over question. Whether he’s bringing a talking wasp to life, impersonating Sean Connery or even the sound of a lift, he does it with ease. Which really, he explains, is what ‘The Fabulist’ is all about.
“It’s about an imposter. He’s not an impressionist but is a chameleon and I think that’s what I’ve got away with in my career”.
The play is set in a department store. “About three years ago I got a call from a friend who told me to switch on the radio. There was a man on air who had the best job in the world. He was employed by a major department store (somewhere in the world) and worked on a plush office. At least once a day he was summoned down to a specific department where he met the general manager and a furious customer who demanded he was fired on the spot. The ultimate in customer satisfaction.”
So, this guy gets fired for a living; sounds like stellar material for a play. Tim however, takes it to the next level. “I thought that if this man spends his life hiding for a living, maybe he has bigger secrets in his everyday life”
This is where ‘The Fabulist’ shines. It takes us backstage – behind the glossy exterior of ‘Tuffin’s Department Store’ in East London. Paul Goodwin plays ‘The Fabulist’ Mr Bartlett, a man who enters in drag and makes an equally dramatic exit. The marvelous Paul Reynolds bustles about as the hyperactive manager, Tuffin Jnr. Rosie Wilkinson is endearingly ditzy as the eavesdropping beautician and Tessa Churchard plays the sexy troubleshooter. Les Mis star Joanna Mays tops off the bill with her roaring display of customer dissatisfaction.
At the mention of the cast, Tim chuckles – “These people make me laugh far too much”. If the reaction of the crowd on press night was anything to go by, they’ll have you in laughter-induced hysterics too.
The award winning Old Red Lion is the perfect venue for such a piece. Small, intimate and character-packed, it brings the cast and audience so close, the front row can touch them. Just the type of venue Tim loves; “For me the grungier the venue the better. It gives the sense of claustrophobia that the play is about.”
Producer Bill Kenwright once gave Tim some great advice – “Say your line love, and GET OFF!” Luckily for the rest of us, Mr Whitnall doesn’t look set to throw the towel (or the laptop) in yet. It wasn’t the craziest setting I’ve ever held and interview but Tim Whitnall has sealed himself as one of the most charming and intriguing characters I’ve ever spoken to. One could even say – the most fabulous ‘fabulist’.