Liverpool-Irish actor Joe McGann talks to Shelley Marsden about his new play April in Paris, his own ideas on romance and having a ‘butterfly mind’…
“I first saw the play in 1993, in the West End starring my friend Gary Olsen who’s sadly no longer with us, and I thought then that it was a lovely, poignant piece”, says Joe McGann of his latest play, April In Paris currently touring the UK.
The eldest of a sibling acting dynasty with roots in Roscommon and which includes Paul (of Withnail and I fame), Mark and Stephen, the instantly likeable Joe is a seasoned theatre actor and so being on the road, he says, is second nature.
When playwright John Godber – officially the third most performed playwright in the UK, after William Shakespeare and Alan Ayckbourn – was asked to revisit his 1992 play (Olivier-nominated for Comedy of the Year), he immediately thought of Joe and his co-star Shobna Gulati (ex-Coronation Street), rewriting a few elements to bring it up to date. Critics have praised their easy onstage chemistry.
“It’s typical John Godber”, says the 55 year old of the delicately wrought romantic comedy, which those who have seen 2013 film Le Week End, with Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent, will note echoes it closely.
“Northern couple Al and Bet, who’ve been married for years, are falling on straightened times like a lot of people these days; he’s been made redundant, she’s working in a shoe shop and they’ve got empty nest syndrome.
“Their relationship has become strained; they’re in that pattern where they bicker all the time. But John writes sparse dialogue, he’s clever. You’re rooting for them even though they’re knocking verbal lumps out of each other. You get the idea that these people do love each other, but their relationship is on the rocks.”
But it’s when Al wins an overnight trip to Paris that their eyes begin to be opened, to both the good and bad. Up to their necks in culture, croissants and champagne, the bright lights of Paris rekindle their relationship, but the reality of returning home looms large.
For Joe, it’s more than “a bit of fluff” – there’s an element of state of the nation in it, talking about people’s attitudes towards Europe, and it also questions the British relationship with its own culture: “We don’t really in this country have a great place in the cannon of things for culture – we’d rather watch Britain’s Got Talent or Made In Chelsea than go to an art gallery. It’s not a polemic, it just makes you think a bit.”
As for Paris as the supreme romantic location, Joe reckons it’s got something to do with being designed by the one guy. That would be Georges-Eugène Haussmann, chosen by Napoleon III to carry out a massive program of new boulevards, parks and public works, commonly called Haussmann’s renovation of Paris, a vision that still dominates its centre.
“The whole centre has so much space, such a tremendous amount of beautiful things and because of the space around them you can appreciate them”, says Joe. “London has beautiful buildings, but they’re all squashed together, you can’t see the beauty so well.”
Perhaps its allure also lies in how comfortably the French wear their culture, suggests the father-of-one. “In England, culture has been homogenised. There’s a line in the play which says ‘Every shopping outlet you go to looks like a shopping outlet somewhere else – once you find Boots, you’ve found everything’.”
The play is not an endictment of the English though. “John [Godber] is very much a man of the north, he’s a bit of a clever guy too, I think he’s got a PHD; but he’s extremely affectionate about these people even if it doesn’t first appear that way. There’s more than meets the eye in this play, more than just a good laugh and a love story.”
Happily married to holistic therapist Tamzin, Joe says romantic cities don’t really cut the mustard with him – he tends toward open spaces. He and his wife, who have a home in Hampshire, love Selborne Common near where they live.
“We find it very romantic. The great nature writer Gilbert Wright wrote his first books about that area. As a city, I’ve always found Yates’ Dublin very romantic, for its history, its embracing of culture. Maybe my wife not so much… but I do remember buying her some of Yates’ love poems.”
For the full article, see the Irish World newspaper (issue July 12 2014).
April in Paris is on tour now. See www.atgtickets.com/shows/april-in-paris for more.