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The return of The Pillowman

Paul Kaye plays Detective Ariel. Production pictures: Johan Persson

Paul Kaye told David Hennessy about starring in the first West End production of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, why we need more of that kind of brave work in this revisionist era and the time he was rehearsing a show for someone stop and give him a few pound because they thought he was hard up.

“It’s a masterpiece in my view,” the actor Paul Kaye tells The Irish World of Martin McDonagh’s Olivier Award- winning The Pillowman.

The Pillowman is currently enjoying its first major London revival since it premiered at the National Theatre back in 2003 with what is also its West End debut at the Duke of York Theatre.

Lily Allen leads the cast as Katurian, a writer in a police state who is interrogated about the content of her short stories and their similarities to several murders occurring in the town.

Steve Pemberton plays Detecive Tupolski while Kaye is his younger colleague Ariel.

Matthew Tennyson completes the cast as Katurian’s brother Michal in the piece that is directed by Matthew Dunster.

“It’s so layered.

“I guess you could say it’s almost a murder mystery but it’s about freedom of expression and the state’s attempting to control that or interpret it as a seditious act.

“It’s about childhood trauma, it’s about so many things and it’s so cleverly constructed.

“It’s a wild ride for an audience and for us as a cast. It’s just wonderful chaos, there’s so many twists and turns. It’s an unbelievable experience to be part of it.”

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A writer being interrogated about murders of children may not sound like something that would make you laugh but The Pillowman is the darkest of comedies much like McDonagh’s other work.

Kaye’s Ariel gets up close and personal with Lily Allen’s Katurian in the interrogation.

“That’s the big reveal for us.

“We did our third preview last night so it’s the laughter that comes as a whole new layer to the experience.

“We’ve obviously been in a rehearsal room and exploring the dark territory that it inhabits and suddenly there’s 650 people laughing at various points which changes the rhythm of the piece and it becomes something else again.

“Yes, it’s getting lots of laughs. I mean Steve is just a master, the way he shifts his gears so elegantly, it’s a masterclass. And Lily’s extraordinary.

“The casting is so wonderful. I think in the past Katurian’s only ever been played by a man- or I did read that there was a Mexican production where Katurian was female- but she’s just got such an innate spirit, she’s naturally courageous and creative and it’s everything that the character should be.

“She is that character in a lot of ways. She’s such a brave actress and person to take it on.

“Matthew Tennyson is absolutely wonderful as well. He’s a beautiful actor and lovely man. I think we’re a cracking little team and we look out for each other and just get this sense we’re going on this incredible journey and these sort of treats don’t turn up that often.”

Ariel is described as a brutal and violent detective who has a vendetta against anyone who commits crimes against children because of abuse in his own past.

“He’s got a lot of rage, Ariel. He’s a very complicated guy but he’s a wonderful part to play.

“I think he has a wonderful journey.

“That’s what you really want as an actor, to have that arc.
“He opens up and you find with all the characters where the trauma is and what it is that has made them the people they are.

“All the characters are damaged severely, one by one you get access to that part of their history that has sort of determined their trajectory as people and certainly with Ariel, it’s coming from a very harrowing place and you start to understand him a lot more.

“It’s great fun to play that because he’s a pretty scary dude to begin with.”

Paul has seen already how people have reacted very differently to the play and this has been evident in the reactions to a story within the play about a young girl who believes she is the second coming.

“There’s a sequence in the play which tells the story of the Little Jesus and there were three people I was chatting to who were in the other night and all three had a completely different experience watching that story being told: One found it hilarious, one found it deeply disturbing that anyone could even come up with a story like that and the other person found it deeply upsetting and wasn’t sure they were gonna sleep that night. That’s three wildly different reactions to the same story.

Paul Kaye with Steve Pemberton who plays Detective Tupolski. 

“I think that’s what makes this play so incredible, because everybody interprets things differently.

“Everything is subjective and that’s the beauty of art. I think that’s why this play is so brave, it is a fearless piece of work and it’s throwing grenades that will have all sorts of different effects on people.

“It shakes people up.

“I think it’s shocking in places and there’s not enough of that around. Maybe it will polarize opinion and that’s great too because all the best things in my view culturally, whether it’s the Stooges or the Sex Pistols, half the audience f**king hated it because they weren’t ready for it or they didn’t get it.

“I’ve always had this thing: If everyone likes something, there’s gotta be something wrong with it.

“I was having a chat with someone the other day about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

“A character like The Child Catcher would now be screened to audiences before release and there would be so many people that wouldn’t like him, he would be edited out of the film.

“But actually what do you remember about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? It’s The Child Catcher.

“Of course times have changed as they had to but there’s still room to be provocative and to be brave and that’s what this play is.

“It’s a work of art.”

Martin McDonagh recently won the Best British Film BAFTA award for The Banshees of Inisherin, which was also nominated for nine Academy Awards.

He is also the writer and director of award-winning films Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and In Bruges.

Martin McDonagh in rehearsals with director Matthew Dunster. Rehearsal pictures: Helen Murray.

But McDonagh first made a name for himself in the theatre world with plays such as The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Cripple of Inishmaan.

“Charming and lovely man,” Paul says of the playwright.

“And in rehearsals the whole time which is such an honour.

“When you see creative people still exploring and finding things out about the work that they wrote 20 years ago, that’s an amazing thing to witness. Having Martin in rehearsals has been very, very special.

“There’s just so much to explore in this piece and I guess we’ll keep exploring it throughout the whole run, that’s the joy of doing theatre.

“In the past I haven’t done masses, this is just my fifth or sixth theatre show but I know from the experiences I’ve had, you keep finding things and details and nuance because every audience is different as well so the energy in the theatre is different on a nightly basis.”


The bulk of Kaye’s work has certainly been screen work.

He rose to prominence in the 90s playing shock interviewer Dennis Pennis before landing comedy roles such as an early role in Spaced and the lead role in sitcom Perfect World before the lead role in the film Blackball. Then he graduated to more dramatic roles.

You may know him from playing Thoros of Myr in Game of Thrones, the indifferent psychiatrist in Ricky Gervais’ After Life or the pathologist in Vera.

And while he may be relatively inexperienced in terms of stage, he boasts an Olivier Award nomination for his work in Matilda the Musical.

Do you get recognised and what do you get recognised from? “No, I don’t get recognised very often to be honest with you. I guess if you’re on the box then it sort of spikes a bit.

“I suppose it varies, Thrones was big for me.

“I think when I joined that show, it was series three and it slowly started to become this global phenomenon so that was great to be part of.”

We ask because it could be absolutely anything from something like Three Girls, the true life story of the Rochdale child sex abuse ring, to It’s All Gone Pete Tong, the DJ who overcomes both the loss of his hearing and his drug addiction.

“Three Girls, I had never done anything that felt like it came with such a strong sense of responsibility. That was a really important piece of television.

“Pete Tong, blimey, I think I managed to squeeze that in just before I turned 40 because I’ve been sober for many, many years now so that film sort of reminds me of a previous life, you know?”

Speaking of responsibility, what about playing the late great Terry Pratchett? “That was a beautiful job. It was only three days’ work but oh my gosh. And I wasn’t really that familiar with Terry’s work. I got offered the part and did a lot of research and fell in love with the man and that was a great privilege to play him, wow. And I got to put his hat on and his jacket and sit at his desk. He had three big computer screens. He would be working on three books at a time, he had three books in his head: Extraordinary man. That was very, very special. Very special.”

Did you film your Game of Thrones scenes in Belfast? “Yes, I was in Belfast predominantly.

 “I did have a two week experience in Iceland which was just mind blowing but we shot most of the action in Belfast.

“In Iceland we were walking across glaciers being filmed by drones and it was just this incredible adventure. I’m glad I got to do something elsewhere because obviously it was filmed all over the world.”

Game of Thrones also starred Alfie Allen, brother of his current castmate Lily.

It occurs to the Irish World that Kaye has worked with all the famous Allen family now as he also played the Richard Ashcroft-esque character in the Bittersweet Symphony parody video Vindaloo with Keith Allen, who is both Lily and Allen’s father.

“I met Alfie in Belfast a couple of times, it was lovely to catch up with him because I did see quite a bit of Alfie when he was a kid. I only met Lily once when we shot the Vindaloo video all those years ago.

“I actually took Alfie to the 1998 cup final, Arsenal v Newcastle when he was about eight years old I think, and we won so that was wonderful.”

The ‘we’ is Arsenal in case you didn’t know.

What was your take on last season and coming so close? “I honestly never thought we’d win it.

“It was the best season. I’ve never really enjoyed the Emirates, I’m still missing Highbury because that’s where all my wonderful memories are and that’s where I grew up but the atmosphere this season was just wonderful.

“You can always tell when things are going well because there are loads of new songs and there haven’t been new songs for years but it was just great fun.

“We go again.”

Paul also appeared in Pulling, the series that launched Sharon Horgan’s career.

“She’s incredible. I mean what a creative force she is, my gosh and with Dennis Kelly who’s a good mate.

“What a piece of work that was: Just brilliant writing, brilliant characters, brilliant stories and it was an absolute crime that it didn’t get recommissioned by the BBC. It just makes you think, ‘What the f**k are they waiting for, what’s better than that?’ But that was great and I love working with Sharon.

“And Dennis I’ve worked with a few times. He obviously wrote Matilda the musical which I have to say is probably the highlight of my working life, to be part of that production was incredible.

“Every show was a delight. I don’t know how many I did, 300 or something, but there was not a 7, they were all tens because those kids were so incredible and watching a 10 year old blow the roof off a theatre every night.”

I read a funny story about you to do with Matilda. Is it true that you took a break from rehearsals, went outside to smoke and someone stopped their bike and gave you some money obviously thinking things weren’t going well?

“They did, yeah. That was when we were rehearsing in Clapham.

“They asked me if I used to be Dennis Pennis and I said yes and then they stuck a fiver in my hand and said, ‘Sorry to see ya down on your luck’.”

Did you give it back saying you were in a West End show actually? “He sort of jumped back on his motorbike and f**ked off and I didn’t get a chance.”

Paul Kaye in Matilda.

So you made a quick few quid, not bad..

“Yeah,” he laughs. “I’m just one of these people: You stick me in Armani, I still look like a tramp.”

There has been a bit of chance involved in Paul’s career, there was no grand plan.

“There’s still no grand plan,” he says.

“No, there was no grand plan.

“I hadn’t grown up with ambitions of wanting to do this, that and the other as an actor. I love the fact that you go on these adventures that you never anticipated going on and I love the variety of what the work brings.

“I’ve never had that kind of, ‘I want to do this, this, this and be this in five years’ time and this in ten years’ time’. I’ve never had that because I came to it late and 30 years on I’m surprised that I’m still doing it really,” he laughs.

Dennis Pennis was the scourge of celebrities and red carpet events in the 1990s. He once asked Demi Moore would she consider keeping her clothes on in a movie and Steve Martin why he wasn’t funny anymore.

Mentioning Dennis Pennis, how do you think you would react to one of his questions? “Terribly, I would imagine.

“I don’t really go to any showbizzy things, it’s not my scene.

“To be honest with you, it’s a weird thing to look back on doing. I don’t know how or why it happened. For me it was like a last throw of the dice. I’d hit 30 and I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d just got offered this thing after a random sequence of events.

“I was in a punk band called We Are Pleb and we did a spoof interview for an indie music show called Transmission. I interviewed the band. I had bright red hair and very stupid specs and we just did this spoof interview and then got pissed with the crew and went up Oxford Street abusing people just for a laugh.

“Then I got a call years later saying, ‘We’ve seen this video of you doing this character, we’re doing a pilot’. I just sort of thought, ‘F**k it, I’ll do it’. I knew when I finished doing it, I would never do anything like it again.

“To try and be an actor afterwards was quite tricky because I had p*ssed off a lot of potential employers.”

Do you have any regrets? Do you wish you went straight for acting rather than coming to it late? “I’m happy with how things are,” he says straightaway.

“My journey has been kind of chaotic and fun and I’ve been fortunate and no, I don’t think I’d change anything really.”

We are sure he would change one thing, the last Premiership season but what Arsenal fan wouldn’t?

The Pillowman, produced by Empire Street Productions, is at the Duke of York Theatre in London to 2 September 2023

For more information, click here.

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