Matthew Cottle is one of the few actors to have been directed by Alan Ayckbourn in Scarborough, the West End and New York. Now appearing in the Neighbourhood Watch at the Brits Off Broadway festival, Matthew talks about his varied acting experiences with Alan Ayckbourn.
What was your first experience of an Alan Ayckbourn play?
As far as professional acting, Relatively Speaking was the first one. I’d worked in the New Victoria, Newcastle-under-Lyme, for about seven and a half months with Peter Cheeseman and they just asked me to play Greg. It’s such a masterpiece; a perfect play. When you come into the garden after that first scene and you get all those paybacks; all those plants he put in earlier and it’s just wonderful. I had such a great time doing that play. I found it challenging, but the two older actors were wonderful. It was in at the deep end but it was a good one to start with, although obviously I’d love to have had Alan directing it.
You trained at RADA, did you do any of Alan’s work there?
We didn’t do any of Alan’s work At RADA but I used to go to Windsor Theatre and see their Ayckbourn productions and absolutely adored them. Alan has genuinely always been my number one favourite playwright; I’ve always been such a huge fan.
Your big Ayckbourn break was with the West End premiere of Comic Potential.
By that stage I had a little bit of a TV profile and I read the script and thought, “this is brilliant.” I absolutely understood the part of Adam and I worked so hard and pretty much learnt the entire role for the audition. I went in to the audition and you can always tell with Alan when you’ve got it right; I left thinking this was brilliant! I then went into a rather intimidating recall with the producer Michael Codron, who on the contrary, doesn’t laugh at anything and was giving me nothing back, which sort of slightly threw me. But Alan was saying, “just relax it’ll be fine. He’s like this, he’s probably wanting to knock your fee down!” A couple of days later I learnt I’d got it and that was wonderful, going into that read-through and meeting people like Janie Dee and seeing that extraordinary performance close at hand. It was a happy job and having your name in lights in the West End in one of Alan’s plays, it was just a dream come true.
You played Adam opposite Janie Dee as Jacie, what was that like given that Janie walked away with most of the major acting awards for that role?
I think it’s like being Ernie Wise next to Eric Morecombe! Your job is to tell the story of the play but the light is, quite rightly, on the Jacie character. When you’re acting opposite a performance like that all you can do is be with her and be truthful to the story. You’ve just got to do your best, be truthful to the character and tell the story. That’s what I did!
You next worked with Alan in 2004 with his acclaimed revival of Way Upstream at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
I remember meeting Alan in the bar at Richmond Theatre and he just got chatting and told me what his plans were. When he mentioned Way Upstream, I knew it was a brilliant play and I’d got a feeling there might be a part for me. I straight away went to my agent and said I think I’d quite like to be seen for Alistair and Alan just offered it to me. It’s such a wonderful play, I thought wow, to do that in Scarborough, in the round with the set and on the boat - what an opportunity! That is still in my top three happiest jobs, I remember genuinely crying at the curtain call on the last night as it was such a wonderful, happy experience with such a fantastic, lovely cast.
In 2009, Alan’s 70th birthday was celebrated at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatres were you performed in Just Between Ourselves, Private Fears In Public Places and with Alan directing you in Man Of The Moment.
I read for Just Between Ourselves - I played Neil which I’ve done several times before, I love Neil, he’s so blissfully unhappy - and that seemed to go really well and they brought me back in to read for Laurie Sansom for Private Fears In Public Places and I was just going to be in the two plays. Then Alan was looking for someone to close Man Of The Moment and I thought I wouldn’t normally take that part, but Alan was directing it, I was in Northampton anyway and it’s just a brilliant play, so I took the part of Ashley. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much in a read-through as I have as I did for Man Of The Moment in Northampton. I sat between Kim Wall and Laura Doddington and tears were streaming down my face. It was a joy to be in that with a wonderful cast and it was a fantastic experience.
This led to the role of Tristram in Alan’s revival of Taking Steps at the Orange Tree in 2010, which was incredibly well received.
There was an extraordinary response. We used to go in, even before the reviews came out, knowing we were in something very special. I think it’s probably my favourite Ayckbourn play, just for pure laughs. I think it’s as funny a play as Alan has ever written and so clever.
Which brings us to 2011 and the chance to return to Scarborough to appear in Alan’s new plays Dear Uncle and Neighbourhood Watch.
Dear Uncle was wonderful to play and I’m so flattered to have been asked to do it. Flattered and surprised. I particularly enjoyed playing the second act. It was great to have this row scene where you kept going for it, which actually got more and more extreme as the run went on! The climax used to get me every night and I don’t think I’ve ever cried on stage before, but I don’t think there was a night in Dear Uncle where I didn’t completely go because I found it heartbreaking actually. It was beautifully written.
And you also played Martin in Neighbourhood Watch, which will transfer to New York and is your first Ayckbourn world premiere. What are your feelings on this opportunity to work with Alan?
I remember reading both plays in 2010 and I thought they were both wonderful. Two such fabulous roles. When I was a RADA, I was very clear that I wanted to do sitcoms at the BBC and the plays of Alan Ayckbourn. That’s what I’ve done. I’m living the dream!
With thanks to the Neighbourhood Watch company for all their help and support of www.alanayckbourn.net, wishing you all every success with Neighbourhood Watch in New York.