You've Never Seen Anything Like It
Natalie Anglesey chats with Mark Williams, the new Dr Doolittle in the colourful spectacular coming to the Lowry Theatre this Winter and where his bug for the stage started aboard the Mikron canal boat.
If the name Doctor Dolittle sounds vaguely familiar let me jog your memory. You may have read Hugh Lofting’s stories about that gentleman to your children or seen the original film starring Rex Harrison - or even the updated comedy version starring Eddie Murphy. But have you ever seen it on stage? If not you have a treat in store. There’s a new musical version of the story about this extraordinary man who taught himself to speak to the animals and you can see it at The Lowry.
The actor who won the coveted role of the Doctor is Mark Williams, who was bitten by the acting bug when he was in a school play. You’ll recognise him from a variety of roles on stage, television and cinema. “I played Mr Weasley, father of Ron, Ginny, the twins and the rest of the clan, in seven of the Harry Potter films,” Mark tells me. ” I wasn’t in the first one and I‘d no idea when I accepted the role that it would be the mammoth franchise it became. But when I saw the first film I knew it was going to be huge,” he grins. “There was a lot of blue screen used for the scary bits – but it was still fascinating and great fun!”
However, the role you’ll probably remember Mark best for is cuddly Father Brown, the priest in the popular television series, who dispenses wisdom while solving crimes. ” Father Brown is a delight to play and we have just finished filming the seventh series. The only thing is he’s much more intelligent than I am,” Mark jokes. This busy actor has also written and appeared in The Fast Show, 101 Dalmatians, The Borrowers, and Shakespeare in Love. His many theatre credits include working at the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Royal Court.
This new production of Doctor Dolittle, with book, music and lyrics by double Academy Award-winner Leslie Bricusse, is part of the 50th-anniversary celebrations of the original film starring Rex Harrison and will feature the same songs, including the Academy Award-winning, Talk To The Animals.
As Doctor Dolittle is a musical, I hoped that Mark could sing. “Fortunately I was born into a musical family. My father played jazz guitar and I was a boy chorister- so I can still carry a tune. But it’s definitely intimidating as the legendary composer, Leslie Bricusse who wrote the music for the film has written three new songs for this show. We went to the South of France to meet him and that was a privilege as he’s written so many hits over the years. “
Like Rex Harrison before him will Mark speak/sing his way through the songs? “ I don’t want to simply do an imitation of what Rex did in the film. It’s only Talk to the Animals that is written like that - the rest of the songs I’ll just be singing,” he beams.
Salford Quays is familiar territory to Mark. “When I first started working in the theatre, I joined a travelling group of players called Mikron and we lived on a canal boat. When we moored we’d perform plays. Happy days! Mind you the waters at The Lowry weren’t nearly as clean as they are now. You’d find old bicycles and a lot of shopping trolleys as we travelled along the canals - but we were young and dedicated to our craft!”
Better suited to a canal boat were the cleaner Cheshire canals. ”I remember them like the back of my hand,” grins Mark. “Mikron was my first job in the theatre in the days when you had to work and get paid before you were allowed to join Equity. But when you’re young and full of fire we used to think nothing of writing plays and I’d write the music the night before, stop at a pub and perform the play either inside or outside if the weather was suitable.“
Mark laughs when I remind him I’d seen their canal boat arrive at a pub on the Bridgewater Canal just
before a performance and they had a washing line with socks and pants hanging out to dry. “Yes. That was definitely us,” he laughs jovially.
The Lowry is a far cry from Brighton where Mark lives while his fellow actor Brian Capron lives in nearby Hove. As they will both be performing at The Lowry over the Christmas period, they will be driving through the night to enjoy two days off with their respective families.
The ex-Coronation Street villain, who played Richard Hillman, is also excited about his role. “I get to play the circus owner, the role played by Richard Attenborough in the film,” Brian explains.” I’m delighted that I also get to sing the famous hit song, I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It In My Life!” Other well-known television roles Brian’s appeared in include Grange Hill and Where The Heart Is. His theatre credits include performing in Guys and Dolls and at the National Theatre- although he’s most proud of the fact that he was a finalist in Celebrity Masterchef!
When I tell Mark that in a previous production I’ve seen, Polynesia the parrot was voiced by Julie Andrews, he grins. “Well we’ve got Vicky Entwistle doing that who is probably best known for her role as Janice Battersby in Coronation Street and we’ve worked together in Father Brown.” Does the parrot have a Northern accent I wonder? Mark smiles mischievously. “Well, you’ll have to come to see the show to find out!”
If you’re still vague about the story then eccentric Doctor Dolittle embarks on an extraordinary adventure to find the Giant Pink Sea Snail which holds the secret of life and makes the world a happier place. Helped by his human companions, and an exotic menagerie of animal friends including his trusty sidekick Polynesia the parrot, Doctor Dolittle teaches us not only to talk to the animals but to listen to them as well!
Mark reiterates: “This show has everything from a storm at sea to a Noah’s Ark of animals and lots of adventures. We really want this show to be magical and we’ve got a great cast on stage and a superb creative team behind us. “
As I mentioned Leslie Bricusse has written the book, as well as the music and lyrics for more than forty musical films and plays. His stage musicals include Stop the World - I Want to Get Off, Pickwick, Harvey, Goodbye, Mr Chips, Scrooge and Victor/Victoria. While films include Scrooge, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Goodbye, Mr Chips, Superman, Victor/Victoria, Home Alone 1 & 2, Hook, Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, The Last Emperor and various Pink Panthers. As well as winning two Oscars, he’s won a Grammy and eight Ivor Novello Awards. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing him and he’s incredibly modest about his amazing body of work.
This new stage production of Doctor Dolittle has a creative team of the highest calibre. It’s directed by Christopher Renshaw (Zorro, Taboo, We Will Rock You, The King and I), with choreography by Josh Rhodes (Carousel, Sweeney Todd, Company for PBS, Cinderella and Bright Star on Broadway). The design is by Tom Piper (Associate Designer at the RSC 2004 - 2014,) who designed the installation for the Tower of London poppies and Poppies by Paul Cummins).
Mark reminds me that puppets have been used in theatre for centuries. “The innovative puppet design is by Nick Barnes, and you can watch these puppets appear to come alive with puppet direction by Jimmy Grimes. But then something magical seems to happen to me on stage when, as an actor, I just don’t see the person manipulating them- just the dog or the parrot!”
Why should people come to see this show? Mark enthuses: “When I was first asked to play this role I immediately thought yes! This is exactly the right time for this joyous, life-affirming story. Doctor Dolittle is, just like the rest of us, wondering about creation
and our place in it. I just hope everyone enjoys it as much
as we do.”
Doctor Dolittle is at The Lowry 11 December – 5 January 2019,