October 2005 Scotland on Sunday

ANDY Gray has taken the floor. He's up on his feet and demonstrating the acting technique that was expected of him in his early stage career at Perth Theatre. He positions himself balletically, his right leg one step forward, ensuring his body is titled toward the audience (on this occasion, me and his producer sitting at a table in an up-market Covent Garden wine bar). It's a practical but comically unnatural pose.

"We had the Samuel French editions of the plays," he says, returning to his seat. "It would say, 'He is at cabinet. Pours sherry. Moves downstage left to sofa.' That used to be how they were directed."

One day into rehearsals for The Slab Boys and his old-school stagy ways were knocked out of him. The idea of him poncing around in everything but doublet and hose in John Byrne's acerbic working-class comedy is hilarious and, showman that he is, Gray tells it with much self-deprecating laughter.

He eventually put his questionable formative training to good use. As Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum in 1993, he launched into the play-within-a-play by striking all the old Perth poses. "It's always useful when I have to play a bad actor," he chortles.

Such is the scale of Gray's light-entertainment fame in Scotland that it's easy to overlook his credentials as a straight actor in plays from John Byrne to William Shakespeare. Even after playing a two-timing cheat in The Woman who Cooked her Husband, a sexually frustrated older man in Baby Doll at the Citizens' Theatre and God Almighty in A Limited Run on the Edinburgh Fringe – and that's only the past 18 months – you still think first of his brilliant turns working the audience into a comic frenzy as a pantomime funnyman.

South of the border, it's a different matter. There, he has so little public profile that he's lost work because of confusion with the footballer Andy Gray. In Scotland, by contrast, he still gets people recognising him as the dodgy Chancer from City Lights nearly 15 years after the last episode went out.

Fame, though, is unpredictable. "Taxi drivers will say, 'I haven't seen you on the telly for a long time, what you been up to?' I'll say, 'Nothing. I live in a cupboard.' Or I'll say, 'I've just done 2000 Acres of Sky.' And they'll say, 'Och, I never have time to watch telly.'

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"I went into the Co-Op opposite the King's where I was doing the pantomime. I had my Switch card and the cashier said, 'That doesn't look like your signature.' I'd been in there every day and over the road was a massive poster of me. She said, 'It doesn't look like you.' I said, 'I say hello to you every day.'"

It shouldn't come as any surprise – yet somehow still it does – that his latest role is in Stones in his Pockets, a play that was first seen in Scotland by an arty crowd in the Traverse's studio.

After wild acclaim on the Edinburgh Fringe, Marie Jones's comedy grew to be a big West End hit, running for five years. Theatrically inventive and politically astute, it's a satire on American cultural imperialism. A big budget Hollywood movie shoot arrives in County Kerry, regurgitating the old soft-focus romantic images of rural Ireland, while exploiting the local population who can't decide whether they're in awe or outraged by the invasion.

The provocative message behind the comedy, with 15 larger-than-life characters all performed by two multi-tasking actors, is that there are other stories to be told. "It's darker than you first perceive it to be," says Gray. "The American film company comes in and rides roughshod over people, but so do the other characters."

What should be more surprising than Gray's role in the play is that his co-star is his panto partner Allan Stewart. Brilliant mimic and able showbiz charmer though he is, Stewart is a newcomer to the straight acting game. "Allan's worked for years by himself," says Gray who, at 46, likes to call himself the "juve" to his older colleague. "I've always thought it would be good to see him in a play because he does it anyway: he has to get a script or a piece of music, break it down and make it is own. He's finding it difficult but he's really loving it."

After Stones in his Pockets, Stewart and Gray will be straight into Mother Goose at the Edinburgh King's. With Stewart in the title role and Gray as sidekick Hamish McFly, it'll keep their double act going until well into January. "It’s a slog and that's part of the professional thing of doing a panto," says Gray. "When you get through a performance on a wet Wednesday afternoon, it's great, it's very rewarding. If you do go out there and make it enjoyable, then it's enjoyable for you too."

That's plenty to keep him occupied for the immediate future, but Gray likes to keep himself busy. He gave up on his scheme to make commercials for the oil industry a few years ago in Aberdeen ("I loved the camera but I'd rather be a comedian than make training films for BP"), but now ticking away on the back-burner is The Dalry Lama, a play he's writing with a friend based on the true story of an Edinburgh man whose escapades included running away from home only to be found performing on Top of the Pops.

Filling his spare time in this way is not, however, the same as the ambition that drove him when he was younger. "I wanted to be a star," he admits. "I'm older now and I know what's more important – my daughter, the people I love. I think it's enough ambition at 46 that I can still be doing this and trying different challenges. I do love what I do, sometimes to the detriment of me as a person. I enjoy it so much it gives me life."

Stones in his Pockets, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, September 30–October 8 and on tour

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