Rik Mayall Steps into Noel Coward’s Shoes

by Rik Mayall Interviews And Articles Archive Blog

This Is Local London, 24th January 2003

My phone rings. “Hello darling, it’s Rik,” and straight away the famous Rik Mayall charm has begun to work its magic.

Giggling unashamedly, I attempt to pull myself together and get down to the task in hand, that is, asking the popular British comic about his latest role as the egotistical charmer Garry Essendine in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter.

Outrageous flirting and naughty innuendoes feature prominently from the outset of our interview, and it soon becomes obvious why Rik is perfectly cast for his new role. As he oozes charm down the phone, I am as much putty in his hands as I imagine the audience will be when he takes to the stage as the flamboyantly dressing-gowned and devastatingly handsome Essendine, a part Coward admitted writing as a vehicle for his own talent.

“Picture a man in his early 40s who has been in light comedy for 20 years and has started to get a bit of a paunch and a receding hair line. He is very, very, very vane, adores talking about himself and has tantrums if he is not centre of attention. Can you imagine why they thought of me?”

Set in the glamorous world of 1930s theatre, Present Laughter is a comic exaggeration of the whirlwind life Coward led in his heyday.

“Garry is reaching menopause and is too old for all that flamboyant showing off. He’s not quite as good as he was at it, unlike me who is as great as ever,” says the ever-modest Mayall.

“Wait until you see the finery of the 1930s fashions. I am on Sweetex at the moment so that I will be all thin and sexy in my costume.”

Famed for his loud, brash and often violent characters, the boisterous comedian does not seem an obvious choice of actor to star in a Noel Coward play. Rik begs to differ.

“Garry is not so far away from the main thrust of all my characters: vanity, a big ego, lots of sex. He’s very similar to Richie Rich in Filthy, Rich and Catflap.

“I hadn’t come across this play before but when I read the script I thought it was fantastically funny. Garry is so witty, so spiteful, so cruel. It’s just lovely.”

Rik is keen to get across the darker side to the play, which often gives subtle hints of the looming threat of war.

“Present Laughter is written on a serious note. Something very nasty is about to happen, which is very appropriate for us at the moment with a war seemingly imminent.”

Live theatre is a medium of entertainment which is obviously close to Rik’s heart. Even when filming a television series, he insists on a live audience being present.

“You have to have a live audience. The comedy is so much better as you get the timing from the audience’s reaction.”

Rik seems to have in mind a clear career shift to put theatre work over television. In a rare moment, he puts on his serious hat when considering what he sees as a decline in the quality of television.

“Theatre is the coming form of entertainment. Telly has kept it in the background for 40 years but now that has keeled over and died. Telly has had its day. l’ve been there and done that.

“The real expertise is now in the theatre. I prefer it by far to TV. There is no one who can control me; no editor cutting out bits and no one saying that I shouldn’t say certain things as it will upset some politician. If you want drama, go to the theatre, that’s where drama was invented. Me and Ade’s [Adrian Edmondson] hearts have always been in the theatre.”

Having met at college in the late 70s, ‘Richie and Eddie’ have had a long and successful friendship, mainly involving repeatedly beating each other up, although clever timing has meant that almost always no blood is spilt.

However, a slight misjudgement in distances during rehearsals in Southport for the theatre version of the hit TV series Bottom did result in a concussed Edmondson being rushed off to hospital for stitches after his co-star hit him over the head with a bat.

With a comedy partnership spanning 27 years, I ask if Adrian is his comedy soul mate.

“He is my comedy servant. I am the talented one. I dictate the script and he types it up; occasionally I allow him a one-liner feed for me,” he jokes.

Managing to interrupt the loquacious comic, I ask him, with such a packed working schedule, what he does to relax.

“I watch old vids of me or I often put a mirror in front of the telly and look at myself. Sometimes I go upstairs and look at the mirror up there, or I go for a drive as there’s a good mirror in the car.

“If I did have time to relax, I would probably sit talking about myself until I pass out.”

With an infectious enthusiasm for his current project, Rik is keen to encourage others to get out and experience live theatre.

“I don’t want the audience to be only people who already know Noel Coward, although, of course, we want them to come along too. It is for people who perhaps haven’t been to the theatre before and want something a bit different, who want a laugh, so come and get it.”

With vanity, the menopause and a large cast of ten actors on stage all having it off with each other (I have censored the vocabulary as best I can), I don’t think Rik will have any trouble drawing in the crowds.