Rowan Atkinson – The New Revue Tour: Theatre Royal, Newcastle Upon Tyne: 1986
Musical: Oliver! Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London: 2009
Play: Quartemaine’s Terms: Wyndham’s Theatre, London, 2013
One of the first tours I ever saw was Rowan Atkinson: The New Revue Tour at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle Upon Tyne in 1986. Atkinson is famed for his rubbery face and bewildering expressions and these were on show in abundance to blistering comic effect through various character sketches that made up the show. A famous sketch about a headmaster taking the register of ever increasing ludicrous names of students was particularly memorable with Atkinson using his facial expressions to pronounce the names with very funny consequences. The straight man on the tour was Angus Deayton who I had never heard of before and proved to be an excellent foil to Atkinson. Deayton, reminiscent of John Cleese was very business-like with his comic characters often playing figures of authority trying to outwit Atkinson’s innocent. It was a memorable night because the audience knew that they were watching someone with a special gift for comedy and indeed Atkinson has gone onto greater success on television, film and theatre.
I once met Rowan Atkinson purely by chance when I was in the shop in Carlisle where my mother worked. He was buying a ring for his girlfriend at the time and when the purchase was made, I made my introduction. Although very polite, I remember him being very shy which is his trademark. This chance meeting made it all the more fascinating watching his career go from strength to strength – how this very shy, quiet man is somehow transformed into a comedy character masterclass when performing has been remarkable to watch.
It was announced in 2009 that Atkinson was to star as Fagin, in the revival of the musical Oliver! in London’s West End. What is interesting to note here is that Fagin is a criminal character and yet has been played in the different adaptations by light hearted actors or comedians who can draw on sympathy to glamorize crime. In the famous film musical version from 1968, the role of Fagin was played by Ron Moody. In the theatre musical which ran for over ten years in London, the character has been played by numerous British actors and comedians including Jim Dale, Robert Lindsay, Russ Abbott, Omid Djalili and Griff Rhys Jones – all light-hearted actors and comedians who can encourage sympathy for their criminal ways to a mass audience with exhilarating effect. I was lucky enough to see Rowan Atkinson appear as the character as was amazed at how far he had come since the tour I saw in 1986. Fagin does not appear that long in the show but Atkinson was perfectly cast, both very funny and vulnerable and the performance was memorable.
In 2013, Atkinson returned to the stage to star in the play Quartermaine’s Terms which I saw at the Wyndham’s Theatre in London. The play was set in the staffroom of an English-language school for foreigners in Cambridge over several years in the early Sixties and the star delivered a superb performance.
Rowan Atkinson has deservedly become one of Britain’s most popular comedy character actors and although he makes rare appearances on stage, I am very grateful to have seen perform on his tour early on in his career and to have watched him grow into a hysterical comedian.