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Simon Callow talks life on board Anything Goes at the Liverpool Empire

It’s a two-show day for the cast of Anything Goes and Simon Callow hasn’t long come off stage at the Liverpool Empire after an energetic matinee.

“I’ve just torn off my moustache,” he reveals as he settles down for a chat about the Barbican’s smash hit production of Cole Porter’s sparky musical which is currently enjoying a 10-day residency at the Lime Street landmark.

But surely there must be a temptation, with barely two hours to call your own between shows, to simply stay in costume if not actually in character?

Apparently not. In fact, climbing back into your civvies is psychologically important to maintain freshness for each audience. As the veteran actor explains: “You have to pretend that you never did the earlier performance.”

Callow is playing Ivy League Wall Street banker Elisha ‘Eli’ J Whitney, one of a cast of characters who find themselves thrown together during a transatlantic voyage on the SS America.

The myopic tycoon New Yorker who enjoys a drink spends his time stumbling around the ship in search of Bonnie Langford’s haughty widow Evangeline Harcourt, while his clerk Billy Crocker – who has stowed away on board – secretly woos her debutante daughter Hope.

While he has directed My Fair Lady and an Olivier Award winning production of Carmen Jones in the West End, where many years ago he also appeared in The Woman in White, it’s fair to say musicals haven’t featured largely on the 72-year-old’s capacious CV.

“I also did a show called Merry Wives the Musical at the RSC where I played Sir John Falstaff to Judi Dench’s Mistress Quickly, which as you can imagine was a delight in itself,” he points out.

Above: Blow, Gabriel, Blow starring the cast of Anything Goes including Simon Callow. Top: As Elisha J Whitney. Photos by Marc Brenner

“But you’re right, it’s not been my main sphere of activity as a performer. I don’t really sing or dance – which is a drawback. But fortunately, this part doesn’t require that I sing or dance very much at all!

“I saw it at the Barbican last year and was just completely overwhelmed by joy and pleasure and being back in the theatre. And interacting with my fellow audience members and the sheer liveness of it, of live theatre, was just thrilling.

“So when they asked me to do this tour and go back into London I was only too delighted to be part of such an obvious benefit to the nation. It does lift people up and really does send them out happy.”

Anything Goes is his first appearance on a Liverpool stage since 2010 when he brought his "living biography" The Man From Stratford: Being Shakespeare to the Playhouse.

“It was very early on in the run of the show; it was maybe just the second gig that we did,” he recalls.

“And I remember walking across the square – I couldn’t quite locate the Playhouse - carrying this heavy bag, and someone came up to me in the street and said (here he adopts a ‘Scouse’ accent) ‘to be or not to be mate? Is that the question?’

“The entire population are comedians. It was very funny. I’ve always loved Liverpool and loved coming back.”

All aboard the SS America. Photo by Marc Brenner

He’s also been hailed by plenty of passers by during this current visit.

“People come up to me all the time,” he says. “They’re very, very nice and very confident. I like the confidence of Liverpudlians. Yesterday a woman said to me ‘you are him, aren’t you?’ And I said, well I like to think of myself as me, but I suppose I am him, yes.

“I love this bubble of constant wit in the city.”

His connections with that bubble of wit go back to the 1980s when he was approached to direct a Willy Russell play.

Producer Bob Swash had seen Jean Cocteau's The Infernal Machine, which Callow directed in London, and offered him the chance to direct one of two Russell plays which he was planning to take into the West End.

One was One For The Road, and the other was Shirley Valentine.

Callow has previously recalled how he was “knocked sideways” and "knew I had a gold bar in my hand" when he read Russell’s play about a middle-aged housewife who confides in her kitchen wall and whose life is changed by a holiday romance on a Greek island.

He went on to direct Pauline Collins (who took over from Noreen Kershaw who had premiered the play at the Everyman) as Shirley both in the West End and on Broadway.

He says: “I had known Willy Russell before and we became very, very close, and I began to understand something of the nature of Liverpudlian wit.

"But my particular memory is when Willy did a benefit reading of Shirley Valentine at the Everyman, and it was one of the most astonishing bits of acting I’ve ever seen. He was just reading it, and there he was a thick set man in his late 40s, bearded, playing the part of Shirley Valentine.

“The fascinating thing was that as he stood there talking about his stretch marks, he was totally credible.”

Above: Fellow cast members include "old song and dance man" Denis Lawson as Moonface Martin. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Now the actor is delighted to be back in the city once more, if only for a few days.

“The thing about Liverpool is that it’s a truly great city in the way of Berlin or New York even,” he says. “It’s just got such a dynamo in the middle of it.”

You could say the same thing about Anything Goes, although the dynamo in its middle is the crack cast which also includes the nifty footed Denis Lawson, whom Callow calls “an old song and dance man”, playing Moonface Martin and the brilliant Kerry Ellis as cabaret star Reno Sweeney, surrounded by a terrific tap-dancing ensemble.

“When people come, they have the best time,” he adds. “It’s still a bit rare in England for the entire audience to leap to its feet - and they do.”

Anything Goes is at the Liverpool Empire until April 30.


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