Ubiquitous: 'I made a conscious decision not to do any really long runs, so I was available', says Roger Allam
In the thick of it - at last
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 31/01/2007
Suddenly, actor Roger Allam is everywhere, in roles as varied as the Queen's PA, a pantomime villain and a paedophile. As he prepares to open in the West End farce 'Boeing Boeing', he talks to Jasper Rees
Roger Allam's progress towards stardom has been stately. In his early thirties, he was the original Javert in Les Misérables, but for many succeeding years his name remained known only to seasoned theatre-goers.
Even his Olivier-winning performance in Privates on Parade at the Donmar was seen by only 250 people a night.
But since Allam turned 50, he has become inescapable. For the 2005 Edinburgh Festival, and later in the West End, he was cast by Peter Stein in David Harrower's Blackbird as a man confronted by the woman he abducted and abused as a child.
He stayed in Scotland to give a perfect performance as Her Majesty's basket-carrying private secretary in The Queen.
He also cropped up in Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley as an English landowner shot by Irish republicans, and did a hilarious turn in The Thick of It as shadow minister for social affairs and citizenship.
Now he is about to appear in the West End playing a Parisian architect with three rotating girlfriends in Marc Camoletti's classic 1960s French farce, Boeing Boeing.
It's possible that Allam is simply the type of actor who grows into his own face, and whose naturally sardonic voice is a more comfortable fit in middle age. His career trajectory is not dissimilar to Bill Nighy's in that respect.
But Allam himself attributes his sudden ubiquity to a choice he made after spending two years at the National, playing roles as varied as Hitler and Ulysses, followed soon after by a long stint in the challenging lead role in Democracy, Michael Frayn's 2003 play about Chancellor Willy Brandt's overtures to East Berlin in the early 1970s.
"After Democracy," he says, "I did make a conscious decision to try to not do any really long runs. I was available, and I think I was probably getting through the door, for a different set of work."
It's a testament to his huge range that within a calendar year he has been hired by Stein, Loach and Armando Iannucci, as well as playing the villain in Aladdin at the Old Vic.
Apart from Blackbird, they all called on improv skills at which Allam turned out to be an old hand.
The son of a vicar, he grew up in the East End and was sent to Christ's Hospital, the charity school in Sussex, where he says he was "in all the bottom sets".
Acting, once he discovered it, was his escape. After reading drama at Manchester in the mid-'70s, he joined a company called Monstrous Assembly.
"We did a cabaret, and I eventually worked up a stand-up spot. So I've done bits of that kind of stuff before. And, indeed, in the panto I was using old material that I'd used centuries ago."
With the memory of his Javert unextinguished, Allam's name is always in casting directors' minds whenever a new musical opens. Isn't he tempted to sing for his supper again soon?
"I'd be hugely tempted," he says. "If the money's right. Especially when one discovers what people who take over roles are being paid."
Allam did audition for The Producers after Richard Dreyfuss withdrew from rehearsals for the London production. "I think Mel [Brooks] wanted an American.
I got in the door to be seen and did an audition for about 25 producers in suits. I hadn't had the chance to learn anything, and I was just starting to get a cold. I did the first number and they all burst into applause and I thought, 'Oh, I'm doing all right here.' "
After countless classics, including a Macbeth for the RSC, Boeing Boeing is his first farce. The play is a hoary classic of the genre, and Allam has the figures to hand: "It did seven years here in the '60s. It did 19 years in Paris. And 21 days on Broadway."
Allam plays a Parisian architect "who thinks he's discovered the secret of happiness by having three fiancées who are all air hostesses.
If you organise it carefully by referring to the timetables, you can have one in Paris for a couple of days, one on the way somewhere to a destination and the other at her destination and turning round to come back. It's like crop rotation.
"Of course, as it's farce, it all gets f***ed up. Obviously, none of these women must meet. And then eventually two of them do."
It's hard to think of a longer journey for an actor than that from Allam's last West End appearance – a grim play about paedophilia – to this.
"The audience's complete silence in Blackbird was very unusual, actually. If one was doing Boeing Boeing and there were not many people there and they were utterly silent, it would feel like falling off a very, very high building very, very slowly."
'Boeing Boeing' opens at the Comedy Theatre, London SW1, on Feb 15. Tickets: 0870 060 6637