Thursday, 7 March 2013

Derek Riddell - Playing J.M. Barrie

Derek Riddell is probably too tall to be playing JM Barrie, the 
troubled author of Peter Pan. At five foot three, Barrie's stature is 
considerably shorter than the 5'11 and a half Glasgow-born actor 
familiar from his TV turn in American hit, Ugly Betty. As Riddell 
prepares to play Barrie in Peter and Alice, a new play by  John Logan 
directed by Michael Grandage, the power of imagination will clearly 
come into play on more than just its subject. Given too that other 
portrayals of Barrie have been by the likes of the even more unlikely 
Johnny Depp in Finding Neverland, Riddell shouldn't have too much of a 

“He was described by most people as this strange little creature,” 
Riddell explains, “and he had this really strange voice, but we don't 
want to be too weird about it. He was a very complex character. One 
minute he could be witty and charming and captivating to the boys, the 
next he could go into these black silences, and there's a real darkness 
about him. It's a very short time in the play to try and capture all 
that complexity. There are obvious comparisons there as well with Lewis 
Carroll and both men's obsession with childhood, but I don't think 
Carroll had as much of a troubled childhood himself as Barrie did.”

Peter and Alice is based on a meeting between Peter Llewelyn Davies and 
Alice Liddell Hargreaves, who were the inspirations for Barrie's Peter 
Pan and Lewis Carroll's Alice, arguably the most captivating of 
children's characters ever written. Logan spotted a line in a biography 
of Barrie that suggested the pair met. In the course of the play, set 
at the opening of a Lewis Carroll exhibition in 1932, both authors make 
an appearance.

The Tony award winning writer's play forms part of a season by the 
Michael Grandage Company, and sees Riddell acting alongside Judi Dench 
and Ben Whishaw in the play's title roles, with younger actors playing 
their fictional alter egos.

“It was a no-brainer doing this,” Riddell says. “Just because of the 
people involved apart from anything. Michael Grandage is an 
inspiration. He just puts you totally at ease.”

Riddell first came to prominence in Annie Griffin's comic drama series, 
The Book Group. This led to being cast as hospital lothario Jamie 
Patterson in No Angels, which focused on the messy love lives of four 
nurses who broke the Florence Nightingale stereotype with abandon.

Riddell still stays in touch with his former No Angels colleagues, and 
last week was at a birthday party, attended by Kaye Wragg, Louise 
Delamere, Sunetra Sarker and Jo Joyner. In keeping with the programme, 
it was a typically wild affair, with current East Enders star Joyner 
using her wiles to access the Queen Vic Suite in the St Pancras Hotel 
for after-hours revelry.

Riddell, alas, was unable to indulge as much as he'd like.

“I had filming in Bristol in the morning,” he says, “so I just left 
them to it.”

A year after No Angels, Riddell was cast in the American 
therapist-based drama, State of Mind, which led to a semi-regular role 
in Ugly Betty, playing the love interest of another Scottish emigre, 
Ashley Jensen.

“That was probably the first time we'd worked together since we did The 
Big Picnic,” Riddell says of Bill Bryden's First World War spectacular, 
which was performed in the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Govan in 1994.”

That was at the start of a stage career that has seen Riddell appear in 
Aileen Ritchie's The Juju Girl at the Traverse, and The Cosmonaut's 
Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union, by 
David Greig, at the Tron. Riddell also appeared in another David Greig 
play, Victoria, with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and David 
Harrower's Knives In Hens at the Royal Exchange, Manchester. With such 
a pedigree, it's perhaps surprising that Peter and Alice will be 
Riddell's first appearance onstage in seven years.

“It was time to do theatre again,” he says, “or else I'd never do it 
again, because it would become too scary. So it's a real novelty for me 
again after so long out of it.”

Riddell has just been inspired too by going to see Glasgow Girls, Cora 
Bissett's asylum seeker based musical, during its London run.

“It made me feel very old watching it,” he says, “but the energy of it 
was incredible.”

While happily domiciled in London again following two years in America, 
with such high-profile Scottish drama as Glasgow Girls making waves, 
one wonders how long it's likely to be before audiences see Riddell 
back on a Scottish stage again.

“It's difficult,” he admits, “because I've got family now, which is 
part of the reason why I've not done theatre for so long. The thought 
of being away from them isn't appealing. But because I trained down 
here in London, I've never really been part of that Scottish theatre 
scene, but I'd certainly be interested in working there if a part or a 
play that I loved came up.”

Casting directors should take note of the sort of thing which might 
tempt Riddell back across the border.

“I love doing plays by American writers,” he says. “There's something 
about them which really gels with the Scottish psyche, something about 
the passion. Years ago I played Tom in The Glass Menagerie, which I 
absolutely loved. As far as Shakespeare goes, I'd really like to play 
Richard 111. Again, it's the intensity of it that appeals.”

In the meantime, Riddell's portrayal of J.M. Barrie might act as some 
kind of calling card, even if he does seem a little star-struck by the 
company he's keeping.

“If we get it right, it could be quite magical,” he says. “It's worth 
the ticket price for Judi and Ben alone. I'm completely in awe of them.”

Peter and Alice, Noel Coward Theatre, London, March 9th-June 1st.
The Herald, March 7th 2013


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