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Chris Gascoyne - Endgame

Coronation Street may look like the end of the world to some, but for Chris Gascoyne, his time on the iconic TV soap has in part been a platform which has allowed him to explore other avenues. While on the one hand Gascoyne has notched up some seventeen years “more on than off,” playing Peter Barlow, son of the ever-present Ken, in the red-brick Wetherfield limbo, he has also developed a parallel theatre career. This has taken him to the National Theatre, the Royal Court and now to Glasgow in the Citizens' Theatre's new production of Samuel Beckett's dystopian masterpiece, Endgame.

Performing alongside his long-term Corrie colleague David Neilson in co-production with the newly-established Manchester venue, HOME, Gascoyne plays Clov, the doting servant to Neilson's blind and ruthless master, Hamm. With Hamm unable to walk and Clov incapable of sitting, the pair's sparring is punctuated by the dustbin-dwelling appearance of Hamm's parents, Nag and Nell, in a blackly funny portrait of co-dependence which effectively puts two double acts onstage.

The routines that unfold between damaged co-dependents clinging to each other for comfort continue the tragicomic form of existential vaudeville which Beckett defined in Waiting For Godot, and which is such a gift to actors.

“The thing with Beckett and me,” says Gascoyne, “is that I feel somehow that I can understand it. Not in an intellectual way. That's a different thing. You can look up all the Shakespearean references in Beckett if you like, but that's on a different level. But with me, I feel it in my gut, and I couldn't tell you why.”

The roots of this new production come from Gascoyne and Neilson themselves. The pair had bonded on-set at Coronation Street after discovering they'd both studied several years apart at Central School of Speech and Drama in London. They got to talking about Beckett when Neilson, who has played cafe owner Roy Cropper in Coronation Street since 1995, played Lucky in a production of Waiting For Godot in Manchester.

“I'd always been fascinated with Beckett when I was a student,” says Gascoyne, “and I said to David a few years ago that it would be good for me to put my mind in other areas and regenerate, and that it would be good for me in terms of Corrie as well. I went back to Beckett's books, and I said to David that maybe Endgame would be a good one to look at. We'd meet up, have a cup of tea, read the play and have a laugh, and I got to know David really well.”

This went on for a few months, but only when the Citz's artistic director, Dominic Hill, came on board did the current production become a reality.

“The approach to it which Dominic has been interested in is keeping the play away from pathos, and keeping it active,” Gascoyne says “These two people only really exist together. You're not sure what their relationship is or where they are, but they can't live with each other, they can't live without each other, and this life that they're both in, it can't end until it ends, but it can't end.”

While such depths are inherent in Endgame, as an actor, Gascoyne prefers to operate at a more instinctive level of interpretation.

“Beckett himself said to actors to keep things simple,” Gascoyne points out. “Of course, you read it and you think about it, but when you come to it as an actor, you have to forget about the philosophy and play it active.

“Beckett loved Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, and while this isn't quite that, I can understand why actors are drawn to the play. You look at the script, and there are no answers, and when me and David do it, I know that every single night will be different because of that.”

Gascoyne first discovered drama while a pupil at a comprehensive school in Huthwaite, a Nottinghamshire mining town without any theatre to call its own. Up to then he'd only been interested in football, and while he watched actors on TV, he couldn't equate that with someone like him being able to do something similar.

“It was very freeing,” Gascoyne says of his introduction to drama. “I'd found something I loved, but I never thought for one minute that it was something I could do as a job.”

Gascoyne did a foundation course at a local technical college, but left after a year.

“It was mind-numbing,” he says. “It was the theory of theatre, which I know now is important, but that wasn't what I wanted to do.”

He joined a local drama group, “Then somebody said, why don't you go to drama school? I was like, what's drama school? When I went, getting on that train was a big journey. I didn't know what I was doing at all. I just knew that I wanted to learn about acting.”

Part of that learning experience cane through setting up an ad hoc company with pals from RADA to do Willis Hall's First World War drama, The Long, and the Short and the Tall. This led to an audition for Richard Eyre's company at the National Theatre, which saw Gascoyne cast in David Hare's trilogy of state of the nation plays, Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges and The Absence of War.

It was appearing as part of an all-male ensemble in James McDonald's 1996 Royal Court revival of David Storey's play, The Changing Room, however, that sticks with Gascoyne.

“It's an incredible piece of writing,” he says of the play, set inside the very male world of a Rugby League changing room. “We were all young lads, and had a ball.”

Gascoyne went on to appear in Simon Stephens' early play, Bluebird, also at the Royal Court, the same theatre where Endgame was first seen in 1957.

“I was so very lucky to get that,” Gascoyne says of Bluebird. “Simon Stephens was still a teacher then, and in rehearsals he sat there fascinated, and then thanked the actors for what we'd done with his script.”

Both productions transferred to the West End.

Coincidentally, it was Stephens' play, The Funfair, that opened HOME in Manchester last year. Furthering such synchronicity, Gascoyne's most recent stage appearance was in Jim Cartwright's play, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice at West Yorkshire Playhouse in a production by James Brining, who previously co-ran Dundee Rep with Dominic Hill.

“At the moment I'm like a little boy looking up at his teacher to see if he's done alright,” Gascoyne says of working with Hill, “and when he says yes, I feel like I've got a medal or an award.”

How this translates into Endgame remains to be seen, but Gascoyne for one hopes audiences will have the same response to the play as he did.

“Hopefully people will laugh at it and feel it in their stomachs,” he says. “We mustn't complicate it into an intellectual exercise, because it so ain't.”

Endgame, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, February 4-20.

The Herald, January 26th 2016



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