Lover man

It's been ages since TOM CONTI trod the boards in his native Scotland, but he's back with Neil Simon's Last Of The Red Hot Lovers.

Words: Steve Cramer

One of the terms too often bandied about in connection with actors is that they’re ‘a natural’. There’s surely no such thing as a performer who can act his or her peers off the stage from the moment they’re presented with a script. The little matter of learning the craft is sure to intervene for a couple of decades before we naively ascribe to nature what earthly endeavour has achieved. All the same, there are performers whose simple approach to their trade can beguile us into believing they only decided to take on the play we’re watching that very same evening.

Such a man is Tom Conti, currently working hard to make Neil Simon’s Last Of The Red Hot Lovers look easy. Self-effacing and friendly to a fault, Conti is nevertheless opinionated about his approach to performance. ‘Theatre has got to be entertaining,’ he puts in early on. ‘I don’t believe in “Art” we’re in the entertainment business. Acting doesn’t work when you see the acting. It’s the problem with good classical actors they don’t move the audience. They leave the theatre saying he or she’s a great actor, but they’re not moved, because these actors have been too busy showing them a performance.’

This simplicity of approach even extends to the vexed question of the difference between film and theatre acting. ‘There’s only one difference with the theatre,’ says Conti. ‘You speak louder. What’s true is true if you act bigger in the theatre, you spoil it. The performance goes on in the audience’s head you just give them a little nudge, and the imagination of the people in the stalls does your work for you.’

With this gentle persuasion, we’ll be believing Conti is Barney, the subject of Simon’s ironically titled comedy of the sexes. Barney is a 50-year-old married man whose belated attempts at sewing his wild oats reap a miserable, but comical, harvest. With a single day in which to perform his infidelity, he chooses such targets as a heavy-drinking slapper (who proves more worldly than his simple needs dictate), a ferocious nightclub singer and even his wife’s best friend.

52 THE “ST 20 Jan-3 Feb 2000

'If you can make people laugh for two hours, you've given them something.’ Tom Conti

Making sleazy look easy: Tom Conti

It ends, of course, in tears, largely those of a young actress, played by Conti’s daughter, Nina. His wife, Cara Wilson, is also in the cast. Doesn’t this present difficulties? ‘The only thing that makes working with an actor difficult, is if they’re not good at it. It’s easy with them, because they know how to act. Being on tour can be a lonely business it’s nicer to have your friends and family with you.’

Conti delights in the recent survey which revealed him to be the most watched actor (calculated by sales) in the British theatre. ‘Actors all sometimes think what they do is pointless,’ he admits. ‘Schoolteachers and people who work in hospitals, they do important jobs. But then you think, if you can make people laugh for two hours, you’ve given them something.’

Conti has certainly done that with films like Reuben, Reuben and Shirley Valentine. What’s his favourite? Surprisingly, he names the relatively obscure Saving Grace. And what was wrong with Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence? ‘1 had a wonderful time making it, working with great people, but I hate myself in that movie too much acting!’

Last Of The Red Hot Lovers, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, Mon 31 Jan-Sat 5 Feb.

Stage whispers

Re: treading the boards

JANUARY TENDS to be award time in Scottish live performance circles, and after the Scotland On Stage Awards, the next biggies are the Creative Scotland Awards. This represents the finale of a long process whereby 51 people or companies have been nominated for a wide range of creative activities, and fourteen awards each of £25,000 will be made. These awards are to be presented at The Hub in Edinburgh on Tuesday 25 January, probably by Diana Rigg. Among favoured contenders are Cathie Boyd of Cryptic Productions and Claire Pencak of Tabula Rasa Dance Company, whose new production will be appearing early in March. Between now and then you’ll notice the bated breath from all directions.

Meanwhile, those already in receipt of Scotland On Stage Awards are busy making plans. We were delighted to hear of an award of £40,000 to Gridiron Theatre Company. Producer Judith Docherty and Director Ben Harrison have toiled hard over the past few years, producing a succession of pieces which have won critical acclaim and sold out at lightening speed. It was mystifying that a paltry award was produced for this young company's work last year, but the SAC seem to be beginning to make amends. The upcoming production, Douglas Maxwell's Decky Does A Bronco, a site-specific tour, will be performed in swing-parks all around Scotland, and is already creating a stir of interest. From the people who produced such Fringe hits as The Bloody Chamber and Gargantua, this is just as it should be.

Raindog’s substantial grant of £75,000 for AD will go to no less ambitious a project than telling the story of Christ himself; and Belladonna productions, with their £66,000, will be staging an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Burning Bright at Tramway. Among other companies to receive awards are Borderline, Lung Ha and Dundee Rep.

Claire Pencak of Tabula Rasa: Award winner?