The Marlowe meets…Alistair McGowan

Alistair McGowan as Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Alistair McGowan as Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Alistair McGowan takes to our stage next week as Professor Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the play that inspired the musical My Fair Lady.

While best known for his work as an impressionist, Alistair has had a diverse career which includes writing and directing as well as starring in West End musicals and a variety of plays. Our Spotlight writer Dawn Kingsford got to know the man behind the mimicry.

With your fascination for phonetics, you are ideally placed to teach Eliza Doolittle (played by Rachel Berry) to “speak like a lady”!

Well, I loved English at school, and my dad – who was born in India – was fascinated by language and always made sure I pronounced my words correctly. So, I’m half-way there. It’s a fascinating story. Can Higgins pass this girl off as someone else, teach her a whole new way of speaking and tempt her to leave her past behind? Or are we all the product of our past?

You received rave reviews when you played Higgins in the West End in 2011. This time, the George Bernard Shaw play will be directed by Tony award-winning David Grindley.

With David at the helm, my part will, undoubtedly, take a different direction, but it’s great to have the freedom to be someone that doesn’t exist in real life.

Your portfolio extends to 300 personalities, how will you stay in character?
I learned dance at drama school, and one day my teacher drew the curtain across the mirror. I asked her how I would know what I was doing if I couldn’t see myself and she taught me that you have to know, inside, when you’re doing the right moves… inhabit a character.

You last appeared in Canterbury doing stand up in 2009. How do you feel about returning to the city – and this time with Charlotte Page, whom you married in June and who appears in Pygmalion as housekeeper Mrs Pearce?

Of all the places I’ll be visiting, Canterbury is right up there. It’s a beautiful city and I’ve heard lots about the new theatre. I’ll be staying – I won’t be commuting back to London. I’m a keen environmentalist and don’t own a car. All I’ll miss is Bunny, our cat, swimming and playing snooker!

You are notoriously private, but please do tell us how you feel about turning 50 this year.

I’d be lying if I said reaching 50 wasn’t on my mind, but now I reflect on how being 50 will feel when I’m 80 and it makes me feel much better.

Your special year started on a high when you won BBC2’s The Great Sport Relief Bake Off.

The last few years have been very varied, which is the story of my life. I only got into cooking when a previous relationship ended and I swore not to become Mr Takeaway. I love to learn, and when my wife bought me a Nigel Slater book for Christmas in 2012, that set me off.

Apart from Pygmalion, what’s next on the agenda – children, perhaps?

It’s something neither my wife nor I have ever been interested in. My sister Kay doesn’t have children either, there’s just always so much to do. I am trying something new though – I’ll be performing on a cruise ship off Norway once the tour of Pygmalion as finished!

Pygmalion plays at The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury from Monday 2- Saturday 7 June. Cast also includes Jamie Foreman (EastEnders), Rula Lenska (Coronation Street) and introduces Rachel Barry as Eliza Doolittle.

This interview was originally published in Spotlight Magazine, our free publication exclusive to The Marlowe Friends.

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