If there’s an art to making audiences laugh, Denis Lawson reckons he, Nigel Havers and Stephen Tompkinson have found it.
The trio of actors are touring the country with Art, the story of three men whose friendship is rocked when one of them buys a white painting.
“It is the most wonderful play to do. It is very, very funny and the audiences find it hysterical. They love it and we love doing it,” said Denis, who will arrive with his co-stars at His Majesty’s Theatre for a week-long run from Monday.
“It’s always nice to play against laughs, it’s one of my favourite things really. And it’s short. You’re in the pub by ten to nine – that’s Nigel Havers’ selling point,” said the Crieff-born actor, laughing.
And the actor whose glittering career has seen him in screen roles ranging from films such as Star Wars and Local Hero to TV cop drama New Tricks has no doubt why audiences enjoy it so much.
“Essentially, it is about three very close friends and one of them buys a painting which is white. He spends an enormous amount of money on it.
“The character I play, Serge, looks at this painting and basically says, ‘this is a pile of …’
“That kicks off a terrible crisis in their relationship.
“On the face of it, we think ‘do we care?’ but it is just incredibly funny. That’s all I can say.”
Denis is delighted to be touring with the show again. The tour’s original run ended in June but more dates were added at the start of this year due to demand.
“It was originally a French play (by Yasmina Reza) but the adaptation is by Christopher Hampton – a brilliant playwright in his own right – and he’s just done a wonderful job on it. The rhythms of the lines are great.”
Denis is more than familiar with the play. In fact, he saw the original West End production, which starred Ken Stott alongside theatre legends Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay.
“Between you and I, Ken walked away with it. He was brilliant,” said Denis. “I remember that production and as an actor you think, ‘this has been done before, do I want to do it’, but as soon as I read it I thought I have to do this, this is just fabulous.”
The actor is also enjoying touring with Stephen and Nigel – “we have a really good working relationship and a great relationship offstage as well” – and especially about returning to Aberdeen.
“The last time I played in Aberdeen was right at the beginning of my career when I was working at the Lyceum. I seem to recall it was a production of The Changeling, a Jacobean tragedy. I played a transvestite in an asylum. That was Aberdeen’s introduction to me, so it’s slightly different this time,” said Denis, laughing.
One of the most satisfying things about the current tour is the way it has been playing to packed houses – especially in a world dominated by musical theatre.
“That’s one of the lovely things about it. Wherever we’ve gone with it, we pretty well play to packed houses. The play itself has a reputation and it helps to sell it, if you like.”
He’s also loving being back on stage after a five-year absence due to his busy television work.
“So it is nice to get back. There’s an old jazz expression: ‘get your chops back’. It is kind of what I am about more than anything is comedy in front of an audience. That’s what spurred me to perform in the first place when I was a kid. It’s great to get back to that.”
Denis is also grateful for the fanbase his screen work has built for him – New Tricks, in particular.
“What amazed me was that about three years ago I was in New York and people in New York were stopping me to ask about it,” he said.
“Also, I have a second home in Wiltshire and in one of the local towns I like to hang out in I am invariably stopped by Australians. I remember being on top of a hill in Wiltshire, miles from anywhere and two people passed me and said (adopting Australian accent) ‘oh my god, you’re from New Tricks’.
“It is huge down there and that’s great.” And he still gets Star Wars fans wanting to chat to him about his role as Wedge Antilles, the X-wing pilot in the film’s original trilogy.
Still, with standalone Star Wars origin films in play just now – such as last year’s Solo – will there ever be a Wedge Antilles film?
“There’s a very good idea. Would you like to suggest that to somebody?” he said.
Denis was approached about doing the most recent Star Wars films, but was frustrated that his New Tricks filming schedule meant it wasn’t possible. “I was very frustrated that I couldn’t do it.”
But for now he has other more pressing matters.
Art’s visit to His Majesty’s rounds up the last dates of the tour and Denis is already looking to his next project.
“As soon as I finish the tour in Aberdeen, a week later I go into rehearsals for a play I’m directing in London. I directed it last year too, it’s a terrifc play called The Firm. I sound like an unlikely director for it.
“It’s set in black gang culture in south London. When they first brought it to me to direct I said, ‘are you sure you want a middle-class white Scots guy to do this?’
“But it’s by a wonderful writer called Roy Williams and it’s a fabulous play and it went extremely well last time so they want to bring it back.”
Before that, all of Denis’ attention will be on giving Aberdeen audiences a great night.
“I have to go back to Nigel Havers… you’ll be in the pub by ten to nine.
“You can’t say fairer than that.”
Art is at His Majesty’s Theatre from Monday to Saturday next week.