BACK home in Newcastle, actor Michael Hodgson is enjoying a return to both everyday family life and the theatre where he last appeared in a play with catapulted him into the spotlight.
When The Pitmen Painters made its debut at Live Theatre, not even author Lee Hall could have foreseen the impact of his story about the group of real-life Ashington miners who made an impression on the world of art. “We didn’t known then that was only the start of the journey,” says Hodgson.
Amid national acclaim came a transfer to Broadway where the play’s lengthy New York run saw similar success for Hodgson and his fellow cast members, bringing with it a chance to meet Hollywood star Al Pacino, who was appearing at a neighbouring theatre.
In the star’s dressing room Pacino showed great interest in the local mining history, even if he struggled with their accents.
After five years, Hodgson, formerly a regular on the local stage, moved on. Most of his work continues to take him away from home, including last year’s six-month stint working with the Royal Shakespeare Company in London and Stratford, where he played The Rat, a rodent-human hybrid, in The Mouse and his Child.
Now he’s back at Live in the Brilliant Adventures written by 26-year-old Middlesbrough-born playwright Alistair McDowall, in a role which is taking him, and audiences, in all sorts of directions.
And he’s loving it. “I’ve never played anything like it,” he tells me.
“There’s something very different about this part.”
Saying too much about the plot would spoil it – and it’s not the sort that can be easily explained anyway – but anyone who saw McDowall’s play Captain Amazing at Live in April will know the writer has a unique style and plenty surprises up his sleeve.
Brilliant Adventures won him the Bruntwood Prize for play-writing in 2011 and formed part of The Royal Court Theatre’s young writers’ festival in London last year.
Set on a near abandoned housing estate, the story revolves around two brothers – one a genius inventor, one a drug pusher – with Hodgson and three other cast members mixed up in twisting, turning journey through the dark side of life, peppered with violence but also humour. And it enters the realms of science fiction.
So, no wonder it ticked the challenge box for Hodgson, who says of theatre generally: “When you go, you should see theatre. If you want to see naturalism and realism it’s on TV every night.”
While the play’s setting appealed (he is from Middlesbrough himself) – “that’s one of the reasons I was interested in doing it” – he found himself hooked by a character who changes during the course of the play in ways he’s keen not to give too much away about.
But he confesses: “My first stage direction terrified me!
“It was challenging. I didn’t quite understand it and was not quite sure where the character was from. I thought ‘what is he’?
The actor also liked the fact he was allowed freedom to interpret and experiment with the role.
“Something disturbing happens in the middle of the play with this character and you see him in different stages of development.
“I was wondering about it and have had a great time working it out and picking it apart.”
He adds: “The fourth wall (the imaginary barrier separating actors from the audience) disappears at some point. It’s a very interesting and thought-provoking play.
“Every character on stage is open to interpretation.”
The actor, who’s married to former actress Libby Davison from TV’s The Bill, is much impressed with the writer whose intricate dialogue he heard described as “like a piece of music”.
“His reference points are huge,” he says of McDowall, “and his interests cast far and wide, with his knowledge of film and literature.
“He’s a very gifted writer, and I’ve worked with great writers in the past.” Among them, of course, is Hall and he says of The Pitmen Painters: “Actors aren’t often in a play that’s a hit!
“About 18 years ago I’d been in a play off-Broadway and thought that was going to be it for me.”
On the occasions that a play does make a transfer to Broadway, its star might accompany it but the other roles tend to be filled by American Equity.
“But Lee wanted North East boys,” recalls Hodgson.
It’s that kind of loyalty he also remembers with Live’s artistic director Max Roberts.
“Max was always good to me and gave me fantastic parts.
“It’s great coming back, it’s a wonderful theatre.”
He shares the stage with five actors all making their Live debuts: Robert Lonsdale, Joseph Arkley, Ian Bonar, Laurence Mitchell and Lee Armstrong.
Brilliant Adventures runs until June 15, except Mondays. Due to strong language and violence, it’s recommended 14-plus. Visit www.live.org.uk or call 0191 232 1232 for tickets.