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Judy Garland reincarnated for touring solo theatre show

Actor Donald McBride strips down to his underpants for pared down new play

Donald McBride in one-man show Choir
Donald McBride in one-man show Choir

Donald McBride won’t have to waste time in the costume department ahead of his new play. DAVID WHETSTONE finds out more

Good actors, it is often said, lay bare their souls on stage. Donald McBride, as you can see from the photo, will be going a step further in his new one-man show, Choir, which opens tonight ahead of a regional tour.

Speaking from his kitchen in Fencehouses, County Durham – though it could be the nave of Durham Cathedral due to the resounding effect of his speakerphone – Donald owns up to the fluttering of a butterfly or two in the midriff.

“Bit scary. Bound to be because it’s quite a long haul... about an hour on stage with just me and nobody to help.”

Then there’s the fact that he will be clad for the most part in his underpants and a pair of red high heels (perfect for this era of austerity).

“I don’t know whether the audience is going to put up with an hour of that,” muses an experienced actor for whom the near nudity is less of a concern than the audience’s tolerance.

Choir is the latest from Lee Mattinson, a talented North East writer whose sparkling work has been championed by Live Theatre in recent years.

In 2007 Donald appeared in an early short play of his, Swan Song, which was part of a lunchtime series called Bite Size Theatre, produced by New Writing North.

Then, in 2012, he joined the all-female cast of Lee’s full-length play, Chalet Lines, playing Edith, “the grandmother character”, during a run at Live Theatre.

Nothing strange about this, as the good reviews testify. Donald, in an acting career stretching back over some decades, has played grandmothers, grandfathers, panto dames and TV tough guys.

Michael Chaplin’s play, A Proper Job, which premiered at Live way back in 1992, was about a fictional actor called John Peace, but it was inspired by the experiences of Donald and old school pal Dave Whitaker who performed in it.

The pair, who grew up in County Durham pit villages, went on a class trip to Stratford, got bitten by the acting bug and ended up joining the company. Speaking ahead of that show they recalled playing, variously, Bilbo Baggins, Lady Bracknell (both Donald), a ventriloquist’s dummy, the back end of an elephant and a horse (all Dave).

A lot of water and crazy roles have passed under the bridge since then, although Dave has fallen victim to some of the worst of real life’s ‘slings and arrows’.

Since suffering a stroke, the actor who went on to star in The Pitmen Painters has been unable to walk or talk and lives in a care home in Fencehouses, not far from where Donald lives now, and is “as well as can be expected”.

For Donald, the ‘proper job’ is still a going concern which is why he is playing a reincarnation of Judy Garland in Lee Mattinson’s latest theatrical fantasia.

Donald plays Francis – or maybe Frances, since Judy Garland’s real name was Frances Ethel Gumm – and “the whole thing,” says the actor, “takes place in his memory really. He’s telling his story in the kitchen of his home, starting from when he’s a little boy.

“He knows from the outset that he was Judy Garland in a previous life. That’s a given and it informs his whole life. But he tries to be the opposite of what Judy Garland was because she had quite a sad life.”

Donald says it is important not to give too much away but Lee Mattinson is a playwright, he suggests, who “blurs the edges in his writing”.

There are riddles in the script – such as a reference to Wendy, the tenor – that mean a Lee Mattinson play is best seen rather than read.

In this play Francis (or Frances), battling his inner Judy, experiences a “sort of epiphany” when he sees a choir singing in the village hall.

That choir will appear as a projection in Choir.

Donald says Lee wrote the play with him in mind. “I think I identify most strongly with the character’s vulnerability but also his courage,” he says. “But he’s an optimist and I also identify with that too.

“It has got so many levels. It’s a play about reconciliation at one level and about the quest for acceptance on another. It’s about HIV/Aids and how you cope with that.

“I hope very much that people will enjoy it. I suppose you could say it’s got everything... laughter and tears.”

Casting his mind back to his last solo show, Donald has vivid memories of Bold Squire Arscott, which he wrote and performed in Devon back in 1980.

It was based on an 18th Century huntsman, John Arscott of Tetcott, Devon, who would set his hounds after pretty much anything that moved on four legs and also kept a professional dwarf jester, Black John, ‘the Tetcott Merryman’, who reputedly bedded down in the kennels with the pack.

Proudly, he recalls that the play caused a member of the local landed gentry to produce a portrait – “warts and all” – of Black John that had been stored away in an attic for a considerable number of years.

Donald McBride, a cypher for some of the world’s most colourful folk, factual and fictional, is also looking ahead to another project that means a lot to him and other friends and family members of Dave Whitaker.

This is the play Tyneside writer Arthur McKenzie was working on with Dave just before the latter suffered his devastating strok.

The hope is that it will eventually reach the stage in a full-blown production, raising another chunk of the money required to provide his friend – and one of the region’s other best-loved actors – with the care his condition requires.

Choir, which is directed by Jen Malarkey, is produced by Encounter Productions in partnership with Arc, Stockton (where you can see it on Tuesday and Wednesday at 7pm), Arts Centre Washington (September 11 and 12), Northern Stage, Newcastle (September 16 and 17) and Alnwick Playhouse (September 18 and 19). It will also be performed at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (September 26 and 27).

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