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George Costigan: ‘We’re all servants of writers’

George Costigan George Costigan

George Costigan may be best known for his racy role as Bob in the film version of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, though his theatre credentials vie with his screen work for top spot on his CV.

Of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, he explains: “The play and the movie are quite different. When I saw the play I was quite astonished by it – it didn’t end where the film ended at all.”

Max Stafford-Clark once told me of his sense of shock and surprise when he opened up Andrea Dunbar’s exercise book with her early work in. “Yes, Andrea was remarkable,” recalls Costigan. “I went up to the Buttershaw estate [in Bradford] for a fortnight so I got to know her and her dad. After that she only wrote one more play, which is Shirley, and I think her best one. She had to move away because everyone on the estate expected her to buy all the drinks.”

Costigan also made a name for himself in Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers. “Willy wrote it originally for a children’s theatre company without songs, so I only got to play it when Chris Bond persuaded him to turn it into a musical. I did it for six months but Conor O’Neill had more of a success with it than I did,” he adds, modestly.

Did he relish that role? “The things you relish are the things that are well written, and that was beautifully written. I was also in a play [of Russell’s] called Breezeblock Park which was very hard to learn because it was overwritten. The play worked, the audiences went mad, but just inside as an actor it was hard work. Eight years later in Blood Brothers, Willy’s learnt his craft and it was a real pleasure to play.”

George Costigan in rehearsals for In Fog and Falling Snow with Ian Giles. Photo: John R Saunders
George Costigan in rehearsals for In Fog and Falling Snow with Ian Giles. Photo: John R Saunders

With a career spanning stage, TV and film, Costigan has had to adapt to each media. “To be honest, if someone’s going to offer you a load of money to be in a movie, your critical apparatus goes down a little bit. But nobody ever has offered me a wad of money to do something that was shite. Obviously, doing Blood Brothers you’re in a 960-seater theatre and you’re very conscious that someone’s on the back row and you’ve got to project out there. If the audience is a lens you just don’t have to push that hard, that’s all.

“John Malkovich does a lot of work on stage and I’ve seen him three times and what he does is reduce the stage, so he’s very minimal as he is as an actor on film. And that’s fascinating to watch because technically you can hear him but he’s just not doing a lot. That, of course, gives him the space to do a lot all of a sudden which is the technique that Brando taught everybody: don’t waste energy, save it for the crucial point so that you’ll learn a lot about this character in one quick go.

“Brando redefined screen acting and then there’s people like Johnny Depp who acts quite mad all the time and it doesn’t matter where the camera is. In the end the answer is there are no rules, I guess, it’s just what you’ve got the courage to dare. The actors are just servants really, you could run away with the idea that actors are really creative people and some of them are, but we’re all servants of writers. So you approach [Estragon in] Godot exactly the way you’d approach Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman – all you’re doing is trying to find out what that person wants. It’s slippery in Godot, and anyway he doesn’t remember, but it’s the same job.

“I’ve only done one Beckett and when I’m objective about it I don’t like his work because I find it depressing, but when you’re in one it’s not depressing, it’s just tough. We did a matinee in Manchester at the Library Theatre and the audience got everything, they fell about [laughing] the whole show, they heard everything, they got every subtle innuendo, they showed us a couple we hadn’t thought of ourselves. It was like a panto. Then when we went out for the evening show and there was nothing, though it was the same script, the same show but they didn’t want to laugh. But then at the end they clapped like mad and they had had a completely different evening. So as an actor you daren’t make decisions – you’ve just got to leave yourself open to it.”

What was it like working with Damian Cruden on Death of a Salesman? “Damian is quite inspirational and he let the first week go and then suddenly he moved in and what he said basically was that it was too sentimental and then it was both fun and very challenging as a whole.”

Now Costigan is working with Pilot’s Katie Posner on In Fog and Falling Snow at York Theatre Royal’s temporary home in the National Railway Museum. It’s not the first time they’ve collaborated – Costigan also appeared in Posner’s Blackbird at the theatre.

George Costigan in Blackbird. Photo: Karl Andre Photography
George Costigan in Blackbird. Photo: Karl Andre Photography

“Blackbird is about a character who is running the security in a firm and this 24-year-old woman turns up and you realise fairly sharply that they have had an affair 10 years before for which he has done eight years in prison. The word paedophile is never mentioned and you have these two people trying to find some closure. It’s an absolute masterpiece of writing [by David Harrower] and a total privilege to be involved in.”

In Fog and Falling Snow, for which Costigan has been cast as The Railway King, should be a fitting role to play in the National Railway Museum. Yet Costigan is looking forward to the challenge of working outside a theatre. “In the end actors only care about acoustics, so it is going to be murder and you have to learn to control it – it can be very tricky indeed. But YTR are very experienced and have done community plays regularly. I saw The Mysteries and it was amazing with 250 people on the stage but you could hear everything and it was in the open air. So I’m confident that In Fog and Falling Snow will work.”

Costigan plays George Hudson, a controversial historical Tory figure who wanted to build the East Coast railway network at any cost. “Yes, he wouldn’t take no for an answer but he’s the kind of person who does make things happen because of the drive and the energy that he’s got. It’s not hard to think of characters in modern-day public life who are like that. Some of them you might despise politically but you have to admit that they get things done and can’t be ignored.

“I’d never heard of him before but if you just come and see the show you will learn that he grew up on a farm, married into a draper’s business and then found his vocation at a certain moment in his life. Hudson is more responsible than anyone else why the National Railway Museum exists but he’s not honoured for it. And I can see why, because an awful lot of people went down the pan with him.

“He said, in his own defence, that what he wanted to do was connect all the railways, he saw an integrated railway system. But he speculated with other people’s money when really you should speculate with things you are able to lose. He got years out of it before there was a run on the pound and everything went pear-shaped.”

How does it feel being in with a 200-strong community cast? “I’ve never done anything on this scale before and I’ve got great faith and belief in Damian. The script is changing all the time, as soon as I’ve finished talking to you I’ve got to rehearse a new scene which ends the first act which neither of us has ever read. The narrative takes a cross-section of everybody that was affected by the changes the railways brought and you can watch all their stories alongside Hudson’s. But his story affects all of them in the end. Like it or not, he has made a difference.”

In Fog and Falling Snow plays at the National Railway Museum from 26 June to 11 July

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