Interview: The Stage Special Award winner Pip Utton
Pip Utton is an amenable, genial actor. A small man, well into his sixties, he has a big smile which lights up when we meet in the foyer of Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms where his current solo show is being staged at the Fringe.
As we walk through the building, everyone who works there seems to have a word to say – they have seen his show, want to know how it is going, are coming to see it, or have a ticket to see his one-off event on Saturday, a special performance of Adolf, the show that gave him his big break. It hardly seems right that this is the man who has made his name creating Adolf Hitler live on stage, although the subject of his current one-man show is equally vilified in some quarters.
Up in the room where he will be performing, with the stage already set and the house due to open soon, I apologise for intruding on his preparations. He laughs. “I don’t have any. Apart from putting on make-up and getting into costume.”
He recalls that when Guy Masterson came to help him direct Adolf, he asked a similar question on the first morning of rehearsal. “I said ‘I’d like a cognac and a large cup of coffee’,” jokes Utton, quite aware of outrageousness of his request.
Utton came to professional performance later in life. He was 45 when he gave up his job as a jeweller to become a full-time performer. He describes it as a way of coping with his mid-life crisis – one he is apparently still coping with very successfully 20 years later.
The regard people hold for Utton, and the demand to see his shows, is despite their subject matter. In the latest show, Playing Maggie, he plays an actor who takes on the persona of Margaret Thatcher, hardly a popular name in Scotland, and one whose memory is still etched deeply into the collective memory.
As the show’s publicity material points out, she divided the nation like no other politician. While the publicity material maintains that it is “not for Pip to decide, only to portray”, when we sit down to talk he reveals that he comes from a mining village in Staffordshire with coal so ingrained in its skin that the local technical college taught only subjects suitable for those who would find employment with the National Coal Board.
So are they autobiographical moments in the play where he talks of Thatcher’s devastating effect on the actor he portrays as playing her?
“My grandfather and his sons were all down the pit and I was living in the area when the pit was closed, so it is partly truth – and partly moved by half a generation,” he says. “All my uncles bar one on my mother’s side were involved with the national coal board at some time or another.”
Utton himself left the area and, after stints as a Cadbury salesman and in the clock trade, became a gemologist, opening a jewellery shop in the West Country, where he still lives in Frome.
As a performer he is a product of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He was already into the amateur scene in Frome, performing at the Merlin Theatre there, but it was in Edinburgh that he was able flourish and develop.
He first came up in 1992, in a van with the Merlin’s technician and Dave, his best mate at the time, to perform a self-written one-man show about Edmund Kean, the early 19th century actor who was a drunk and a womaniser but the greatest Shakespearian actor of his day.
“We had never been up to the fringe before. We did the whole run and it was just wonderful,” he says. “I have been back every year since, bar one.
“In August there is no place I would rather be. Sometimes it works, sometimes you have success, sometimes you fall flat on your face, but the creative energy in Edinburgh at the moment, and every year, at this time of year – which in the main is kindled by the energies of young people who have far more dreams to fulfil than shattered dreams – is infectious.”
He came back with Hancock’s Half Hour, Heathcote Williams’ play about Tony Hancock, which was a big enough success for him to return with it for two more years and allowed him to dream of beginning to earn his living as an actor.
“Because I had no training, biog or CV, nobody was going to offer me a part. Nobody would even offer me an audition. It is difficult because you want people with a background, so the only way forward was to write something for myself.”
The next show was Adolf, his big one, which draws Hitler’s own words from Mein Kampf and Table Talk, weaving them into a enthralling monologue. What makes it endure is the powerful sting in its tail that transforms it into a strong piece of anti-racist theatre. But it could not work if Utton did not inhabit so well the character of Adolf Hitler.
As with the Hancock show, Utton brought Adolf back to Edinburgh. The first, 35-minute, incarnation in 1997 won him a Mervyn Stutter Pick of the Fringe award. He reworked it the following year, extending it to an hour and earning a nomination for the Stage Awards before the solo show category existed.
He then fell in with Masterton, his first real director, and took Adolf up to and hour and 20 minutes. After some years performing under Masterson’s wing, he set out on his own. Everything about the Pip Utton Theatre Co is run by him. He makes the sets, the flyers, books his own tours and produces his own shows.
He doesn’t even have an agent. He explains: “I am 64 next birthday, but I don’t want to be on show seven days a week, I have no desire to be a household name and I’m long past dreaming of being an international sex object. I think all of those things an agent would want me to dream of, even if I wasn’t able to do it”.
He does enjoy being recognised in the street and wouldn’t mind the odd advert or appearance in Doctors: “It would play some bills and enable me to experiment more in my own works, perhaps. It might even pay for a director.”
A writer out of necessity, Utton says that he rarely considers himself as such, even though he spends half the year writing. He has eight plays on the go, half a dozen more which have fallen by the wayside and a couple “near the wayside”.
Although he as co-written three plays with Jeremy Towler – two of which were two-handers they performed together – the majority of his work takes the form of the solo shows that have made his name.
“I research lots of characters and try and find ones who will interest me and an audience – and who I think have got something to say,” he says. “Also, characters who I can inhabit for a short time.”
“There are characters that I research and discard. The biggest was probably Hemingway, I just became bored with him. I thought I can’t do this, I don’t want to step on stage every day and be bored.”
While he admits that performing as Thatcher in the current production is a challenge, he is sanguine about playing figures who are reviled: “It doesn’t mean you have to like them, but you have to honestly be them. If you don’t honestly be them, then the audience won’t believe you. The one thing I might have learned is that acting is about honesty. I know acting is lying, because you are pretending to be somebody else, but doing that honestly.”
Edinburgh is vital to the cycle of his productions. It is where he first performs them in the UK, although he does a tour of the Netherlands every year, which is where he honed Playing Maggie. But it has become more than that.
He has been a long-standing member of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society’s board of directors. Championing the cause of performers, after initially being invited to stand in the 1990s by the then fringe director, Hillary Strong, who had previously been director of the Merlin.
After an initial 19-year stint he retired from the board but is now back on it for a four-year term of office.
“I feel very passionate about the fringe,” he says. “I am very proud of a festival that permits anybody to come and perform anything. Unfortunately you can only come and perform anything if you can actually afford to do it. But there is pretty much no other model that will allow anybody to perform. I am proud of a festival that isn’t curated. These basic principles are what sets this festival apart from any other festival in the world.”
Chatting to him, backstage in the Assembly Rooms, it is hard to think of him existing anywhere else. Until, that is, you see him play Hitler and coax his audience into a false sense of security in their own honesty. And that, you realise, is another reason why this smiling, genial man is so well regarded.
Pip Utton was presented with The Stage Special Award on August 28 during a special event at St Andrew Square Garden, Edinburgh