I have been very lucky with my interviewees; I get to speak to some of black Britain’s hardworking, dedicated talent who deserve recognition for their work. Actor, Delroy Atkinson is the latest addition. I caught Atkinson in his new play, Albion, at the Bush Theatre, then caught up with him formally a few days later.
The professional that he is, he spared me some light-hearted time, despite having woken up quite hoarse with a cold. With his wife away working, he was having to make his own honey and lemon tea. Bless! I had to start with congratulating him again on Albion, acknowledging his impressive portfolio over the 15 years since graduating in the Arts around the same time as Chiwetel Ejiofor and David Oyelowo – he subsequently became quite close friends with Oyelowo after meeting him at the National Youth Music Theatre.
They then had the opportunity of working together on the BBC’s two-part adaptation of Andrea Levy’s book, Small Island (BBC, 2009). Most of Atkinson’s work has been in theatre with a bit of TV and film. I wondered which medium he preferred. He laughed…
You know, I don’t make the distinction. I like to work and I like to act and if I can pay my bills from doing what I like, which is acting, then I’m not going to differentiate between television or theatre. I enjoy them all – equally.
As the baby of the family with three older sisters and one older brother, Atkinson is the only one who followed his heart into the Arts. Believing that with his strict Jamaican parents he got away with it because he was the youngest. Within theatre Atkinson’s impressive career includes major productions – I Can’t Sing: The X Factor Musical (2014), The Amen Corner (2013), Wah! Wah! Girls (2012, a British Bollywood musical), Avenue Q (2010), The Harder They Come (2006, plus tours in Toronto and Miami), Porgy and Bess, Jerry Springer: The Musical, Bomb-itty of Errors, Rent, Five Guys Named Moe… I wondered if he had received any formal training as a singer…
I went to the Guildford School of acting, I was on the 3 year acting course (graduated in ’99). You don’t get as many lessons or sessions as in the Musical Theatre course. But you do get some vocal training.
Are you from the Guildford area?
No, I lived in several places when I was growing up. My dad was a Pentecostal preacher, so we moved to various churches in various cities. My mum worked a regular job, but she was the preacher’s wife and had all of those duties as well.
With your cast mates in Albion, Natalie Casey I recognise from TV, and the rest are all pretty seasoned. I suppose it must be quite important to get that grounding when you’re dealing with such difficult material…
Yeah, I mean it is difficult material, but that’s what your director is there to guide you through anything difficult as a company. I think Ria (Parry) did that… in a pretty decent way.
I wondered about the creative vision for Atkinson in the role of Kyle. Were you attracted to the role or were you approached?
I auditioned. Straight, normal situation. I did love the play when I read the draft I was given and I was attracted to the role as well, because I like to get a varied palette and try my hand at all sorts of things if I can. The last thing I played was quite comedic and this was, um, not. Yeah that does attract me – just that diversity in a role… to get to be in that privileged position of finding diverse roles.
This is no exaggeration! Creative diversity should be this man’s epithet. Atkinson’s past work has included work across the spectrum from drama to comedy and everything in between. Albion is pretty serious material. Other reviewers have asked, ‘Is the Left responsible for creating the far right?’ But, as I have said, on the surface, the play asks what appears to be a very simple question. Kyle idolises Paul [played by Steve Shepherd], whom he sees as his best mate. It’s that friendship, as well as his own needs, which gets him involved with the EPA. That’s what makes the sudden, explosive revelation of Paul’s real feelings about race and sexuality all the more devastating. The dynamic between the two is interesting to watch unfold.
Did you and Steve Shepherd do any work by yourselves?
Within the process of rehearsal, we did do a lot of character work with Ria Parry and worked it out. Because in a play like this, you jump back and forth in time and you have to sit down just to make sure we know what date that is and we look at things that are happening at that time and find ourselves on the same page. But working with Steve, he’s an amazing actor, he’s great, he’s instinctive, and that always excites me.
It’s quite a physical play because there’s so much emotion. Do you have a regular workout schedule to keep yourself in shape for these roles? I can imagine that they’d be quite demanding what with switching between singing and acting…
You just try to keep yourself in shape generally anyway. I’m not getting any younger [Laughs] It would be a shame to get out of shape and turn up for a role that you physically couldn’t do… Stage work is generally going to be pretty physical, you have to keep yourself in shape for those eight shows a week or whatever. It requires that.
Do you have a voice coach?
Basically, when I have something that I need to work on, I’ll go to Shelley Williams, who happens to be my wife, who runs a school for kids, 4-16 years olds called Stage Studio… She discovered her skill for this years ago when she was first helping me out and getting results. It’s easier to take advice from someone who’s close to you.
I misunderstand the nature of one of Atkinson’s past productions, comparing it to some of the panto he has done, and elicit another laugh when I say…You were in Lautrec and The Enchanted Pig. You’ve obviously done some Christmas work…
Actually, the Enchanted Pig (2006) was an opera, based on an old Hungarian folk tale. It was written by an English composer called Jonathan Dove. That was at the Young Vic. Trying to get my head around singing opera which I’d never done before… But it’s like I said, if something comes up and its offered, I’ll have a go usually.
You were in I Can’t Sing with Cynthia Erivo, was it a shock to the Company that it didn’t last very long?
Well, it’s always a shock if something closes prematurely, but there’s always that risk with a big commercial West End musical. It was a shock to some and not to others. No one wants it to happen. You’re working on something, you believe in it and think it’s good and you get favourable notices and it closes… It was a project, an ambitious one and these things happen!
Atkinson confided that he had no definite plans after Albion finishes its run on October 25th. But I am optimistic that this performance will attract some important attention. There are so many aspects to Kyle’s frustrations which, as a central supporting character, are not writ large in his dialogue – he wants to marry; he wants to take on the opposition; he wants to really fight for the cause; he wants action and he wants things to change…
Having experienced Kyle, the character and then talking to you, it’s amazing how physically you did change. You’re quite hard-faced, angry and desperate (in the play) – confused and lonely yet you’re nothing like that, in person…
Thank you. Well, I hope not anyway. Sometimes you can take the dark side of yourself and use that as it’s a bit of a release. There are plenty of people who would call me grumpy. But you get to explore that and use it when you get to play a role like this. But I try not to take anything off stage or home with me. In the spirit of some of the themes raised in Albion…
Do you have any views on how easy, or not, the issues of diversity have been for you as an actor?
It’s clear that work needed to be done and it’s clear that what the organisation Act for Change is doing is good work. They highlighted certain things for me, and I’m sure for other people… when they were putting out pictures of the cast of popular American dramas and then putting them next to English ones. If you can’t see there’s a problem that needs addressing just from that, then you’re blind. But, what we do and how we do it is a whole other question… What’s good is that it’s being worked on.
Have you found that you have been awarded, let’s call them, ‘non-typical’ roles?
Not so much in television, but in the theatre, I guess I have. I did some early work in The Nuffield in Southampton, I got opportunities there in Shakespeare and other classics… so I enjoyed some ‘non-typical roles’. But, it’s a difficult one, isn’t it? We have to applaud Michael Buffong’s work at Talawa, who is a shining light amongst it all. He’s just a very talented director doing great things. I have to put that one out there. I think he’s great!
Absolutely! So, it’s Black History Month next month, who is your icon?
An icon for me within acting has to be Denzel Washington, which might sound quite cliché. But I never see the man do anything wrong! In life, was the guy I was told about from a very young age by my mum and dad… Martin Luther King. The Doctor. We had a picture of The Doctor in the house when we were younger.
I realise that we have been talking for a while and I really appreciate the grace with which Atkinson has given up some of his time, despite a virus trying to bring him down. I ask, what happens if the cold gets worse. Is there an understudy for the play?
No, you’ve got to march on through man up and get it done!
I wish him good things for the future and decide that he should have the last word. Is there a particular message or something about you that you would like put out there?
[He Laughs] … You know, I take my job really seriously, but I don’t take myself too seriously… I’m just a simple guy really.
Albion runs at the Bush Theatre, a converted old library in Shepherd’s Bush, from 12th September – 25th October. For tickets visit Bush Theatre.
Read TBB’s Review of Albion here