The Big Interview: Alan Turkington, “You won’t be able to forget it”

As he gears up to open Very Special Guest Star at the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham, Alan Turkington talks to about us about the play, which explores the relationship of a couple making a attempt to bring some spark back to their all-too-cosy married life.

Turkington has had a prolific career so far, though he is too modest to admit it – “it’s not a word I would use, but I’ll take it,” he says, laughing. However, a quick scan of his CV reveals stints at the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing in the West End and on Broadway in the Donmar Warehouse’s production of Hamlet, and treading the Olivier Theatre’s boards in the National’s recent production of Antony and Cleopatra, something he describes as a ‘wonderful, wonderful job.’ He’s also set to appear in the upcoming Netflix series Heartstopper and will be familiar to many as the voice of Sky Atlantic.

He’s now starring in Tom Wright and Rikki Beadle-Blair’s new play Very Special Guest Star. The play is billed as their most provocative show to date – a high bar given Beadle-Blair’s output over the years. Does he agree with that assessment, I ask.

“Rikki’s done a lot of provocative stuff but I can tell you this, I don’t think I have been more intrigued to see how an audience will react to it because even now, nearly at the end of our third week of rehearsals, there’s moments I think when we’re all still going…(he bites his fist)…and cringing in an appropriate way.”

If that’s the reaction of the creative team, you may wonder how audiences will react. “It’s going to be very interesting,” he says, “I genuinely think some audiences will find it hilarious, I think some will be absolutely appalled, I think some will be disgusted; and everyone will be entertained – let’s put it like that.”

Turkington was hooked from the moment he read the script. “I immediately thought I wanted to do this,” he says, “I could see this guy, I could see my character, Michael, very clearly. I’ve met this person.”

Michael has been in a relationship with his partner Phil for sixteen years. “They used to have quite a wild life… a london life, very typical, especially of gay men, that was very socially orientated, that was very sex positive… for Michael those are very much the glory days.”

Now they’re settled and have a son, Noah, who they adopted as a baby six years previously. “Even though Noah is the number one thing in his life, it’s not enough for Michael,” Turkington says.

Alan Turkington (right) with co-star Edd Muruako in rehearsals for Very Special Guest Star. Photo: Alex Brenner

With Noah safely tucked away at Phil’s mother’s house, the couple have come home from the night out they’ve been looking forward to for months and have brought someone home with them. “For Michael this is all part and parcel of ‘yeah, this is what we used to do – let’s relive the past and reclaim the glory days’.”

It’s a subject that isn’t seen very often, Turkington tells me. “Even though this is one type of open relationship, or at least has been in the past, that hasn’t really been explored very much, or at least I haven’t seen that very much. I’ve seen that lots and lots in life but I’m interested in exploring that as an actor and also seeing that onstage. It’s also interesting to see people’s reactions to that because there’s a lot of judgement in this area, and I’m not saying that as a shady thing – I think you can’t help but have an attitude to something when you’ve been trained and encouraged all your life to think there’s one ‘right way’.”

I wondered if there was a parallel between the play’s exploration of the politics of queer dating between generations and some of the work Turkington has recently done with Silver Pride, the online festival designed to connect with and celebrate older LGBT+ people. He’s not sure.

“I guess, why not?” he says, mulling it over. “The thing that really stuck out to me [when I did some work for Silver Pride], was just how little of LGBT+ content was geared at people over 50. Those stories aren’t really told… in a way the thing that links them both is stories that aren’t out there very much and are still new to a lot of audiences.”

The play is set to run at the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham, opening for previews on 23 November. In Turkington’s view, it’s the perfect location for Very Special Guest Star.

“One of the things we said, first off, is that Clapham is the perfect place for this play. I’m going to be very blatant about this, I want to get the Clapham Gays in! If you capitalise that you can put a ™ after it and they’ll be very pleased, and I am one, so…”

Not only is Clapham the perfect location, the Omnibus Theatre is the perfect size too, he says, particularly with a new configuration for the production. “They’ve turned the whole thing round to the side… and we’re actually using the windows of the old library, that at the moment are all covered over, as part of the set as well – so it’s very exciting.”

Alan Turkington in rehearsals for Very Special Guest Star. Photo: Alex Brenner

Given a career that has so far stretched from intimate venues like the 50-seater Finborough Theatre to the 1,150-seater Olivier Theatre, I ask if he has a preference when it comes to the types of houses he plays to.

“You can get lazy in a really really massive house like the Olivier because it’s easier,” he says, weighing the question up. “I will get much more nervous somewhere like the Omnibus where you can see faces.”

On balance he thinks his preference is the smaller locations. “I know that I prefer to go to smaller venues to see things. I often go and see the NT Live versions of things – I like to see the faces.”

“I would actually say that out of the last 10 years, the best theatrical experience for me was a couple of years ago at the Bunker. I really loved the play. It was We Anchor in Hope … about a pub closing down. They turned the theatre into a pub – that was magic, and that was tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny.”

With both of us being Irish and living in London, the conversation inevitably turns to Irishness. “Michael in this play is not Irish, it was written for London, and I said I’d really like to [play him as Irish] because he’s from a very conservative background – I can really relate to this.”

“It said the words in the character description; ‘middle class’, and it’s still quite hard for anyone outside London to just think you can have different classes within Northern Ireland… there’s this association with ‘regional must be lesser’ so if it’s middle class it must be RP. I’m interested in shaking that up.”

I ask him how he would describe Very Special Guest Star to someone considering buying a ticket for the show. “I loved Tom’s description of it,” he says, “which is a ‘social thriller.’ It’s a darkly funny social thriller. I haven’t seen a story like this before, I think it’s very exciting. It deals with really murky, fuzzy issues that we like to ignore – we like to ignore them in ourselves – and it shows ugly we can be as characters, as well. And it’s just a great bloody yarn…and I’ll tell you what, you won’t be able to forget it.”

Very Special Guest Star is at the Omnibus Theatre from 23 November to 12 December with tickets available now.