The Big Interview: David Toole

Dave Toole at the West Yorkshire Playhouse
Dave Toole at the West Yorkshire Playhouse
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David Toole isn’t really supposed to be doing what he does.

It is nothing to do with the fact that the he is an internationally renowned dancer who happens to have no legs. No, the real reason David Toole shouldn’t be touring the world, performing on stages so large that they are literally seen by billions (we’ll come back to that) – is because his life was once heading in a very different direction.

“I went to work, got home in the early afternoon, got drunk, went to sleep, woke up, got drunk some more, went to sleep again, woke up, went back to work – and that was my life for nine years,” says Toole.

“The last three of the nine years I spent in my last job were literally that. And nothing else. I just thought that was it, that was going to be my life until I died. If things hadn’t changed, I’d have ended up in the canal.”

Toole is not exaggerating and while dour Yorkshireman is his default setting – he talks about his past impassively – he’s also dry, witty, and blessed with natural comic timing.

“Yeah, people tend to see my wheelchair before they see me. After 48 years I don’t bat an eyelid,” he says. “A few years ago I was doing some work on a show about a family who live in a freak show and I was working with a girl who… I’m not sure how to say this – what the politically correct term is – she was ‘short of stature’. She was very small.

“One day I was walking down the street behind her and watching people react to her was fascinating. I realise that’s what they did to me.”

This is Toole’s day to day. People stopping and staring, people coming up to him and even asking to have their pictures taken.

“Often in London if I stop somewhere in the street for two minutes, people come up and give me money. One woman came up to me – I was tired and had just stopped on the pavement to catch my breath – and she asked if I wanted her to get me a sandwich. I just went ‘hmm, I’ll have smoked salmon and cream cheese’. Blokes have got their wallets out and given me proper, paper money. I reckon that’ll be my retirement fund, once I get too old to dance.”

Toole was born with a condition called Sacral Agenesis, which meant when he was in the womb the lower part of his spine didn’t develop properly. He was born with legs, that were “basically useless and sort of crossed underneath me” and when he was 18 months old, the decision was taken to amputate. He attended a school called John Jamieson, which caters for pupils with disabilities. It was there that Toole got his first taste of performing.

“We were performing Joseph at the old Leeds Playhouse and the lad playing Joseph broke his leg,” says Toole. “I was understudy and we had a rehearsal where I stepped in. After that they dragged him back out of hospital and told him he had to do it on crutches. My voice was breaking and they would do anything to stop people having to hear me sing the way I did in that rehearsal.”

And that really, should have been that. He went to Park Lane College, wanted to be either a vet or a stuntman (“who could I be a stunt double for? I didn’t really think that one through, did I?”), joined a government scheme and spent six months learning about using computers at Leeds University. Finally he got a job with the Post Office where he spent eight hours a day typing postcodes.

“I did it for nine years. When I started it was just before Christmas so there were parties and all sorts. Then the reality of the job started and by March I was thinking ‘I have to find something else to do’. I did it for nine years.”

Toole readily admits that his nature is to sit and complain about his lot and it wasn’t until he returned to his old school, to say goodbye to one of his favourite teachers that his life began to change direction.

“There was a party for her retirement and she was always my favourite teacher, so I went along,” he says. “She gave me a leaflet for a workshop for disabled and non-disabled actors at Yorkshire Dance and made me promise I’d go. I called and asked about it and even put my name down, but I wasn’t going to go. I had a friend staying with me and Yorkshire Dance rang me to make sure I was still planning on going. My friend said ‘just go you miserable b*****d’. So I did.”

Within an hour Toole was dancing, with other disabled and non-disabled dancers. He’d started to discover something.

The people running the workshop were due to return to Leeds and run a week-long workshop a few months later and perform a piece at the end of the week. Toole had already booked that specific week off work – the only reason, he says, why he agreed when he was asked to take part.

“Have you ever had that moment where you think ‘this is it, this is what I am supposed to be doing’. Well, that’s what that was for me. I did the workshop and at the end of the week did a performance up at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance,” says Toole.

Everything changed. The people leading the workshop were setting up a theatre and dance company, Candoco, which integrated disabled and non-disabled dancers. Toole was asked to join.

“They wanted me to leave Leeds, run away to London and join the circus,” says Toole.

“I couldn’t wait.”

He left his job, enrolled on a course at the internationally renowned Laban School and his career began.

“When I first left, I am such a cup half empty person that I actually took a year off from my job, rather than quitting altogether. After a couple of months, I called and just quit. I decided that whatever else happened, I wasn’t going back.”

Not only had Toole discovered his purpose in life, he had, as the workshop leaders at Candoco recognised ‘something completely unique to offer’. He was a dancer with no legs.

“It’s when people ask what you do and I say, ‘I’m a dancer’, you can see them sometimes looking and wondering, ‘is he taking the mickey?’. I do understand. Before I became a dancer I thought they were people like the beautiful ones at Northern Ballet or whatever, not someone like me. I can’t remember when it happened, but eventually I got to the point where I thought, ‘yeah, I’m a dancer. If people don’t get it, I don’t care’.”

By the early 1990s, Toole’s career as a dancer had taken off. Candoco were touring the world, Toole with them. He performed for and met Princess Diana, performed in a gala alongside Sir Ian McKellen, he appeared as Puck in an opera (only a speaking part – the singing career reached its pinnacle with Joseph at school) and then he was asked to perform The Cost of Living, with DV8 – it became recognised as one of the most significant dance works of the past decade.

He appeared in films, in the HBO series Rome. Tim Burton asked for a meeting with him (on a film project that remains in development).

And then came last year.

Toole was asked to take part in the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games. He was sworn to secrecy. He is also incredibly bad at blowing his own trumpet. Which is why no bells rang with his family and friends. How could they possibly have guessed that he was essentially going to be the focal point of the denouement of the opening ceremony? “I was on a zip line, 22 metres up in the air, in front of 65,000 people in the stadium, 11m in the country and apparently a billion worldwide,” he says. “I was just thinking I have to get the job done. That’s all I was thinking about. It was only afterwards that I thought ‘oh my God, that was absolutely incredible’.”

It’s as close to effusive as the dour Tyke will get. The day after the ceremony, Toole was on the front page of pretty much every newspaper around the world.

Leeds-based theatre director Alan Lane spotted this and realised something was amiss. While Toole, who has worked with Lane’s company, Slung Low, regularly over the past six years, appearing in seven of their shows, was being celebrated internationally, back in his home city he was hardly known at all.

In a bid to redress the balance, Slung Low has devised a show based around David Toole. It will incorporate the story of Johnny Eck, a performer from the early 1900s who was born with the same condition as Toole and whose most famous role was in the movie Freaks.

“I can’t really talk about it too much, because we don’t know what it’s going to be just yet,” says Toole, when we meet. “It’s going to be in the Royal Armories tiltyard – Alan says something about the Armories being a brilliant thing we have in Leeds that isn’t celebrated which is why a show about me should be there, but I wouldn’t know anything about that.”

His eyebrow is arched, he’s got a world- weary look on his face, he’s being as dour as ever. “I’ll tell you what though. Even when I have bad days, I think, ‘look at what I get to do every day now’. It beats typing postcodes all day.”

The Johnny Eck and Dave Toole Show is part of West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Transform Festival. Royal Armories, April 23 to 27. 0113 213 7700, www.wyp.org.uk