Father/son dynamics, doppelgangers and the kitchen sink courtesy of a classic 80s movie. George Costigan discusses them all with Tony Earnshaw as A Number plays in York.
Some actors receive their calling as children. It’s ingrained, deeply felt, emotive and immersive. For others it comes via a blinding flash – an epiphany courtesy of a parent, teacher or living, breathing inspiration seen on stage or screen.
For George Costigan it came on stage with an amateur group into which he’d been roped by a mate. He played the lead and found that he could be funny. Prior to that he’d “drifted hopelessly” through 30 jobs – from chopping wood to accountancy – after blowing his chances at grammar school. He was 20, and lost.
“That’s absolutely correct,” says the 67-year-old veteran of theatre, TV and movies as diverse as Shirley Valentine, Calendar Girls and the 80s kitchen sink revival that was Rita, Sue and Bob Too! “I had no idea what I was or who I was. Lost completely. Stood on that stage at the end of that show, they’d laughed all night and now they clapped. I just thought ‘That’s all right, then. What do I do now?’”
The solution was to study at the Manchester Polytechnic School of Theatre followed by repertory at the Liverpool Everyman. But before that came Butlins at Filey.
“I did six plays in a summer rep at Butlins. And what I learned you couldn’t learn anywhere else,” he recalls. “You were playing a 1,100-seater theatre, full most nights with no balcony. So you learned how to hit the back wall with your voice, you learnt how to play gags big. That training was vital. When I meet young actors now they just haven’t had it.”
By his own judgment Costigan has enjoyed a solid career with few bare patches of unemployment. A constant face on British television screens he’s also been busy on stage. Six years ago he played Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman at York’s Theatre Royal. Now he’s back in A Number, a 2002 drama about cloning by Caryl Churchill in which he co-stars with his son, Niall.
He describes Churchill as “the absolute business. She’s as good as we’ve got in this country” and is resolute that it is story, not stars, that ultimately determines the fate of a play.
A Number is all about identity. “A short, serious play about the issues around the subject of nature and nurture,” is how Costigan himself describes it.
“What’s it about? Very tricky. It’s about cloning. But it’s not about cloning; it’s about the issues about parenthood, really. That’s what the play is. There’s no point going, ‘It’s a comedy with loads of funny bits and songs’. It’s not.
“In the end there are only two kinds of theatre. You’ve got the theatre where I’ll go because it’s famous or he’s famous in it or I like that actor and will go and watch him or her and I trust them. Or you’ve got a relationship with the theatre.
“But in the end what people come out for is to be told a story. You’re coming out because of the writer.”
The world of acting is full of horror stories about those that didn’t make it. I wonder whether Costigan and his wife, writer Julia North, ever set about dissuading their boy from following Dad into the business.
“Our rules were ‘You’re not joining the army and you’re not going to become a Catholic priest. Apart from that you can do what you like.’ I don’t think there was a conversation where anybody ever said ‘I’m going to be an actor’. You go and watch him and you encourage him.
“In A Number Niall plays three characters, one of whom I’ve raised, one of whom is my actual son but who I sent into care when he was four and one is a clone of that first one, who I’ve never met. I haven’t said this to him and I won’t, but when I was his age I wasn’t as good as he is now. If I had been given this play to do at the age of 34, which is what he is, I would have been very surprised and extremely pleased with myself if I’d done it as well as he has.”
Is that a father talking or an actor?
“It’s probably both. But there’s another answer to the question. What I really want to do is work with him as a director because his upbringing in theatre was all in France and he’s got a very different look at things. I want to be in something he directs because everything I’ve seen of his has been extraordinary.”
Costigan is an actor of rare power, though it’s hard to get him to accept the notion. He prefers to focus on his heroes and heroines. The names that trip off his tongue are not those of the established A-list – the likes of Dench, Sher, Gambon, Finney or Atkins. Instead he reserves his approbation for writers such as Alan Bleasdale, Bill Morrison and Willy Russell or actors like Siobhan Finneran and Andrew Schofield.
This coming from the man who has worked with Helen Mirren and Clint Eastwood on The Hawk and Hereafter, two very different movies, and who directed three-time Oscar winner Daniel Day Lewis as Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger.
“Inspirations? My answer to that question is a guy called Andrew Schofield. Cast your mind back to a telly series called Scully in the Eighties. That was Andrew. He’s the best actor I’ve seen, and I’ve seen Dan [Day Lewis]. Drew is just electricity on legs. An amazing actor.
“Siobhan Finneran – there’s an actress to inspire you. There’s a hero. She’s fantastic. I think there should be a law that says Siobby is on telly every week. Every time John Humphrys comes on, take him off and put Siobby on. Life would be better. It would. Siobby would be richer.”
Schofield and Finneran both feature in Costigan’s past. He was in Blood Brothers with Schofield and in Rita, Sue and Bob Too! with Finneran. But this is more than just loyalty between friends.
“Siobby can do anything. Anything at all. Apart from the fact that she can sing and clown and dance. There’s a thing called Unforgiven that Suranne Jones was in and Siobby plays this middle-class lawyer. And [in real life] she’s not. She has no background in it and she just goes there. It’s extraordinary. Those are the actors that electrify you.”
I suggest that Costigan is himself pretty special but that he can’t praise himself. His response is terse and to the point. “Well, that’s very, very kind of you and I’ll bear that in mind next time I’m depressed. You’ve nothing to gain from praising yourself.”
Notwithstanding the breadth of Costigan’s work it is impossible not to associate him with Rita, Sue and Bob Too! Andrea Dunbar’s tale of the misadventures of two likely lasses and a married man on a Bradford housing estate caused howls of outrage when it was released in 1987. “Thatcher’s Britain with its knickers down!” blared the adverts and the nation variously laughed or ran away screaming.
Dunbar was to die aged only 29 from a brain haemorrhage. Director Alan Clarke – another touchstone for actors such as Gary Oldman and Tim Roth – also died young. The movie they left behind is testament to a social and political anger in filmmaking that now appears lost.
Costigan recalls meeting Dunbar in her local pub on the Buttershaw Estate in Bradford. She was, he remembers, “very ‘what you see is what you get’ and very, very direct”. Her play, soaked in profanity and invective, nonetheless spoke to different strata of 1980s British society. Lines of northern vernacular and vulgar expletives “just fell out of her mouth, but there’s a rhythm in it. She was a writer.
“The play to read is Shirley, the last one that she wrote. Shirley is a work of somebody who is beginning to learn her craft and experimenting with a form of theatre. And then she dies. Terrible.”
Has the film ever become a millstone around his neck? Costigan’s response is unequivocal.
“Oh, heavens no. I’m extremely proud of it. That’s the conundrum when you are asked if you prefer to work on the stage. Yes is the answer but the job is to communicate. More people have seen Rita, Sue and Bob Too! than anything else I’ve done or will do. Now I’m going to do a play that 100 people maximum can see every night. It’s silly, really, isn’t it?”
The life of a jobbing actor is full of bumps. Costigan has experienced his own peaks and troughs in a career stretching back nearly 50 years. But since playing Willy Loman he has been “very, very lucky”.
“I have done nothing but good work, more or less, since Death of a Salesman,” he says without any sense of immodesty. “Really good tellies, wonderful stage plays. This play is new to me. New plays are always the most exciting. Look at Scarborough, which has done pretty much nothing but new plays since Alan Ayckbourn took it over.
“There’s always something new to learn and everybody’s got different ways of getting to what we all hope is the same place. Because the raw material of what you’re dealing with is human beings it’s never not fascinating. Part of the reason why I’m an actor is because I’m happy to get away from what I am.
“There is nothing worse in this world than a moaning actor. You just go, ‘Sorry. Nobody asked you to do this job. Nobody’s forcing you to do this job. If you’re not happy, bugger off. Go and be a bus driver.’
“We’re very lucky because we choose. Ok, things sometimes go wrong. But we’re the blessed. The majority of the world does not do what it wants to do for a living.”
• A Number runs at York Theatre Royal until May 24. www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk