What’s it really all about? The question of Alfie

Kenn Sabberton, John Branwell, Eamonn Riley, David Ricardo-Pearce and Barbara Hockaday in Alfie Photo: Ian Tilton
Kenn Sabberton, John Branwell, Eamonn Riley, David Ricardo-Pearce and Barbara Hockaday in Alfie Photo: Ian Tilton
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A radio play, book, movie, stage play – what is it about Alfie that intrigues audiences even today? Arts correspondent Nick Ahad finds out from a man playing the iconic role.

At the risk of sounding facetious, while at first glance there may not be a great deal in common between Hamlet and Alfie, consider this.

Both plays take their name from the title character and both feature said hero asking a fundamental question.

Hamlet wonders ‘to be or not to be?’ while Alfie’s question is ‘what’s it all about?’.

Bill Naughton’s play Alfie might not match Shakespeare’s tale of The Dane in other ways, but that it has such a fundamental question at its heart is the reason it has outlived its author and continues to resonate with audiences.

It is also the reason why the play is being toured again this year, visiting venues around the country.

The play is in Scarborough at the Stephen Joseph Theatre this week and next, the theatre one of four that have collaborated to revive the play and bring it to the stage.

Alfie, as we all know thanks to the Michael Caine Oscar-nominated movie, is about a young womaniser who flits through life without responsibility or thought of consequence.

Not so, says David Ricardo-Pearce, the flamboyantly named actor taking on the iconic role in the production.

“I had to try and find as much humanity as I could in the character,” says Ricardo-Pearce. “I don’t think he’s actually bad, I just think he acts on impulse. He’s actually like a big kid.”

Ricardo-Pearce sounds like he’s trying to excuse the behaviour of someone whose behaviour is clearly questionable – and it’s easy to understand why. Taking on the role of Alfie for a young actor has to be the sharpest of double-edged swords.

In Naughton, you have a playwright whose work is indisputably powerful and in Alfie a cocksure, swaggering character to play who, in the stage version, is rarely off stage for the two-and-a-half-hour running time. You also have a character who gets to speak directly to the audience: “Which is really good fun, but also pretty rare to get the chance do outside of Shakespeare,” says Ricardo-Pearce.

All of these make it a dream of a role for a young actor to get.

The flip-side of all the positives to playing Alfie are as plentiful as the benefits. Firstly, he has been played by Michael Caine, who is not easy to follow – just ask Jude Law, who starred as Alfie in the ill-fated remake in 2004. Then there are the more tangible problems.

Alfie is not a nice piece of work. Not in the 1962 radio play, the 1963 stage play, the 1966 movie or the novel that came out at the same time.He refers to women as ‘birds’ and ‘bints’ and, not irregularly, ‘it’. As he says early in the stage version “I look on an evening with just one bird as only half the menu, sausage and mash without the treacle pud”.

Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch appeared in 1970, so perhaps the language might not have been as shocking in 1966 as it is today, but surely even back then audiences weren’t supposed to feel empathy for a man who sleeps with a friend’s wife and often hits ‘birds’?

“A lot of what he says is quite difficult to swallow,” says Ricardo-Pearce. “The script we’re using is taken from the radio play, with some bits of the film and bits from the novel, so it’s not exactly the same as the film script. What I think happened was that Naughton kept improving the script each time and I found that from reading the novel there is a lot more backstory to Alfie.

“There’s a lot there about him having quite a troubled childhood. Naughton writes a lot about him having issues around being abandoned by his own parents which is why he doesn’t want to feel dependant on anybody.

“Alfie is never set up as a good example, which I think is the important thing. He is written by Naughton as almost an example of how not to live your life.”

The concern with presenting something like Alfie to a contemporary audience is the same fine line around which Al Murray, the character created by Alastair Hay, dances. Al Murray is a bigoted pub landlord and the joke is supposed to be ironic. Audiences are supposed to laugh at, rather than with, the pub landlord.

The character of Alfie is written as a charming rogue, so is there a danger that some audiences will miss the point and find him endearing, in spite of the appalling way he treats and speaks of his sexual conquests?

“The fact is that he is a mess of a human being and that’s why he ends up alone – he makes the wrong choices all the way through the play,” says Ricardo-Pearce.

“It’s a fascinating role to play because he is a mass of contradictions. A lot of what he says is amusing, but it is also really challenging. He can be quite charming but he can also be appalling. I think audiences laugh at how ludicrous what he is saying sounds. If there is any laughter purely at what he’s saying, then I think it’s important that we do the play now to challenge some of the issues of misogyny that are in the play and that it deals with.”

The other major problem facing Ricardo-Pearce is that of taking on an icon. The Lewis Gilbert directed-film Alfie opened at the height of the Swinging Sixties in 1966 and Michael Caine became an instant symbol of cool.

The actor says that it’s actually less of a problem than you might expect.

“I saw the film as a kid, but hadn’t seen it since. Then, to mark the centenary of Naughton’s birth, I did a reading at Bolton Octagon with (director) David Thacker, so my first real introduction to the character was at a reading when I played him,” he says.

“It meant that rather than thinking of Michael Caine, I saw Alfie as this conflicted, fascinating, character.”

Alfie, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, to March 30. 01723 370541.

The man who created Alfie

William Naughton was born in Ireland in 1910.

When he was a child the family moved to Bolton where his father worked as a miner. Naughton left school at 14 to work in a mill. At 27 he was a coalbagger, and had a young family – and first began to write.

At 45 his autobiography, A Roof Over Your Head was described by John Betjeman as a ‘work of genius’.

In 1962 he wrote Alfie Elkins and his Little Life – a radio play.

In 1963 Alfie, the stage play, was produced at The Mermaid Theatre.

In 1966 Alfie was turned into a movie starring Michael Caine and a novel was released the same year; both were huge hits.