Shaun Williamson spent years trying to escape from the shadow of ‘Barry’. He’s finally done it, he tells Nick Ahad.
Playing a character as popular as the put-upon Barry in a soap that was one of the nation’s favourites is a difficult shackle from which to break free.
Shaun Williamson found an interesting solution to the problem.
“Ironically, it was still playing Barry that gave me the opportunity to move on from that role,” says Shaun Williamson.
It starts to sound like an Escher painting, but, put simply what happened was this. Shaun Williamson was cast as Barry Evans in EastEnders in 1994 and stayed with the show for a decade.
When he left, he discovered the same problem that many actors who are cast in a high profile soap find – he couldn’t shake off the character.
“I spent three years working, a lot of it you won’t have seen and I’m not proud of all of it, but I had a mortgage and kids and you have to work,” he says.
Then the phone call came that would reposition Williamson in our collective consciousness. “Ricky Gervais asked if I would come in for a meeting. Obviously, I said yes,” says Williamson.
Gervais, high from the success of The Office, was working on his next project. He wanted Shaun to play a version of himself, a self who couldn’t shake off the character Barry. In the comedy series he would often be referred to by the character’s name.
“He explained they’d have Kate Winslet playing a foul-mouthed version of herself playing the character of a nun and once they’d explained my character I was well up for it,” he says. “I’ve got to sing a song alongside David Bowie. Who thought that would happen?”
It provided a turn around for someone whose career might have been destined to be defined by the ‘man who used to play Barry’. “When I left EastEnders the National Theatre wasn’t exactly beating a path to my door. I still don’t get a sniff from Downton Abbey or Midsomer Murders,” he says. So it must be fairly sweet to be sitting outside the rehearsal room at the National, preparing to take on tour one of the theatre’s biggest hits of recent years.
“I’m sitting here, looking out over the South Bank, so yes, this feels pretty good,” says Williamson. He is about to go on the road with One Man, Two Guvnors, the wildly successful hit written by Hull’s Richard Bean. The play tells the story of Francis Henshall, played in the original by James Corden.
Fired from his skiffle band the inventive Henshall reinvents himself as a minder to Roscoe, a gangster who is actually Rachel, posing as her own dead brother. And from there it becomes more confusing.
Opening a huge UK tour in Sheffield next week, Williamson plays Charlie Clench in the show which is an alchemical mix of pantomime, comedia dell’arte and pure surrealism.
“I never saw it when it was on in London and it’s a massive shame that I’m not actually going to see it now,” says Williamson.
“There is something really special about the show. Normally when you do a comedy as an actor, you laugh at the funny bits the first few times but then by the twentieth time, you’re bored of it. We really are still falling about in rehearsals. I hope that doesn’t sound overly self-indulgent, but it’s true – it’s just so funny.”
While it may have taken some time, Williamson can feel confident now that he has shaken off the character of Barry – and that notion that the “National wasn’t beating a path to his door” has also been laid to rest. “It does feel great to get an opportunity to show what I can do, but to be honest, I just want to get this show out and show people what it’s like, how funny it is. I honestly can’t wait.”