Barrie Rutter: “As soon as I got the all-clear, I bought £600 of wine”

Barrie Rutter has had a particularly challenging year but now this admired stalwart of Yorkshire theatre is back. Nick Ahad talks exclusively to him.

Barrie Rutter on stage at York Theatre Royal

Barrie Rutter’s life changed a little earlier in 2020 than everybody else’s. It was January 22 when his world turned upside down. In a diagnosis that showed if there is a higher power in our universe it has a sense of irony, the actor manager who spent much of his career extolling the virtues of the Northern voice was diagnosed with throat cancer.

In a year bereft of it, it is wonderful to now share the good news that, nine months on, Rutter has been given the all-clear. “Well, they don’t call it the ‘all-clear’, they call it fully tested, but yes, I am back to normal,” says Rutter, laughing. We both laugh. There’s nothing normal about Rutter.

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In fact “normal” for this extraordinary character means returning to the stage next month. We can exclusively reveal that Rutter’s comeback event will be a one-man show at the Holbeck, home of Slung Low theatre company in Beeston, Leeds, on November 7.

“I’m just looking forward to getting on stage again with stuff that I’ve prepared, hoping that I can woo an audience,” says Rutter, who turns 74 in December.

His mischief is entirely unaffected by the events of the past nine months: he has been wooing audiences for five decades and knows full well that his ability to do so is unlikely to have been dimmed by his treatment.

In normal times, he would have had a party to celebrate the good news about his health. In fact, in anticipation of such a celebration, he did something that was perhaps a little rash. “As soon as I got the all-clear, I bought six hundred quids worth of wine,” he says.

“When you emerge from the treatment, you come out of your cancer chrysalis like a butterfly wanting to visit every flower in the garden. Only I did so to discover that the world is in lockdown and the only garden you can go into is your own. It means I’ve missed that sense of shouting with the world and not being able to be as rowdy as I want to be. I’m definitely not saying ‘oh me’ because so what, everyone else is in the same boat. I suppose I’m just saying – what the hell do I do with six hundred quids worth of wine?”

Rutter is the erstwhile leader of Northern Broadsides, the company he founded in a shipyard in Hull in 1992. He set up the company as an antidote to the poisonous attitude in classical theatre that his flat Northern vowels could never belong in the mouth of a stage king. He showed the dignity of the Northern voice with productions featuring actors hailing from these parts and using their native tongue to defiantly play royalty.

It was why it was such a cruel irony to discover that the cancer which had attacked Rutter had gone for the throat. Following the diagnosis came six weeks of preparation. “The wonderful NHS medics are planning your treatment and then you’re off, picked up every day by the incredible patient delivery service that takes you into Jimmy’s,” says Rutter.

I wonder if he had dark moments. “I continue to have them. I was frightened to death. But how long can you live with yourself if you let that darkness in all the time? It’s hard to pull yourself out, but you must. One of the times that was really difficult was when I stripped off and saw myself in the mirror looking like a scrawny old man. My back, my chest, my hamstrings – I didn’t like that at all. I’d lost 16 kilos through the treatment, but I’ve started exercising and I’m putting some of those kilos back on. Some of it is vanity, but I’ve nine pairs of trousers upstairs and I look like a clown in them because none of them fit.”

He’s struggled with some “abjectly painful, awful side effects” including a loss of taste and the roof of his mouth feeling like “the edge of Mount Vesuvius”, but Rutter’s able to say “I’m here”.

But how to tell the world? A man who has lived his life in front of an audience from the time he hopped on the back of his mate’s motorbike to make the journey from Hull to London to audition for drama school, he comes alive on stage. Lockdown came halfway through his treatment, so when he emerged from his “cancer chrysalis” the world looked different and his options for getting in front of an audience were limited.

He was talking to his youngest daughter, the executive director of HighTide Theatre Company, who suggested the perfect comeback would be a performance of his one-man show, a number of performances of which were stymied by his diagnosis in January.

“She said ‘what about doing it at Slung Low?’ and I thought it was a great idea,” says Rutter. Artistic director Alan Lane led as the company pivoted during lockdown and it now provides food parcels for the people of south Leeds where it is based at the Holbeck, the UK’s oldest working men’s club.

“I owe that kid personally because when we were doing Wars of the Roses at the then West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2006 to celebrate Northern Broadsides’ 15th birthday, he was given to me as an assistant director and to be honest I didn’t know what to do with him because Conrad (Nelson, Rutter’s right-hand man at Broadsides) was in the cast, he was doing the music as well, and I think Alan got a bit fed-up with taking actors off to learn their lines. I didn’t embrace the idea of him as an assistant director and I always had a conscience about that. He doesn’t know that – although I suppose he will if he reads this.

“When he started Slung Low, there was no bigger private joy than mine and to see what he has done with the company and the sheer humanity of him and his team opening up the working men’s club and feeding people, it’s just absolutely wonderful. When my daughter suggested I offer him the show I thought it was perfect. I emailed and asked if he could cover my fee – a cup of tea and my bus fare – and here we are.”

Here we are with Rutter’s comeback show being presented at the Holbeck. Like all Slung Low’s performances, it will be pay as you feel on the night with tickets available on Monday.

It is, frankly, quite emotional to be writing about all of this. A comeback for a Yorkshire stalwart who started the year in a battle with cancer, his return to the stage at a theatre company that has spent lockdown feeding families and it turns out the reason for it is to pay off a long-held debt of conscience. It feels like a hopeful story in a year where at times those have felt in short supply.

“I don’t know how many people he will be able to get in, if it’s 15 and a dog, I’ll play to that. But come on, it’s not like it’s going to be Sinatra at the Royal Albert Hall,” says Rutter. I tell him it might well feel like that come November 7. “You reckon? All right, I’ll let you have that one.”

An Evening With Barrie Rutter will raise money for Slung Low’s campaign for a lift at the Holbeck. Details at www.slunglow.org

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James Mitchinson