Little Britain star Matt Lucas is relishing the challenge of the good, clean family fun which runs right through Me and My Girl at Chichester Festival Theatre.
“It’s very different to the kind of stuff I have co-written over the years with David (Walliams, his Little Britain co-star)! Me and My Girl is a very light and frothy and funny and fun show.”
It is also a show with a clear place in Matt’s heart.
“I saw it when I was about 12 years old in the West End and loved it and went to the stage door to get the autographs. I got the LP, as you used to get in those days. I already knew some of the songs, like Lambeth Walk and The Sun has got his Hat on, and it was just so funny.
“I listened to the music on rotation, and I have always loved it. I hadn’t really done any theatre for seven years, and I thought it was time to get back to it and do something worthwhile. When I first saw it, it was already 50 years old, but it still feels both traditional and fresh.
“I have been playing a companion in Doctor Who for the last year. I was filming an episode with a great actress called Samantha Spiro, and she was coming to see 40 Years On at Chichester Festival Theatre last year, and I was coming on the same day to see it to see Richard Wilson who was in it and is a friend of mine.
“When (CFT artistic director) Daniel (Evans, who is also directing Me and My Girl) heard that I was coming, he invited to me come and have dinner and asked me if there was anything I wanted to do. I said ‘Me and My Girl!’
“A few months later I got an email. I was in LA where I live and I had to do an audition. I had to do a Skype audition for Daniel. I had to sing some songs and I had to have a dance session… and I got the job.”
Speaking during preview week at the CFT, Matt admitted: “I am quite trepidatious about it. I know that any job I do will come under wider scrutiny. I have done theatre jobs before where the show has not been as well received, but you still go in every day for a few months, and that’s quite tough.
“The last theatre job I did was seven years ago and that was Thenardier in Les Misérables, and it was just the best job I ever did. I loved it so much. The piece is so amazing. It is a brilliant piece of classic theatre. I loved it and had some kind of relationship with it, but also it was a terrific cast. I had such a good time being part of the company.
“And then I really kept my powder dry. I waited seven years for the right show to come along. I saw two shows in Chichester, The Pyjama Game and 40 Years On, so I knew the theatre a little bit, and I had seen some productions that Daniel had directed before, and they were impressive. And when we met we instantly got on. I just thought ‘This could be fun!’”
As for the scrutiny Matt talks about, he says it’s fine: “It just means that I have to feel that I can bring something to each job that I do.
“People will come in with preconceptions. For all the people that come in thinking ‘Oh good, I am looking forward to this and I liked Little Britain’, there will be people coming in saying ‘He is not a conventional leading man and I didn’t like Little Britain!’ I never take anything for granted. You have to work, and with an older audience in Chichester, perhaps that’s more of a challenge, people who won’t necessarily know Little Britain.
“Little Britain was obviously a really positive thing for me, but I know I have to bring something different to Me And My Girl. I am not Robert Lindsay (who starred so successfully in Me And My Girl some years ago) in any shape or form. I am not copying anybody. I have to do it in my own way.
“I play Bill and he is in quite a predicament. He is very working class and he is thrust into the world of the landed gentry, and it is not easy for him to get out. The moment he is there, he is trapped. But it is great to be performing it now. We have been in a rehearsal room for five weeks. We have been laughing at each other’s gags even though we have heard them 30 times before. You just need to get out in front of people for the whole thing to feel fresh. And having done a lot of really rude comedy, it is a good challenge for me now to be doing this lovely family comedy.”
Talking of rude comedy…
Matt, who has lived in Los Angeles for the past six years, believes the extraordinary success of Little Britain was very much a question of timing.
“I think what happened was the phenomenal success which was The Office, and that was just incredible. I think it was the most brilliant sitcom of its time.
“It was pioneering how it got that sense of naturalism. It was so popular and so influential that everybody tried to do their own version of The Office. Suddenly everybody was trying to do this super-real, seemingly-improvised mockumentary type thing. Everybody was looking in that direction… and then me and David came on wearing dresses and wigs and we just played the opposite to what everybody else was doing. We were really shameless.
“We had catchphrases. We wore too much make-up. We were loud and grotesque at a time when everybody else was doing comedy in quite an understated way. I think we just got lucky.
“Me and David did our first shows at the Edinburgh Festival at midnight when the audience was either drunk and asleep or rowdy, so we had to do big comedy that was loud and authoritative and bold and in your face. We developed that big bold and brazen style that really worked to our advantage. Personally, I thought The Office was brilliant, but we just went in a different direction.”
Despite his years in the States, Matt remains a British citizen, pays his taxes in the UK and has a home in the UK: “But in LA, you can just get to decompress a little bit and go under the radar a bit more. It is a different kind of recognition. They do recognise me out there, but if people in America know me for one thing, it is Bridesmaids; if they know me for one thing in the UK, it is Little Britain.”
The weather in the States is the real clincher for Matt: “I have got asthma, and I find the winters just easier for me with my asthma in America. There is nothing particularly profound about me being there. It is not quite so cold and wet for a few months of the year, but also I have a lot of friends over there.”
Me and My Girl runs at Chichester Festival Theatre until August 25, starring Matt Lucas, Caroline Quentin, Clive Rowe and Alex Young; book and lyrics by L Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber; book revised by Stephen Fry with contributions by Mike Ockrent; music by Noel Gay.