The closest we have to a British Leslie Nielsen, David Cann is probably most famous as the surreal GP in Blue Jam. He graduated from RADA and has appeared on many London stages over the last thirty years. Born in Hampstead, he now lives in Shepherds Bush.
Your latest role in Hampstead Theatre's Tiger Country sees you take on multiple roles (as you did in Blue Jam). Is it harder to get into character with multiple roles than if you are doing a single role?
With adequate rehearsal anything is possible. Each scene and each character can be prepared "in safety", as it were. The real difficulties arise during the dress rehearsals because until then it's impossible to judge how much time is available to change costumes. Fortunately we have an excellent wardrobe department and they were able to alter one of the costumes to make it easy for me to slip into at speed. The changes in Tiger Country, however, were not the quickest I've had to do. In one play I had to change from a man into a woman in less than 25 seconds but I won't tell you how; I don't want to give away any tricks of the theatrical trade.
You've appeared at many London fringe venues including the Gate in Notting Hill and the Croydon Warehouse. How have you seen London fringe theatre change in the intervening years?
It's odd that some fringe venues have become more and more mainstream, The Bush for instance is now more or less a part of the theatrical establishment, while others are still very much in the shadow of the underground movement. Public funding has meant that the administrators often take a larger slice of the cake than before but this is not always reflected in the quality of the productions. At one well-known venue, which will remain nameless and which has received a hefty re-building grant and subsidy, I was firmly told by a newly salaried member of staff that I was not allowed to use the green room to make myself a cup of tea when I was doing an unpaid playreading. This despite having worked there free of charge several times and having contributed time and money over many years to the place. Aagh! The insolence of office!
Has the internet made much difference to actors?
I must have been one of the first British actors to have a web site. Not there was much on it to begin with. Nowadays actors can post their showreels and photographs, cv etc on the web which makes life easier for casting. The main thing is e-mail. I can read scripts and contact my agent much more easily than before.
What are your fringe theatre tips? What do you look for in a production as an actor or as a punter?
Ideally, the fringe presents us with the chance to do something unusual, commercially risky, artistically dangerous. Innovation is key. On the other hand places like The Finborough are reviving old, neglected masterpieces which would never get an airing elsewhere. A couple of years ago I saw a production of The Beard by Michael McClure at the Old Red Lion in Islington. I'd never heard of it before and it was amazing. It was first done in 1965 in California when both members of the cast were arrested every night after each performance. Even nowadays you wouldn't get a show like that in the West End.
If you could take over any London venue for a year (like Kevin Spacey with the Old Vic), which would you choose? What kind of productions would you put on?
Given the opportunity I would take over the Hackney Empire. It is a glorious theatre. A huge, gilded palace. A proper old fashioned theatre. I get fed up with black boxes and studios, breeze blocks and concrete car park type buildings. The theatre should offer a sense of glamour and style, charm and grace. The plays I would produce would be drawn from the modern and classical repertoire of British theatrical treasure. I'd give Shakespeare his due but would also do Wycherly and Kidd, Marlowe and Ben Johnson. Rapier, cloak and dagger! High comedy from Sheridan and Wilde and Boucicault. Musicals galore with huge casts, massive sets and endless chorus lines as well as a full orchestra. I would also include samples from the French tradition: Moliere, Marivaux, Racine and Feydeau. The twentieth century has delivered a rich selection of work. I am pleased to see that Rattigan has been enjoying a revival, I think his work will outlast Pinter whom I also admire. More recently, I love Alan Bennet's work and Mamet. There are so many brilliant younger writers coming up it's hard to choose but if the Hackney Empire was mine they'd be beating a path to my door! Oh well, a man can dream.
We've recently seen some strange places turned into theatre venues e.g. the Old Vic Tunnels. Given legal carte blanche and a large sack of money, which London building or open space would you turn into a theatre?
Dumas once said "Give me two trestles and some boards and I will give you a theatre". Yes, you can do it anywhere! The other day I was riding on the 207 bus to Shepherds Bush and a bloke got nicked for
not having touched-in with his oyster card. By the time we reached the terminus everyone was involved, each chipping in with comments and complaints (in a wide range of languages), dark looks and wearied sighs. Maybe we should get some film editors onto the security cameras and see what happens. London is full of daily drama. Last year one young friend of mine directed a film of a beautiful ballet performed on the Wandsworth Bridge roundabout. As the Beatles once said (or rather sung) "Why don't we do it in the road?"
Which up and coming actors should we be looking out for?
I can't help rooting for Henry Lloyd-Hughes in "Tiger Country" which I doing with him at the moment. He has the looks and the voice. He is beautifully partnered by Ruth Everett in some really charming and moving scenes. I am sure we will be seeing more of them both.
What is your favourite London spot?
Being a Londoner, it's hard to choose a single favourite. Hampstead Heath will always be special as I spent so much time there as a child, walking up to the top to see the whole city laid out in panoramic view. In later life I scuttled down many a dark alleyway in Soho, between desperate auditions and hurried voice-over bookings. These will always tempt me with their bars and dives, clubs, restaurants and cafes (check out The John Snow in Broadwick Street - a pub with an intriguing history). My local pubs in Shepherds Bush are The Princess Victoria on Uxbridge Road (excellent food and wine) also The Eagle in Askew Road for good company and the Angelsea Arms in Wingate Road for topnotch gastro-pub fare. The best food in town, however, is at The Cafe Anglais at Whiteley's. Posh nosh but worth it, especially when my lady makes the booking!
Here's David in action on Jam:
Tiger Country runs until 5 February. Tickets are £22-29 with concessions available. See here for more information.