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Barking on Time:

Mark Williams as Doctor Dolittle

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Toby Hambly

Mark Williams talks strange rooms, puppets and superhuman skills with Toby Hambly.

Actors that tend to play bad guys are often said to be some of the nicest around – the initial implication being that their onscreen villainy must derive from a well of malice off screen. Conversely, there are some who play beloved, national treasure-type characters, that you almost hope are utter bastards. I can dutifully report however, that Mark Williams is not such a man. I already suspected this, having once served the Brasenose graduate before in a local pub. He’s utterly without pretence or ego, two things that someone internationally famous as Father Brown and Arthur Weasley might have acquired.

I used to watch 101 Dalmatians religiously with my family, and Williams’ scenes as Cruella de Vil’s bumbling henchman, Horace, opposite Hugh Laurie, are my enduring favourites. I tell him this and he chuckles back, “It’s funny how kids get, my daughter had a thing about Madagascar, so I know it off by heart.”

What has us on the phone however, is not Dalmatians but rather an entire menagerie of creatures, as Williams begins a mammoth run with the brand new stage adaptation of Doctor Dolittle. I wondered how The Fast Show actor ended up cast as the lovable curmudgeon – turns out this isn’t the first time he’s been approached for a musical. “Trevor Nunn asked me to do South Pacific and Guys and Dolls. I was nearly on Broadway recently but we had problems with American equity; I couldn’t get the clearance to do it. That made me feel like there was unfinished business there.” Thus, when Doctor Dolittle came along, he “grabbed it with both hands”.

This production of the famous story comes, for the first time, with puppetry. Designed by Nick Barnes and Caroline Bowman, this extra set of characters is “brilliant, because in the past there have only been two choices”, Williams explains. “One is to not have any animals, the other is to use live ones – they’re not very good actors and they’re terrible dancers. But what we’ve got now are characters who can respond to the actors on stage and be involved in it.” The freedom and creative space this affords is equal and opposite to the pains of filming with animals, which is an invariably tricky process – “You’re ridiculously pleased when they even bark on time.”

Talking to animals for Williams is “the greatest superhuman skill, better than being bendy or walking through walls, or even flying”, and for the titular character it’s an ability that demonstrates his vulnerability. This is most unlike the 1967 film in which “Rex Harrison, because he was Rex Harrison, had to have the love interest. He ‘gets the girl’ – but that seems completely inappropriate.” In this version, the romance between Matthew Mugg and Emma is allowed to flourish, “to demonstrate just how removed from humanity Doctor Dolittle really is”. But, as with other cranky types, there’s a redemptive payoff to their cantankerousness. “On paper he’s quite an awkward character, but often with people like that it generates quite a lot of love because he’s very true to himself. It’s amazing how bad-tempered he can be and yet still be charming, it’s weird.”

Doctor Dolittle comes to Oxford’s New Theatre from 15-26 January having opened at The Lowry in Salford. How does touring life suit? “It’s a very luxurious way of life in a sense, as long as you don’t mind living in strange rooms having extremely strange working hours; doing the bulk of your work at night and then suddenly not being able to sleep.” Upon his return to Oxford he’s “hoping to get out on the river which I never did when I was at college. I don’t do regrets really but that was one where I thought, ‘that was a waste’, so I’ve asked if I can be indulged.”

The tagline for the show is ‘You’ve never seen anything like it’, and by the sounds of things, one hasn’t. “It’s incredibly vibrant. We all love doing it; it’s always full of people in the wings watching. It’s a fabulous entertainment in the true sense of fabulous. It’s really, really good value for money. You’ve got singing, dancing, puppets –it’s a great show. And I’m not just saying that because I’m in it.” On that last point, we’ll have to wait and see, though I’m tempted to believe him if initial reviews are anything to go by. Come January, I’m hoping to see Williams on stage and, for the sake of his bucket list, I hope he gets out on the river.

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