Ahead of opening night of Maw Goose at Macrobert Arts Centre in Stirling, Brian O’Sullivan spoke to Braw Theatre’s editor Fraser MacDonald about Janice, his passion for pantomime and being a theatre geek…
How strange is it to see your face on the posters done up as Maw Goose?
It’s funny. The last time it happened I was doing The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at Dundee Rep, so I got used to seeing pictures of myself dressed as Hitler all over Dundee, but this is a bit of a different experience. A bus did drive by me the other day with my face on it which was quite surreal.
Can you tell us a little bit about Maw Goose? We suspect Johnny McKnight has got a little twist or two on the traditional plot…
He does – and he’s done that really clever thing that Sondheim did with Into The Woods where a few fairytales collide. At the forefront is Maw Goose, and her vanity and her desire to be young and beautiful. And obviously having a goose that lays golden eggs!
In this show, we also go back in time to fix some of the problems Maw Goose has with a few familiar faces from nursery rhymes. Maw Goose actually runs a panto academy and trains new panto performers up so there’s this whole meta idea that the scenes are taking place in the panto academy while she teaches.
It sounds brilliant! How has it been entering Johnny’s panto world?
It’s an absolute joy. A lot of the time, the script is a good starting place that you then build on. With Johnny’s work, you could add nothing and it would still be brilliant. And it has a proper dramatic arc so you can change the jokes but the structure is so solid – and it’s all there already.
Johnny’s also brilliant in that if there’s a better joke, he wants that to be used.
How important is it for you as a performer to put your own stamp on the character of Maw Goose?
It’s only important if I feel I can make it better. For me, the fun is to fine-tune the gag. To find out what’s stopping a joke from getting a laugh or how to make that laugh bigger.
It’s like Ken Dodd’s study of comedy as a theory… a science, almost.
Exactly – and similar to Ken Dodd, there is a question of ‘How many jokes can we fit in here?’ and there isn’t really a limit unless it’s holding things up!
So it won’t be Ken Dodd’s four-and-a-half hours long?
No, absolutely not! People have to get the last bus…
You have been a giggling actor and musician for a long time now. But you found yourself catapulted into social media stardom during the lockdown with your videos as Janice and Frank. Will Janice make an appearance in this year’s panto?
Well, Maw Goose is Janice and Johnny has rewritten it so that her name is Janice. Not that it has anything to do with the surgery or any of Janice’s real-life stuff… it’s more like where does Brian meet Janice and then where does Janice meet Maw Goose? I feel like when I put the wig on and start doing Dame it’s not that different – it’s just a heightened version of Janice and we’ve embraced that, rather than pretend it doesn’t exist.
Janice is a pretty incredible character who seems to have really captured people on social media. It feels like everyone knows a Janice…
Yeah, and I think even if you don’t know a Janice you know people who say things like that. And that’s really because I don’t make these things up – I just remember them. So being relatable is really important in that sense.
I grew up watching The Royle Family because I loved that everyday chat that sounds so ridiculous through that observational lens. It really does make you laugh.
Do you find people come up to you in the street and shout your own lines back at you?
Yes that happens quite a lot actually… it’s mad! I never expected it – I only put them online because my pal Gary was sick of me sending them to him. And it all blew up from there.
Sometimes people don’t know what to say so just shout ‘Oh, it’s yersel’ and I’m left thinking ‘Is that my cousin…?’ but I’ve never had anything other than hugely positive.
In my best moments, I like to think that my mission on earth is to bring joy – but not at anyone’s the expense. So I would avoid a cheap gag and hope the videos have a bit more of a thought behind it.
It’s a delicate balance – and that applies to panto too. I mean you can bring the house down by throwing a pie in someone’s face but a rotten panto script might also have a body shame in it. And I would instantly say ‘Let’s not do that because that won’t actually help anyway’.
You have a real passion for panto but also for theatre more generally. Your podcast, Putting It Together, is a treasure trove for anyone with an interest in pouring over the granular detail of theatre in Scotland. How important is it for you to be an ambassador for theatre in Scotland?
With comedy, I think if it makes me laugh then it’ll make somebody happy else laugh too. With theatre, I suppose the same is true – you think there must be some other theatre geeks out there who appreciate things the same as you do.
When I first became an actor I just assumed that everyone else would be a theatre geek like me, but that wasn’t really my experience. I thought everyone made up shows in their loft when they were a kid and went home from rehearsal thinking about nothing but theatre…
I get loads of stick for that – I’m even getting it in the neck for going to see a show on an off day! I’m off on Sunday and I’m going to see the King’s panto that night. So I’m just embracing my own geek and for me that’s theatre.
You have had a pretty busy year and clearly have a lot of other plates spinning… what’s up next after Maw Goose at the Macrobert?
I’m going to be writing music for a Christmas show next year… I don’t think I’m allowed to say which one! I’ve also got an idea for a one-person play for me to be in. It’s actually about my encounters with a Catholic monk who is a family friend.
There are other shows that I’ve done that are going out again which I might be doing… it’s one of those things where you don’t want to commit to anything too early but there are definitely things in the pipeline that I’m really excited about. I just want to keep going!
I’m also still doing self-tapes for all the crime dramas on the telly just in case!