TWO questions sprung to mind when Hywel Simons was asked to step in to save the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of A Doll’s House, after leading man Robert Cavanagh suddenly departed the company: ‘How big is the part?’ and ‘How is everyone in the rehearsal room?’
“When somebody leaves, there is always a bit of shock,” the 43-year-old explains.
Having been assured that all was well, the Welsh actor, best known as Sgt Craig Gilmore the ITV police drama The Bill, happily accepted.
He recalls, “I’d been down my allotment and had a number of missed calls from the head of the National Theatre of Scotland when I got back. I picked up my messages and they asked, ‘Are you free? Can you help us?’ And, apart from getting my raspberry canes in, which I did on the Saturday morning, I was absolutely free.”
A Doll’s House opens at the Royal Lyceum on Tuesday. In Zinnie Harris’ reworking of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic, Simons plays Torvald, a member of the British Cabinet.
Set in Edwardian London, the tale of intrigue, fraud and betrayal has been shifted from the world of finance to that of politics. The piece premiered at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2009, opening the same week as the MPs’ expenses scandal hit the headlines, and is a play that continues to resonate today.
Despite the politics, however, the heart of the play remains the all too human story of Nora and Torvald’s marriage, a union struggling to survive in a world of duty, power and hypocrisy.
“I didn’t know the part brilliantly well, but knew the plot of the play,” says Simons, before revealing the answer to his first question. “I’ll be honest with you, I’m still learning my lines now. They cut the script down, just gave me my bits, and it’s still 54 pages of dialogue with speeches. It’ll certainly add to the adrenalin on opening night.”
Simons, who is married to Heartbeat actress Sarah Tansey, got his big break as Wilf in the BBC oil-rig drama Roughnecks. Appearances in Little Britain followed, but it was as The Bill’s Sgt Gilmore, a role he played from 2001 to 2003, that really brought him to public attention, not least because his character was the subject of the series’ highly controversial gay kiss.
“The producer who cast me didn’t actually want to go down the gay route, but then a new producer came in and decided to establish this gay character.
“Another producer, Paul Marquess, came in and sacked seven actors on his first day - they tend to do that. Then he called me in and told me he had been going to sack me too because, as a gay man himself, he didn’t believe my character. Instead, however, he had decided to torture him.
“So the rest of the story-lines were just me looking longingly at this 21-year-old policeman and endless scenes of me trying to get off with boys, which wasn’t much fun.
“I wanted him to be a character that happened to be gay, rather than a screaming queen. That would have been interesting.”
For Gilmore the kiss was the final straw: “In the script it said: The boy is leaving the station. He says, ‘Come on Sarge do you want to come for a pint?’ The scene develops, I look into his eyes and we kiss.
“So the costume people, quite rightly, put him in civvies. Doing the kiss was a big deal for everyone in the building. Then I got word back from Paul Marquess, he wanted to shoot it again. He was deeply unhappy because the whole point was to have two policemen in uniform kissing. That’s when I realised that, for him, it was about sensationalism and not about the plot at all. He wanted a picture in The Sun of two men in uniform kissing, and that’s what he got, so I decided to take my leave.”
Royal Lyceum, Grindlay Street, Tuesday-4 May, 7.45pm (matinees 2.30pm), £14.50-£29, 0131-248 4848