Peter Egan talks of First Love at Royal Lyceum

Peter Egan. Picture: Jane Barlow
Peter Egan. Picture: Jane Barlow
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PETER Egan has just had breakfast, fortified for the day, he is happy to chat. And there’s so much to talk about.

There’s First Love, the Samuel Beckett play, which brings him back to the Capital; Shrimpy Flintshire, his role in Downton Abbey, which saw him don a kilt for only the second time in his life; and, of course, the ground-breaking 80s sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles, in which he played debonair hairdresser Paul, the bane of Richard Brier’s life.

First Love, which opens at the Royal Lyceum tomorrow, finds the actor on stage, alone, for an hour. Produced by Dublin’s Gate Theatre, it’s part of this year’s International Festival programme.

“I love Beckett, but this is the first one I’ve ever done and I have to say, I am terrified. First Love is a mammoth thing to do as your first Beckett and I hope I crack it,” confesses the 66-year-old.

Based on Beckett’s 1946 novella of the same name, First Love explores how love fails us and how we fail love.

After the death of his father, a man finds himself homeless, sharing a canal-side bench with a prostitute. As she pursues him lustfully he unwillingly falls in love. In the ensuing relationship, he ruthlessly refuses to engage emotionally with her, except when, despite his reluctance, she arouses his desires.

“The novella is beautifully written. It’s full of the most extraordinary insights into what we all feel when we fall in love, which is a sense of loosing one’s self. But Beckett goes to the extreme of that and captures it in a unique, humorous and acid way.”

Like Shakespeare, Beckett’s text has its own unique delivery, which Egan admits he is still working on.

“There is a very specific style, syntax and rhythm to Beckett. I am very aware that I have half of it, and I’m not saying that in a self-effacing way. But there is a kind of wonderful dry throwaway element to Beckett that requires great skill, deftness and confidence, and I’m nearly there.”

Nonetheless, an hour-long monologue must be the most daunting challenge any actor can face.

“It’s really tough because you have nothing to hide behind and are totally exposed,” agrees Egan.

“When you hit a brick wall you’ve got to own up and say, ‘I’ve hit a brick wall, just a moment while I get the map out.’ You can’t bluff it.”

Although no stranger to the Capital, the actor reveals that it is only in the last ten years that he has got to know the city.

“My relationship with Edinburgh has only come about in the last decade really,” he muses. “I did a Ninagawa Hamlet, playing Claudius and the Ghost a few years ago at the King’s, and then later, I did Sherlock Holmes there too.

“I also filmed in Leith about eight years ago, a film called Man To Man, directed by Régis Wargnier. It had a wonderful cast, Iain Glen, Joseph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas and Hugh Bonneville.

“Set in Victorian times, it was about bringing pygmies to London from Africa and put forward some sort of argument for the missing link or something...

“It was beautifully shot but did not get a bite and wasn’t released in the UK.”

More recently, it was Downton Abbey that brought Egan to Scotland, excited to be joining the cast of the hit ITV show, but also nervous of having to don a kilt.

“I was concerned, because you never think you’re going to look good in a kilt. But the first thing that struck me when I finally got it on was that is informs the way you present yourself.

“Your first fear is that you might feel mimsy, but you don’t, you actually feel rather butch in it.”

With a laugh, he adds, “You also become very aware, especially when you are sitting down.

“We filmed in Inveraray Castle, home of the Duke of Argyll, who was very happy that the tartan I wore was his clan tartan. So I had a great time on that and I’m hoping... it would be great if old Shrimpy comes back in the next series.”

Of course, no conversation with the urbane Egan would be complete without mention of Ever Decreasing Circles, the BBC sitcom written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, which ran from 1984 to 1989.

Starring Richard Briers as Martin Bryce, an obsessive middle-aged outsider, there was a darkness at its core which made it far edgier than the BBC’s other comedies of the time. “

“That was informed by John Esmonde,” says Egan. “John was the dark side of Esmonde and Larby and Bob was much lighter, warmer... not that John wasn’t warm, but he liked to spike the plot. It was he who always introduced the more dark side of the stories. The series was quite ground-breaking from that point of view.

“It certainly had the most remarkable cast; Penny Wilton, who I believe is our finest actress, she is brilliant; and Dickie [Briers], who was a wonderful, wonderful friend. It broke my heart when he died. Luckily, Penny, my wife Myra and I saw Dickie and his wife Annie shortly before he passed away; I took him over a curry ten days before he died

“I am so pleased that we managed to do that. I had a feeling at the time that he wasn’t going to last too long, but I never imagined that he was would only manage ten days.

“So I was so glad that we had managed to have that time together as a team, because we had become great friends in the five years we worked together.”

There will, however, be no team at Lyceum tomorrow, just Egan and his audience.

“Well, I said I’d love to do it,” he says, adding with a chuckle, “and I haven’t slept since. Now it’s just the doing of it.”

First Love, Royal Lyceum, Grindlay Street, tonight and Saturday, 7pm, tomorrow and Friday, 9pm, £8-£20, 0131-473 2000