Edinburgh Theatre: The night Ewan McGregor's famous uncle drank with David Bowie in an Edinburgh bar
Star Wars, New Tricks and Local Hero favourite Denis Lawson is in Edinburgh all this week and his return is bringing back memories of drinking with David Bowie at Traverse and a show with some very unexpected nudity.
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The sprightly 74-year-old arrived in the Capital a few days ahead of the opening of Anything Goes at the Festival Theatre, in which you can see him as Moonface Martin all week, but his joy at being back in the city has been tinged with sadness as it was here he received news that his New Tricks co-star, Dennis Waterman had passed away.
He explains, “My wife and I thought we'd have a break here before the performances started and it's been really nice. My son Jamie lives in Edinburgh now and immediately found he enjoyed living in the city.”
The actor and director who himself has lectured in and written a book on screen acting, continues, “It was very sad to hear about Dennis. He was an extraordinary, eccentric man for sure, but I really loved working with him. When you got out in front of the camera with him and were doing it, he was just terrific. Quite a character. He made it look natural and easy and that's the great secret of working on camera.”
No stranger to Edinburgh, it was here that Lawson spent some of the formative years of his career working at both the Royal Lyceum and old Traverse in the Grassmarket, where he trained with the legendary dancer, actor, teacher, mime artist, and choreographer, Lindsay Kemp.
He remembers, “Early on in my career I worked at the Lyceum and later I worked with Lindsay, that was quite an experience. Lindsay was extraordinary and as mad as a snake. I did quite a lot of mime and movement orientated work early on.”
It was while working with Kemp in Edinburgh that Lawson found himself drinking with a then unknown singer who called himself David Bowie. Bowie too was spending time in the Capital learning mime and movement from Kemp.
“I met David Bowie with Lindsay in the bar of the Traverse Theatre,” Lawson recalls. “Nobody particularly knew who he was at that point but I remember he wore a large stetson and had shoulder length blonde hair - I never forgot him. He made an instant impression. It was very interesting. He worked with Lindsay on mime, which is why he always moved so well.”
A law unto himself, Kemp was well known for his outrageous and often erratic behaviour, as Lawson attests.“One night we were doing a crazy version of a Jean Genet thing, Our Lady of the Flowers, it was really out there. I was also doing Macbeth at the Lyceum at the time, so after that I'd jump in a taxi to the Grassmarket, spray my hair silver, put on a lot of make-up and what could only be described as a very small G-string, and start Flowers hanging from the rafters screaming my lungs out - it was a real culture shock.
He continues, “One night there wasn't a very big audience. Lindsay was not pleased and shouted at a man in the front row to 'get out of my f***in' theatre'. The guy thought it was part of the show and didn't move so a furious Lindsay took all his clothes off and did the rest of the show naked. It was crazy but you do learn a lot from working with somebody so extreme.”
Playing Moonface Martin in Anything Goes has taken Lawson back to where it all started, he says. His childhood heroes were silver screen stars like Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.“American Vaudeville kind of people,” he clarifies, “That's what made me want to perform. I wanted to be like them and Anything Goes is that 'front-cloth' vaudevillian-style show and I just love it. It's fantastic - musical theatre has always been a strong part of my career."
So strong, if fact, he won an Olivier Award for his performance as Jim Lancaster in the musical, Mr Cinders.
Lawson also left his mark on the Star Wars film franchise in which he played playing X-wing pilot Wedge Antilles in the original trilogy, so naturally it was to Uncle Denis that his nephew, Ewan McGregor turned for advice when offered the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi, a part he has since claimed his uncle tried to talk him out of, however, Lawson's laughs as he puts the record straight.
“Ewan likes to say that, but it wasn't like that at all. He was young at the time and it's easy in this profession to get pigeon-holed, so all I said to him was to just be careful. To make sure he really wanted to do it. It was great that he did it and ignored ‘my advice’ and he was fantastic in it. He is an amazing talent.”
It's Lawson we have to thank for encouraging that talent and he remembers, "My sister Carol came to me and said that Ewan, who was eight at the time, had something to tell me. He stood in front of me very seriously and said, 'I want to be an actor.' And I said, ‘Fine, well come back to me in a few years and we will discuss it’. As with me, it never went away and I am immensely proud of what he has done.”
Anything Goes tickets can be purchased here.