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‘I hadn’t actually realised I was going to be naked’ - Doc Martin star Joe Absolom on bringing Shawshank Redemption to Cambridge Arts Theatre

Could Joe Absolom be the most self-deprecating man in acting? He has barely been off our screens after making his name in EastEnders and then spending 18 years in Doc Martin as plumber-turned-restaurateur Al Large.

But he reckons actors who talk about their craft are ridiculous, explaining “we’re not saving lives”, and claims he’s only read the children’s version of Hamlet because he “didn’t understand it”. He also revealed an award-winning short film in which he played King Arthur only got made because he was “cornered in the Co-op” by a family friend and “couldn’t think of an excuse to get out of it”.

Joe Absolom, Leigh Jones, Jay Marsh, Ben Onwukwe. Picture: Jack Merriman
Joe Absolom, Leigh Jones, Jay Marsh, Ben Onwukwe. Picture: Jack Merriman

All these asides should be taken with a huge pinch of salt. Naturally funny and down to earth, he’s appearing at Cambridge Arts Theatre in a stage production of The Shawshank Redemption, taking on the role of Andy Dufresne, a man convicted of killing his wife and her lover and serving a life sentence at a prison in Maine.

The film famously starred Tim Robbins as Andy and Morgan Freeman as Red, a fellow prisoner and contraband smuggler. Based on a Stephen King book, the movie was nominated for seven Oscars. However, Joe hadn’t seen it before he read the script.

“I wasn’t worried about taking on the role because I hadn’t seen the film all the way through,” he says.

“I’m a father of three so the minute the telly goes on and it goes dark I fall asleep. But when I read the script I really got into it and the last scene leaves you really hopeful and exhilarated.”

Joe was filming the last ever series of Doc Martin when he started to think about trying his hand at more stage work after 10 years of concentrating on TV. He was inspired after fellow cast member Selena Cadell, who plays Mrs Tishell, invited him and Ian McNeice, Bert Large in Doc Martin, to see a new work that she was directing being staged nearby.

Ben Onwukwe, Joe Absolom. Picture Jack Merriman (62761565)
Ben Onwukwe, Joe Absolom. Picture Jack Merriman (62761565)

“Ian and I went down to watch it in this little church hall in Cornwall and when we turned up it was Eddie Izzard doing a one-woman take on Great Expectations,” says Joe.

“Eddie came down the middle aisle between the seats wearing high-heeled boots and proceeded for the next two hours to take us through an abridged version of Great Expectations and it was phenomenal. I remember I turned to Ian and said, ‘This is what we’re supposed to be able to do as actors’, and he looked at me and we both went, ‘Hmm’. Because Doc Martin is relatively fun and easy to do. It’s not a stressful job – it’s been great. But I felt inspired so I emailed my agent saying I’m thinking about doing some kind of theatre. And then they came back with this play, which is rare because they actually answered my question. In fact, it’s rare that they even get back to me!” he laughs.

It’s only the second major stage show he has ever done, the last being a West End production of Abigail’s Party in 2012.

“I just wanted to challenge myself,” he says.

“I’ve done a play in the West End before so I suppose that was proper theatre, but I didn’t have much to do so it was not a lot of pressure on me. When this came up I just saw this as an opportunity to see what I can do.

“When you wake up in the middle of the night, sometimes you think you’re not going to remember all the lines. You’re just going to run away screaming. Imagine that if you turned up and the actor just ran off stage screaming! You’d be like wow, that’s the best thing you’ve ever seen!”

Joe doesn’t have much time for actors who muse about their craft, in fact sometimes he’s so irritated he’d like to “punch” them when he reads their interviews, he says.

“I just heard someone talk like this on the radio this morning. They just annoy me… I think it’s all a blag and we’re all just getting by, you know?

Ben Onwukwe, Joe Absolom. Picture: Jack Merriman (62761557)
Ben Onwukwe, Joe Absolom. Picture: Jack Merriman (62761557)

“When you go out on stage you think this is what I’ve got to say and hopefully it comes out in the right order. So, to listen to actors talk about the way they play people does get on my nerves.

“It’s all kind of pretend, isn’t it? We’re not saving lives. And there’s a lot of things we could be doing with our time that helps people. And standing around, pretending to be imprisoned in the 50s... it’s a strange way to make a living.”

Perhaps his ego is kept in check by his brother and sister who, Joe says, have never watched him on TV – even when he was up for a major award.

“I don’t think my family ever watched an episode of Doc Martin,” says Joe.

“My brother and sister are basically London hipsters and they think that’s not our demographic. I got nominated for a BAFTA – not a small award – and my brother still hasn’t watched the programme. It was my finest hour and he’s like, yeah I’m a bit busy. OK, fine. Don’t watch it. It keeps you grounded because no one gives a ****.”

Life on tour has ended up being a bonding experience for the cast of 12 men, aged from 22 to 71. While Joe tends to avoid too many discussions of the performance, he does like to go for a drink with them to “de-acclimatise” after the show “because it’s quite emotional, quite shouty and there are fights in it. It’s quite nice just to go sit and stare at the floor for half an hour with other people who have just done it.”

They are currently visiting burger joints up and down the country after the shows.

He says: “Each town seems to have a gourmet burger place – not just McDonald’s or Burger King – so we like to spend money on a good burger. We have burger Tuesdays.

Ben Onwukwe and Joe Absolom. Picture Jack Merriman (62761559)
Ben Onwukwe and Joe Absolom. Picture Jack Merriman (62761559)

“We also inevitably end up in a Wetherspoons because of actors’ wages. When you can buy four pints for 11 quid it does make a bit of a difference.”

They also tease each other if someone fluffs a line and have set up a WhatsApp group to laugh at the unfortunate person who has made a mistake.

“Whenever someone messes up their line, we change the name of the group.

“I once forgot to say a line about a Seventh Day Adventist bible, which was referenced about five or six times later on throughout the play. I just forgot to say it because I was actually thinking ‘Oh, I did this bit differently’. And I was standing back admiring it in my brain. And so then I forgot the next bit. Everyone was looking at me and I thought ‘Yeah, it must have been good because they’re all looking at me in a new way’. It turns out they were actually going, when are you going to say your line?”

The show starts with a shock as when the curtain goes up, Joe is naked on stage in a scene in which his character is being humiliated. He is bracing himself for reactions as they have been quite varied at different places around the country from studious silence to cat calls.

“We were in Stoke last week and the reaction was really interesting, really quiet throughout the whole play. You could hear a pin drop. And then at the end, they leaped up. They loved it, but we weren’t sure for the whole week, we were thinking maybe they don’t like it.

“And then today we’re in Mold, and people have been laughing from the first joke. It’s not really a funny play, but there is humour in it because it’s a good story with emotion and laughter and everything.

Joe Absolom. Picture Jack Merriman (62761567)
Joe Absolom. Picture Jack Merriman (62761567)

“We’re constantly talking about that as a group of actors, and everyone definitely prefers it when there’s a bit coming back from the audience. Because you feel like you’re doing your job a bit better.

“If it’s silent, it’s a bit like if you went to a job interview, and there’s nothing coming back, and the person just stared at you for two hours. It would be a difficult interview.”

He reveals there are some lines that have separated audiences.

“There is a point in the play where someone says they burned their family to death. All seven of them. After that one of the guys says, ‘It must have been one hell of a barbecue’.

“In Guildford they tutted but in Brighton they laughed, so you just don’t know what response you will get.”

But the naked scenes have been the cause of the biggest differences between audiences.

“I hadn’t actually realised I was going to be naked,” Joe says.

“I’d just skipped through my lines and hadn’t looked at the stage directions so on the first day when we were told to go and get changed, I was like, ‘What?’”

Most actors would have been in the gym for three months beforehand or panicked when they realised they would have to strip off, but not Joe.

“I do a lot of running and try to stay active because I find it helps my brain. So standing around naked was not too much of a problem,” he says.

He also regularly jumps into the sea in Cornwall, where he lives.

Joe Absolom, Joe Reisig. Picture Jack Merriman
Joe Absolom, Joe Reisig. Picture Jack Merriman

“I’m not a cold water swimmer but I’m a cold water bobber. I go in for a bob, you know what I mean?” he says.

Like Wim Hof, the motivational speaker and extreme athlete noted for his ability to withstand low temperatures?

“I’m more Wimp Hof! I’m on a higher register than Wim. He is a bit cooler. I sort of scream and jump out,” he chuckles.

While getting his kit off on stage, Joe has had to cope with some fairly raucous audience reactions. “Sometimes you do get catcalls and whistles,” he reveals.

“There are places like Oxford that were a bit ‘hooty’. Milton Keynes was like a hen do! It was the night my wife came to see the show. She asked is it like that every night. I was like ‘Oh, yeah’.”

However, feeling exposed does have an unfortunate side effect, he explains.

“It’s more the fact that the nerves do lots of things to the body which you didn’t expect.

“It really shrivels things, you know. The nerves really have an effect on parts of you that you didn’t realise…”

Joe Absolom is in The Shawshank Redemption at the Cambridge Arts Theatre from March 13 to 18. Tickets, priced £25 to £40, are available from cambridgeartstheatre.com.

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