HE is best known as a TV vet or doctor, so it is appropriate that Christopher Timothy should be playing a member of the medical profession at the Lyceum Theatre next week.
But his character, Bernard, is off duty in Season’s Greetings, Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy about a disastrous family Christmas.
“The play is set in the home of a nouveau riche couple, Neville and Belinda, from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day,” he explains. “Everyone in the cast is sibling or relative with the exception of one, a well-known author who succeeds in rocking the boat.”
It’s about a group of people with little in common except they’re family who end up getting on each other’s nerves.
“I defy anyone not to respond to that situation,” says the actor suggesting he has his own memories of disastrous Christmasses.
“If not personally, then I’ve heard enough stories to recognise it,” he concedes.
“I think what is glorious about Ayckbourn is that people sit in the theatre laughing uproariously and then suddenly think, I am laughing at myself.”
Bernard is a rather ineffectual uncle who insists on subjecting everyone to his puppet show, a source of ridicule, which eventually gets out of hand.
“I remember going to a production of Season’s Greetings four or five years ago because some of my mates were in it. Matthew Kelly was playing my part and I loved it, but I didn’t laugh too much because I thought it was too close to home,” he recalls. “So when I got offered this I did think long and hard about it before deciding to do it.”
Christopher Timothy has appeared in a couple of Alan Ayckbourn plays but comparatively late in his career. “When I was younger I saw things like The Norman Conquests at the National and liked them but never got near doing it,” he says.
“Some time ago I did a tour of Confusions which was a pot pourri of Ayckbourn, five short interconnected plays. I was in three of them and playing very different types of characters, it was a joy.” It came to the Lyceum in 1996.
“Then last year we did a production of Haunting Julia at Lichfield which transferred to the Riverside in London. It was a very different Ayckbourn, a ghost story, and you heard screams from the audience.
“When you get down to the bottom line he doesn’t write farces or comedies, he writes plays about people that sometimes happen to be funny.”
Acting in Aykbourn is a challenge for actors, he says.
“At first I found the lines hard to learn. Reading the dialogue on the page there are points when you think ‘that’s an odd choice of words’ but when it’s performed it sounds absolutely natural.
“It’s partly a question of rhythm which is something I don’t really understand unless it’s applied to Shakespeare or verse. But sometimes it’s the choice of words.
“At one point I say, ‘it’s a vicious spiral’, and at first I thought it should be vicious circle.
“But I was reminded of something I once heard Laurence Olivier say to a young Michael Gambon. ‘Take that line and make it a question’, he advised, and Gambon protested it wasn’t a question. ‘No but by doing that it will make the audience prick up their ears’. And I think Ayckbourn does that quite often, putting in lines that make the audience sit up a bit.”.
Christopher Timothy is well known for his many television appearances, including as Mac McGuire in the BBC daily drama series, Doctors, which he has also directed, and the lead in the long-running James Herriot series, All Creatures Great And Small.
After his long career, does he still have an appetitite for going out on tour? “I guess maybe I am a bit more choosy than I used to be.
“When people ask why I keep working at my age, the answer is I can’t afford not to. But I love what I do and there’s so much I want to learn about acting and the way you do that is to act with other people.”
Timothy has previously toured to the Lyceum several times and is looking forward to revisiting his favourite coffee shop near Hillsborough Park.
Season’s Greetings is at the Lyceum from Tuesday to Saturday.