Andrew Lancel reveals to Viv Hardwick why he thinks Ruth Rendell’s murder-mystery is perfect for Newcastle, but can’t resist a trip to Sunderland while he’s here

NEWCASTLE means something special to actor Andrew Lancel... not only does he regard the city as providing the best in theatre, but there’s also a final sounding board for his latest project, Ruth Rendall’s A Judgement In Stone, which tests the audience’s views on class.

“Funnily enough, it’s normally hard to mention favourite places. I’m in Wolverhampton which is an absolute gem of a venue, but Newcastle was where I played in Twelve Angry Men and, apart from the football, I’d not been there before. It just ticked every box, and the theatre is so precise and a happy experience. Now, when I see a tour list, I only look to see if Newcastle is on it,” says the man who found fame playing Corrie villain Frank Foster and The Bill’s Det Insp Neil Manson before switching to theatre.

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Lancel moves on to another project, which may just involve another contract with theatre impresario Bill Kenwright, after the North-East run of A Judgement In Stone. He’s already appeared at Sunderland last year as Captain Von Trapp in Kenwright’s production of The Sound of Music and also found North-East fandom playing Brian Clough in last year’s stage production of The Damned United, which played the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

“I’m a firm believer in taking what’s in front of you and there are times when you do hold out and wait for stuff, but with a family and ten years of telly behind me I’m having to keep going. I really enjoy touring and, in the past couple of years, I’ve amazingly done things like the West End and world premieres, while keeping my toe in the TV water by appearing in Marcella on ITV and I also do The Wright Stuff quite a lot. If the roles are good I’ll do it.

“I have a good relationship with Bill Kenwright and I love the family feeling he creates and he’s incomparable really with his output. But A Judgement In Stone is a different kind of role and a different kind of part,” Lancel says.

He rates the long list of famous faces in the cast as another happy family, “but not necessarily happy characters because they have a habit of killing each other, but off-stage we all get on for an eclectic mix of old school actors like Shirley Anne Field to former boyband member Antony Costa”.

Sixties pop star Mark Wynter and TV Not Going Out’s Deborah Grant are in the cast alongside a very different-looking Sophie Ward, who plays housekeeper Eunice Parchman – the prime suspect when a wealthy family is murdered. Lancel’s Det Supt William Vetch and his Det Sgt, played by murder-mystery expert Ben Nealon, switch from whodunit to why-dunit in this adaptation by Simon Brett.

“This plot is staggeringly timely because there are comparisons to what is happening in society today. The issue of class divide are at the heart of this play and it’s the first time I’ve played a copper since The Bill,” says the actor who feels that indifference to the world of the underprivileged is at the heart of this crime story.

“As we go up and down the country to places like Newcastle and Liverpool, we know that each city has problems and, with a play like this, you can play extremely affluent venues and others that are quite the opposite. It’s very interesting how lines and gags work in some places, but not others. One line will stop the play for applause, but in the next town that moment can be like tumbleweed,” Lancel says.

“There is far more to this than a good, old-fashioned whodunit and that’s what appealed to me... as well as the funny side of some great characters,” adds Lancel, who jokes that he’s gone up in rank every time he plays a policeman. “I’ve gone from PC, to Det Sgt to Det Insp and now Det Superintenent. I feel I should be commissioner by the next show,” he jokes.

Another reason for Lancel to take a lead role was another chance to work with director and actor Roy Marsden, who enjoyed major TV fame as P D James’ police detective Adam Dalgliesh.

“He’s a very clever and brilliant director and I trust him with most, if not all, decisions because he knows the balance between what a modern audience wants and an old-fashioned and traditional piece of theatre. We already have more things planned in the pipeline and Roy is my mate and someone I look up to immensely,” says Lancel, who was keen that his portrayal of a policeman would be different to DI Neil Manson.

“I changed his voice a little inspired by the way I thought coppers in Ruth Rendell books would have sounded,” he says having tackled the challenges of making characters look believable on both sides of the law. “It’s even more interesting when you’re playing real-life people, as I have as the two Brians.”

Lancel’s other Brian was Epstein in The Man Who Made The Beatles. “Epstein is very close to my heart and there are still posters up in Liverpool saying, ‘Brian Epstein died for you’. There’s not much I don’t know about him having played him twice. It was a genuine honour because I got to meet members of his family and to play the role in London with my family there. I always thought that when John met Paul 50 years ago this month, without the advantages of internet and social media, Epstein turned them into the biggest band the world had ever seen.”

Middlesbrough-born Brian Clough also fascinated Lancel. Clough was played in the film adaptation of David Peace’s book by Michael Sheen and Lancel was determined his stage version wasn’t going to be an impersonation of ‘ol big head.

“The Damned United is probably the best sports novel ever written and I was furious about it because it was supposed to be my holiday read in Greece, but I ended up reading it in a day. I couldn’t put it down. When I read the play I knew I had to do it, otherwise someone else would.

“It was a challenge to get inside Brian Clough’s head every night. It was exhilarating and exhausting to play him. Straight after that I did The Sound of Music and played Sunderland during the Brexit vote and that now appears to be a very strange time. I’ll be travelling over to Sunderland Empire to watch Le Cage Aux Folles because some of the cast of The Sound of Music are in it,” says Lancel.

  • A Judgement in Stone, Newcastle Theatre Royal, Mon, July 31 to Sat, August 5. Box Office: 08448-112121 or http://theatreroyal.co.uk