Actor Forbes Masson on his one-man revival of 'Jekyll & Hyde', 40 years of Victor & Barry and arts funding cuts
Almost 40 years have passed since Forbes Masson took his first tentative steps onto the stage in Edinburgh as an unknown drama student – in a Fringe show which would change his life.
Victor & Barry, the cabaret double act he formed with Alan Cumming, would propel the pair to hugely successful stage and screen careers.
Now Masson is preparing for a theatre comeback in Edinburgh in an altogether darker show – but is still fired with enthusiasm for performing, a few months after turning 60.
The Falkirk-born actor is about to star in a revival of one of the most celebrated stories ever to emerge from the city, but will be in the spotlight on his own this time.
Masson is returning to the Royal Lyceum Theatre for the first time in more than 20 years in a new one-man version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s gothic horror The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
The Edinburgh author’s tale is said to have been "turned on its head” by Scottish playwright Gary McNair, whose adaptation of Great Expectation relocated Charles Dickens’ classic to Glasgow.
Masson, who will star in Jekyll & Hyde at the Lyceum from 13-27 January, will be reunited with theatre director Michael Fentiman after they worked on The Taming of the Shrew, Ahasverus, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
But the prospect of reviving Stevenson’s story in the author’s home city also had strong appeal.
Masson, who will be playing multiple roles on stage, said: "I’ve always been fascinated by Stevenson’s story. Although it’s set in London, Edinburgh is its beating heart.
“All the gothic imagery in the story and what I’m talking about in the play just seems so Edinburgh to me. It's great to have been here rehearsing it here - the city has been getting into my bones.
"The play is an exploration of lots of different things like addiction and duality, and is funny, dark and scary.
"The audience will be taken into various wee closes in the story. They’ll get slightly destabilised at some points. I think it’ll be a really exciting piece of theatre.
“It’s just going to be me on stage, but I’ve always liked to challenge myself throughout my career.
"I always tell young actors that it’s a tough game, but if it’s what you want and if it’s what your passion is, it’s the best game in the world. I’ve done amazing jobs with amazing people.”
Masson and Cumming were studying at the then Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow when they forged a partnership that would become one of the most successful in Scottish comedy.
Masson said: “The first year drama students put on a cabaret at Christmas. Alan and I were in different classes, but I had seen him and thought he looked interesting! We had both put our names down and someone suggested we do something together.
“Alan had done a bit of stand-up, we’d both done amateur dramatics, and we both played the piano and sang. We just really got into playing the characters.
"Going down the cabaret route was also a way to get an Equity card at the time, so we would do Victor & Barry at Hallibees, a vegetarian cafe.
“The drama school had a place called the Harry Younger Hall that they used to hire for the Fringe each year. We wore our dressing gowns and cravats on the Royal Mile to hand out flyers.
"We actually played the show to a cat one night when the festival fireworks were on. We were also reviewed in The Scotsman by Andrew Marr, who basically thought we were s***, so we decided to write a song poking fun at him.
"But we got really good audiences and were a bit of a hit, which was such a buzz.”
Masson and Cumming built a huge following thanks to Fringe shows, Christmas pantos and regular TV appearances over almost a decade before deciding to kill off Victor & Barry on stage at a benefit night at the London Palladium.
Two years later, the pair wrote and starred in airline sitcom The High Life, but then went their separate ways in the industry, with Cumming heading for America and Masson relocating to London.
However the pair started working together again recently on a Victor & Barry book due to be published this summer ahead of the 40th anniversary of their Fringe debut.
Masson said: “It’s been lovely reconnecting again. We did so much when we were kids. The connection that we had was extraordinary. We’ve been speaking on Zoom and then going away and writing. We’ve both got our own memories. Some things have come up that I’ve got no recollection of at all. It’s almost like I don’t know who that person is.”
Masson has been a prominent critic of recent arts cuts, taking part in a demonstration at Holyrood and condemning a decision to close and demolish Falkirk Town Hall - the historic venue where he first appeared in amateur theatre and musical productions - years before work is due to begin on a replacement.
He said: “The town hall didn’t look amazing, but the important thing was what it was and what it symbolised. It had such a heritage for amateur work. My folks were involved in amateur dramatics. I was in loads of stuff after my first show, Oliver, in 1971. There’s nowhere at all for work to be performed now. It’s outrageous – I'm so angry about it. The town centre is just tragic now. It’s completely dead.”
Masson expressed dismay that a funding cut was reimposed on Creative Scotland last autumn despite pleas for action to reduce the impact of huge cost increases on the theatre industry.
He said: “It’s really struggling at the moment. Audiences are down, the funding situation is atrocious and we now have this notion that the arts are some sort of luxury that we can’t afford when they’re actually the heart and soul of a nation.
“It's a very worrying time. I think the next year is going to be really painful for a lot of theatres. Some radical decisions will have to be taken because it would be terrible if the worst did happen and some companies just went to the wall. We need extraordinary measures to keep theatres going.”
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