Clive Rowe was last seen in London playing Mr Snow, the prosperous, church-going father of several in the award-winning production of Carousel. He was nominated for, but didn't win, an Olivier for best supporting actor. This week he opens in Once on this Island, a fairytale musical set in the Caribbean, in which he plays (among other roles) Papa Ge, demon of death.
Watching Rowe during final rehearsals it's not hard to see his appeal: there's nothing cheesy about his smile, nothing phoney about his warmth. In a quite unaffected way he looks happy on stage. Inside Rowe there is no thin man trying to get out. Inside this big actor you suspect there is a bigger one still.
He was 14 when a friend took him backstage during an amateur performance of Absurd Person Singular. Unusually, considering an Ayckbourn comedy was in progress, he felt 'a sense of peace'. He liked it even better when he got on stage. His first laugh was in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He chased some courtesans across the stage, then, 30 seconds later, ran back, chased by the courtesans. There was a big laugh. 'That's nice,' Rowe thought, 'That's the kind of feeling I could be with every day of my life.'
He was born in Shaw, near Oldham, 30 years ago, the youngest of seven children. 'I don't remember bumping into any other black people in Shaw for a great deal of my life.' Why did his family move there? 'I never asked. I took it as read.' His father left home when he was very young. Family life, which he refers to obliquely, if at all, was difficult. 'There were a lot of personal things happening at home,' he says, reaching the limits of his indiscretion, 'which I had to be part of and deal with.'
At 13 he wanted to be a cook. 'I like food, as you can see. I'd been cooking in the house from quite young. Five, six, seven people sometimes. I still cook for at least four even if I'm cooking for myself. I can't seem to get the ingredients small enough.' When he laughs in conversation, which he does a lot, his nose creases up to his eyes. His face, like his figure, is all generous curves. He seems to hold to a practical, keep-smiling philosophy, which may be light on introspection, but has not been lightly won.
His mother warned him off catering, and told him to get some science O-levels. Exams, he found, were hell. 'That chilling moment when the examiner says, 'You may now open your papers' would fill me with this void.' Rowe got stuck in a 'vile rut'. He decided if he hadn't got his Os by the time he was 19 he'd try for drama school. 'All the other avenues were shut off. I had to end up at Guildhall.'
After the Guildhall School Rowe worked at Sheffield, Coventry, Manchester, the Old Vic (in Carmen Jones) and the National Theatre (in Trackers of Oxyrhynchus and Fuente Ovejuna). He had been Widow Twankey in Aladdin at the Nottingham Playhouse, where their first black panto dame caught the eye of the local papers. It was as Mr Snow in Carousel that he caught the eye of the nationals. The fact that Rowe was black - never discussed by director or actor in rehearsal - was attacked as 'politically correct', 'absurd' and 'mad' by columnists who see only the occasional show. What no one could argue with was his strong, rich voice and benign authority.
Rowe says the attacks are irrelevant when you have integrated casting - that is, we're all actors, we're all pretending, what's your problem? When he played Mr Snow it wasn't 'an issue of a black man walking into a village in Maine, and picking up a white woman'. He was only one of eight non-white performers in the cast. His stage children were like the United Family of Benetton. 'They were Chinese, Indian, black, white, green, purple . . .'
When Once on this Island opened at Birmingham Rep, it attracted a new black audience. For the London production they've renamed the theatre (from the Royalty to the Island), redone the inside to resemble the Caribbean, and got a licence to party till 2am. Rowe hopes there will be a new audience too. 'I've never actually thought to myself, I'm a black man, and I must go out on stage because I need to get more black people in to the theatre . . .' But then with an actor as engaging as he is, more people are likely to go anyway: black, white, green or purple.
'Once on this Island': Island Theatre, WC2 (071-494 5090), now previewing, opens Wed.
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