Show People: Discovered once again: Alan Cumming

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The Independent Culture
ALAN CUMMING is just finishing a run at the Donmar Warehouse in the English Touring Company's chamber Hamlet. In many eyes, his was indisputably the greatest Dane since . . . since the last one. Comparisons are odious, but this was a compelling performance full of chirpy zest, butterfly wit and spindly gymnasticism. A waif in black cycling shorts, Cumming's was a 'yoof' Hamlet that sacrificed nothing in intelligence - lovable but not luvvie. Something like the man, in fact. One entertains the thought that Cumming might pick up his third Olivier nomination for best comic performance. 'That would be very amusing,' he says.

It's not the first time he has been 'discovered'. After La Bete at the Lyric and Accidental Death of an Anarchist at the National, critics hymned, profiles drooled, and Cumming reached a new set of admirers. Unlike Kenneth Branagh, another precocious Celtic actor, writer and director, to whom he is too often compared, he was not suddenly famous. Indeed, outside Scotland and the confines of London theatreland, he is not really famous at all. But he will be.

Next stop, at the Donmar again, is Cabaret, directed by Sam Mendes, in which he is the MC to Jane Horrocks's Sally Bowles. It's quite a trinity of youthful talent. Cumming plans to play the MC as a rent boy, 'a raunchy little devil'. Sir Stephen Spender, a handmaiden to Isherwood, has attended rehearsals. 'I asked him about the rent boys and they cost 10 marks a time.'

Cumming was brought up a long way from such sleaze, in Perthshire, where his father was a forester. 'People can't imagine what's it's like when there's no lamp-posts, no street corners, just woods, roads, and nothing else to do apart from wander around and talk to myself and my dog.' When Cumming arrived in Glasgow, to go to drama school, he couldn't sleep for weeks because of the noise.

He had already formed a closer acquaintance with fame than most kids of his age. Having passed all his Highers a year too early to move on to further education, he killed a year on a pop mag called Tops. 'By the time I was 16 I was interviewing Toyah and Bucks Fizz,' he says, without the slightest sign that he was impressed with them or himself.

Drama school seemed the obvious place for someone who liked the idea of a career being looked at rather than looking. At 21 he married fellow student Hilary Lyon, who played Ophelia to his Hamlet. The other relationship he fell into at RSAMD was with Forbes Masson. Together they formed the stand-up duo Victor and Barry, which went from humble origins at the Edinburgh Festival to a tour of Australia. Cumming recalls with a combination of mirth and guilt an appearance on TV-am. 'We were rude to Anne Diamond. We always insulted people, in a kind of nice way. We said, 'Oh Anne, how lovely to see you again. Glad to see your skin complaint's cleared up,' and she had had a skin complaint which had just cleared up. Of course we didn't know because she was splattered in make-up. We still would probably have said it if we'd known.'

The incident would be negligible if it didn't reveal a carefree impishness that is characteristic of Cumming both on stage and off. Endowed with such scepticism, he couldn't be better equipped to handle fame, and a bit more of it beckoned when he was cast in the Scottish soap Take the High Road. 'I played an evil woodcutter, which pleased my dad. There was a scene where I was cutting a tree down with a power-saw. My skills in forestry came in handy,' he asides, in quotation marks. He was written out after two series. 'I got burned alive in Mr Blair's peat shed.'

After being burned alive, he got bored rigid at Stratford. The RSC cast him in minor parts in Singer and As You Like It, and he couldn't wait to get away. Since grumbling more than once about his experiences there in interviews ('I would be hanging in the churchyard after a year in Stratford,' he told the Daily Telegraph), he's worried about turning into a 'Mr Rent-a-Mouth' who will 'tell us something nasty about the RSC'. All he's prepared to say now is 'I'm not troublesome and I wasn't while I was there either. People are just amazed when you're in one of the big institutions that you complain.' The National Theatre was more congenial. Not only did he win an Olivier for his part in Dario Fo's Accidental Death, but he was allowed to co-adapt the text with director Tim Supple.

He continues to pursue a parallel career as a writer - he has written a short film-script for his wife which he hopes to direct for Channel 4, and his and Masson's camp-air-steward sitcom The High Life will be shooting next year - but remains curiously reluctant to finish his sentences. He is 28 now, but he can't get away from his extraordinarily boyish looks - the triangular grin is straight out of a comic strip - and there is something of that in his softly delivered speech too. 'It's weird doing Hamlet and everyone going on about how young and schoolboyish and pubescent I look, and you think, I'm nearly 30. I did this film (Prague, for Screen Two), which was the first time I've played a grown-up. I do look very young, that's the problem.'

If he wants to look older, he might have to do something about his diet. The interview is punctuated by the crunch of his molars attacking a lunch of raw vegetables, and he kicked drinking when the full extent of this year's professional obligations hit home. 'The PR person said you should stop saying that because you'll get a reputation for having a drink problem. I quite like the image of being Dennis Hopper rather than cutesy.'

'Cabaret': Donmar Warehouse, WC2, 071-867 1150, previewing now, opens Thurs, runs to 12 Mar.

(Photograph omitted)

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