Micky Lay: The real-life rebel behind stage hit Jerusalem dies aged 73

Actor Mark Rylance’s star turn in the show owes much to the time he spent with the man described as a 'village character'

The inspiration for Johnny “Rooster” Byron, the heavy drinking lead in the transatlantic stage hit Jerusalem, died last week outside his local pub.

Micky Lay, who inspired the character immortalised by the actor Mark Rylance, suffered a heart attack on Friday as he waited for the Moonrakers pub in Pewsey, Wiltshire, to open. He was pronounced dead at the scene after medics were unable to revive him.

Mr Lay, who was 73, became a local celebrity after it emerged that the playwright Jez Butterworth had based the charismatic and eccentric Rooster on him, in a play that received rave reviews and played to packed houses on both sides of the Atlantic.

Such was Mr Lay’s influence on the character that Rylance presented him with the Tony award for best actor that Rylance won after the play moved to Broadway.

Jerry Kunkler, the landlord at the Moonrakers, described Mr Lay as a “village character” and said: “Unfortunately he just collapsed outside the pub just as I was about to open it up.”

A man of habit, Mr Lay came to the pub every Friday at 4pm. “He liked to have a chat with our barmaids so that’s why he got in early. He was early doors man,” the landlord said. “He was in here Boxing Day afternoon and was absolutely fine. It’s such sad news.”

Jerusalem, one of the most celebrated plays of the century, opened at the Royal Court in 2009 and enjoyed two runs in the West End as well as the stint on the Great White Way.

Rylance’s tour-de-force performance earned him an Olivier award to go with his Tony, as the charismatic Falstaffian figure, drinking through St George’s Day as he faces eviction from an illegal encampment.

Mark Rylance in ‘Jerusalem’ Mark Rylance in ‘Jerusalem’ (Rex)  

Butterworth revealed that Mr Lay had inspired the Byron character when he lived in Pewsey during the 1990s. At the time Mr Lay was living in a caravan in the woods. The playwright was among the younger drinkers who knew Mr Lay as “gramps”, the Moonrakers’ landlord said.

When the play was in development Butterworth sent Rylance to Pewsey to meet Mr Lay, but relations got off to a bad start when Mr Lay told the actor to “fuck off”. Rylance made better progress the following week when he returned with a bottle of whiskey.

The actor said he had based the voice and rhythms of Rooster’s speech on Mr Lay and that without the hours spent talking about his life “I wouldn’t have found such a thing”. The cast of the play sent flowers after they learnt of Mr Lay’s death.

Long before he became known to the theatre-going public, Mr Lay was renowned locally for his drinking antics.

Rylance said: “He has a side that’s quite charming and very, very well-mannered. Good manners, courtesy – when he’s sober. And I think when he gets drunk he gets very, very difficult.”

He was banned repeatedly from local pubs, including the Moonrakers more than 20 times. “I love misbehaving,” he said in 2011. He once boasted of drinking 43 pints of Guinness in an afternoon.

Born Michael Valentine Lay, the former builder was twice married and had four children. He had a passion for the Wiltshire countryside and its animals. “I love wildlife and I am into watching birds. I have studied them all my life,” he said.

He told The Independent two years ago that life after the attention from the play had not changed him. “I still do what I want to do,” he said. “I just take life as it comes. If someone wants to give me a Tony Award, fair play to them. I suspect it’s the only Tony in Wiltshire.”

Yet there were some issues with fame. “My daughters can’t be dealing with it,” he said. “They get fed up reading it all. When my grandson read the newspaper, they didn’t know I’d been in prison for dealing cannabis. My daughters were all pretty pissed off.”

Life in the village had also changed. “It’s all so much deader. The pubs are not the same. The youngsters don’t go to the pub. I almost don’t want to go out any more.”

 

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