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From Stand-up To Shakespeare

Seann Walsh plays Malvolio in a new Cornish-themed production of Twelfth Night at Stafford’s Gatehouse Theatre this month and next. Although it will be the award-winning comic’s first-ever experience of performing Shakespeare, his switch from stand-up comedy to taking to the stage in a play by the Bard isn’t as unlikely a move as you might think - as he explains to What’s On...

It’s been an interesting few years for stand-up comedian Seann Walsh, and 2024 is proving to be no exception, as he embarks on what appears to be quite a dramatic (pun sort-of intended) career shift into theatre. 

The London-born, Brighton-raised comic might have appeared in sitcoms and even a comedy sci-fi movie, but stage acting is very much a new venture. So for his debut he’s chosen the work of a little-known playwright: William Shakespeare... 

Seann is playing Malvolio in Twelfth Night: A Cornish Tale, this summer’s Stafford Shakespeare production at the town’s Gatehouse Theatre. A new take on the Bard’s classic comedy, the show also stars TV regulars Natalie Anderson and Molly Windsor as Olivia and Viola respectively.

The friendly comedian cheerfully acknowledges that the thought of him in a Shakespeare play might be a bit of a leap for audiences familiar with the shambolic style of his stand-up performances.

“It feels like Stephen Fry might be doing a gig in Butlins,” he laughs, but is clearly taking the challenge seriously, having conquered some initial misgivings. 

“When the idea first came about, I was extremely apprehensive and immediately thought, no, I can’t do this,” he admits. “But everyone I spoke to said ‘go for it’ and what a fantastic character Malvolio was. A lot of people said how well suited I would be to playing him, too. I wasn’t aware of any of this at the time, so I had a change of heart and suddenly I desperately wanted to do it.”

While he “completely understands” how unlikely the move might seem to the layman who only knows him as a stand-up comic, Seann is quick to point out that he’s been performing for nearly 20 years.

“I’ve had regular parts in sitcoms, made my own things, done live read-throughs in front of audiences… so to me it’s just ‘what I do’. I think it’s stranger for other people than it is for me.”

Malvolio is a comedic character, of course, with director Sean Turner claiming Walsh’s “singular comic talents are perfectly suited to the role”. And the Gatehouse Theatre’s general manager, Gary Stevens, thinks he’s perfect for the part: “I can’t wait to see his natural humour mixed in with Shakespeare’s comedy writing. There are going to be laughs galore, that’s for sure.”

For his part, Seann says he can’t wait to play the “legendary comic character in arguably Shakespeare’s funniest play”- especially as the more he’s thought and read about it, the more it all makes sense.

“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t daunting, but the thing is - and I’m just quoting other people here, but they’re right - Shakespeare is not to be read, it’s to be seen and to be performed. I thought there was going to be an entire process where I had to translate Shakespeare and deal with it as if I was taking on a different language, but that isn’t the case. Once you say these things out loud, they completely make sense - the meaning is there in this beautiful wording. It’s an absolute joy to speak and get your tongue around.”

Although this version of Twelfth Night has a Cornish theme, the West Country accent is one thing the comic has creatively managed to avoid.

“Malvolio wasn’t brought up there, let me tell you that!” he cackles. “I’ve done some deep, deep character research, and you’ll find that Malvolio was actually brought up on the outskirts of Brighton, which is a fantastic coincidence!”

We both laugh at the idea that that’s what swung the audition for him. He then reveals a pessimistic side when it comes to performing in front of others - even the stand-up gigs he’s been doing since 2006. 

“I’ve not had many auditions throughout my career - because I’m primarily a stand-up comedian - but I never turn up with the mindset that I’m going to get it. But I also don’t turn up to any stand-up comedy gig like I’m going to have a wonderful time - I think everything’s going to be an absolute disaster and it’s up to me to try and overcome that. My life in many areas has proven that.”

Seann also takes umbrage at the notion that he’s considered to be something of a rock & roll comedian.

“It’s certainly not something that was on my radar. When I was in my 20s, I talked about alcohol, nights out and hangovers, but I was only commentating on what most people in their 20s were doing. I’ve certainly never called myself a rock & roll comedian. I don’t see myself like that, and I’ve never seen myself like that. I think it’s because I wore a leather jacket and had long hair. I’m much more of a performer now anyway.”

And a regular one at that, judging by how busy he’s been in recent years. He’s been touring ever since the end of lockdown, written and performed new shows at the Edinburgh Festival and beyond, and co-hosted regular podcasts with Paul McCaffrey and Jack Dee. Later this year he will return to the stage to play Yvan in a new touring production of award-winning comedy Art, written by Yasmina Reza and directed by Iqbal Khan.

Acting is clearly something he’s really embracing, not least because it offers the chance to work as part of an ensemble. Despite having namechecked a number of friends in the comedy world, he instantly mocks my suggestion that there’s camaraderie to be found in the stand-up profession too. “Is there?” he questions. “I’d love to find it! 

“I’ll end up talking in cliches, but they’re cliches for a reason. Stand-up is a wonderful thing, and one of the things that’s wonderful about it is that you can do it alone - everything you do is up to you. The other side of that coin is that acting is gonna be great fun because we’re all going to be doing what we can, and bringing what we can to the table, to make fantastic versions of these plays. I’m really looking forward to that. I’ve been on my own for years.”

By Steve Adams

Twelfth Night: A Cornish Tale runs at the Gatehouse Theatre, Stafford, from Friday 21 June to Sunday 7 July. Art visits the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, from Tuesday 15 to Saturday 19 October