Wednesday, April 04, 2012

A profile - Jonathan Owen: from Triangle via Corrie to Teapots and Superglue

Good character actors are like fine wine; they mature with age – and often benefit from laying down for some time! Accomplished examples include Peter Sallis and Alistair Sim. Birmingham actor Jonathan Owen is a member of this distinguished British breed.

Following a varied career on stage, TV and radio, Jonathan has recently branched out into writing. He talked about his life as an actor and new role as an author at the Crescent Theatre after the Midlands premier of his play “Teapots and Superglue”.

Jonathan has kept close to his family and roots in Birmingham. Born in Hockley in 1956, he lived in Mayfield Road in Moseley for some time and still lives close to the city centre. He trained locally as music and drama teacher at St. Peter’s College, Faculty of Education at Birmingham University and taught before becoming a full-time actor. He still retains a strong foothold in education, being a member of the examination panel for speech, drama and music at Trinity College, London.

Jonathan earned his crucial Equity card singing in clubs and “masonics” around Birmingham whilst still a student. His initial break into the theatre came after open auditions at the Belgrade Theatre for the Coventry Mystery Plays.

Another early breakthrough came with the part of Terry Barford in “The Archers”, in which he played for a decade. A conversation with Robert Hardy in the Pebble Mill canteen led to an invitation to appear in “All Creatures Great and Small” and then to more television exposure in 26 episodes of the BBC serial, “Triangle”. Jonathan looks back on this series filmed on location aboard a North Sea ferry, as “an incredible learning experience” working intensely with great professionals such as his screen mother, Kate O’Mara and Nigel Stock.

Other TV work has included “Doctors” on BBC and “Emmerdale” and “Heartbeat” on ITV. Most recently, Jonathan has enjoyed two comic appearances on “Coronation Street”, first as The Great Orlando, the psychic hypnotist and latterly as Rev. Ashbourne, who tried to make sense of Rita, Norris, Roy and Emily when they were high on cannabis and subsequently officiating at the chaotic christening of Tracey Barlow’s baby.

In London’s West End he has appeared in “Jesus Christ Superstar”, “Call Me Madam”, “Singin’ in the Rain”, “Ziegfield” and “Having a Ball”. He has appeared in musicals, plays and pantomime in most major theatres around the country. Engagements abroad range from a run in “Singin’ in the Rain” with Tommy Steele in Tokyo to residency as a writer and director for Bermuda’s annual pantomimes between 1995 and 2000.

Finding himself increasingly leaving plays at the interval and not returning for the second half, Jonathan was prompted to write a piece where the audience could care about the characters and be drawn into their story. Jonathan considered his play” a simple attempt to go back to the roots of the theatre – to tell stories, entertain, celebrate life and hopefully make you laugh and cry”.

Another inspiration for the piece was Alfred “Freddy” Frankl, who was a citizen of Birmingham until his untimely death in 1991. Jonathan wished to remember the quiet and unassuming work of the City’s “Schindler of therapy which healed the lives of thousands”. The tribute is reflected in the original surname of one character.

The play focuses on an “outreach course” held in a community centre. Over six months we monitor the lives of seven very different members including a bawdy working class housewife, a snobbish Hyacinth Bucket type, a solitary widower, an angry single mum, a withdrawn civil servant, a Pakistani student and a sensitive teacher. Although Jonathan stresses that his play has no intellectual pretensions or an agenda to preach, he does hold firm views on many social issues such as the legacy of the Thatcher Years. Various concerns stemming from the characters’ lives are addressed such as race, sexuality, religion, and the diverse impact of the past on the present. The audience follows the group as they change and ultimately flourish.

Jonathan has been pleased with the warm reception from audiences and critics. The Birmingham Post commented that “‘Teapots’ (as it will clearly become known) will obviously be pouring out its contents for a long, long time, particularly with non-professional companies”. It seems that playwrights, like character actors, can also be late-flowering. We can look forward with interest to the blossoming of Birmingham’s multi- talented Jonathan Owen.

*This profile first appeared in Birmingham 13

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