KEITH HUTTON – a man for all theatre seasons

Keith Hutton and VDL President Bruce Cochrane
at the 2017 VDL Awards

Aside from how prolific he’s been, the diversity of roles has ensured that Keith Hutton has been foremost in the Melbourne theatre world since coming to Australia in 1990.

One week after arrival, he joined the Melbourne Welsh Male Choir. Five years later he resumed performing in community theatre and has since averaged two to three performances each year.

As an actor, he has been awarded four VDL Best Actor Awards. In recent years he has also directed several plays and has served as an adjudicator for the VDL Awards. He recently met up with VDL President Bruce Cochrane and they chatted about theatre …… what else?

Bruce: What got you started as a performer Keith?

Keith: I had a wonderful teacher as a nine year old at primary school. He also happened to be the President of the sole community theatre in Carlisle, as well as an accomplished actor himself. Each year he would write a short musical play and his current pupils would perform it at an annual concert for all parents. I absolutely loved it. He must have seen some potential in me, because as well as casting me prominently, he spent time teaching me the basic principles of stagecraft. Once I had moved on to secondary school we remained in touch and he encouraged me to join his local theatre, which I did aged 16. Thereafter, I found that nothing quite gave me the thrill as performing to a live audience.

Bruce: So, you decided to leave the cool climate of Carlisle in the far north of England and come to the sometimes cool climate of Melbourne, the theatre hub of Australia. What did you know about Melbourne?

Keith:  I had visited Melbourne in 1987 with my wife and two young daughters and stayed with close friends who had migrated years earlier. We sort of fell in love with the vibrancy of the city and on our return to England, we couldn’t settle with this Melbourne itch we wanted to scratch. So in short, we applied to migrate and on 1st September 1990 we returned and have never looked back.

Bruce: No hesitation about fitting in with a new community?

Keith: Of course there were uncertainties about uprooting and leaving our entire families and friends behind, but we maintained a positive attitude, knowing that although Australia didn’t owe us a living, we were confident in our abilities to assimilate. Turned out to be the best decision we ever made.

Bruce: Well you certainly haven’t been half hearted about it. And tell me, some people have anxious moments before going on for a performance, about forgetting lines or about whether they look right for the character ……… any concerns for you?

As Frank Doel in 84 Charing Cross Rd 2009, The 1812 Theatre

Keith: By the time I threw myself into the Melbourne theatre scene, I already had 20 years of acting experience under my belt and had learned to deal with the common anxieties all actors encounter. Forgetting a line here and there goes with the territory and I still stuff up more often than I would like, especially as I age, but the trick is, (to borrow a cricket term) forget the last ball you missed and simply focus on the next one. If you dwell on the mistake, you’ll keep making them.

Bruce: You’ve been acclaimed by a lot of the theatre community for your character development, how intensely do you prepare.  

Keith: I always put a lot of thought into it. When I read a script for the first time, a mental picture of the character I’m to play often, but not always, pops up – how he looks, how he sounds, perhaps how he walks. As rehearsals progress, new ideas emerge, often in collaboration with the director. I’ve always felt it’s the job of the actor to give the director options, especially during the early rehearsals, so I’m never afraid to experiment. You then must have faith in the director to let you know what works and what doesn’t.

Bruce: I know that you acknowledge the influence Geoff Hickey has had on your performances and having acted with Geoff in my second play at Mitcham in 1976, and then been directed by him, I know how quiet and calm he is. So, what do you respond most to from a director?  For instance, Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me at Brighton Theatre in around 2006, directed by Geoff Hickey?

Keith: I struck lucky in meeting Geoff who gave me my first role in Australia. He was auditioning for When We Are Married at Lilydale in 1995 and I just rocked up and asked if I could audition for one of the husbands. I did and he gave me a role. Being a large cast, it also introduced me to a heap of people who 25 years later, still remain firm friends, e.g. Peter Newling, Sandy Green, Barry Lockett, Sandy Fowler and the late James McRae.

I found Geoff to be a straight-shooter who was very clear about what he wanted. At the same time, he was content to allow the actors to try things. He has a wonderful feel for sensitive moments in a play and he sometimes underpins such moments with just the most appropriate music, without it appearing clichéd or corny. We hit it off from the start and I’ve performed in about 10 of his productions to date, including as you mentioned Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me. He definitely brought out something in me which I didn’t know I had and, as a result,  It’s probably the performance I’m most proud of.

Bruce: And again, the transformation to Albert Steptoe was amazing. Where did that come from?

Best Actor the VDL Awards 2017 as Albert Steptoe in Steptoe and Son, The 1812 Theatre

Keith: Playing a character as iconic as Albert Steptoe presents certain challenges to an actor. For a start, you don’t have the luxury of creating your own character. You are essentially mimicking the original because, after all, that’s what the audience have come to see. No one can imitate such a character with complete accuracy, but the trick is to try and capture the essence of the character. I’m old enough to remember when Steptoe and Son was first screened by the BBC in the early 60s. It was a ’must watch’ with my father and we’d be in fits of laughter. I would practice imitating both Albert and Harold and in the case of the former, creasing my face into the well-known scowl.

Luckily all 70 or so episodes of Steptoe and Son are now on DVD. When I was first approached by director Christine Grant to play the role, I was incapacitated with a broken leg, so I spent hours watching Wilfred Bramble’s performances of Albert. The facial tics, the mannerisms, the voice and the way he walked. Add to that, accurate costume and make-up and you hope you have managed to capture that essence. It was certainly immense fun to play him and Ed Kennett as Harold Steptoe was excellent and a joy to work with.

Bruce: And finally, what’s left as a future ‘have to do’ project?

Keith:  I have three ‘bucket list’ roles left. Two of them are Willie Lomond in Death of a Salesman and Fagin in Oliver. The third I can’t tell you about at the moment, because the production hasn’t been announced yet but, if all goes well, I’ll get to play my third ‘bucket list’ role in season 1 next year.

Bruce: Many thanks for sharing a yarn or two, Keith.

Keith: My pleasure Bruce, thanks for the invitation.