When Harry tapped Sheffield for inspiration

Harry Shearer and John Bowe in Daytona''photo Manuel Harlan
Harry Shearer and John Bowe in Daytona''photo Manuel Harlan
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He’s best known to most of us as Derek Smalls from Spinal Tap or as the voice of more than 40 characters on The Simpsons, but Harry Shearer is co-starring in a more serious drama in Sheffield next week.

Daytona is a hit play that is transferring to the Lyceum from the West End after a sell-out run this summer.

Harry plays Joe, who is enjoying a quiet retirement in New York with his wife Elli, played by Maureen Lipman.

Their preparation for a ballroom dancing competition is interrupted by the arrival of Joe’s brother, played by John Bowe, whose revelation from their past threatens to throw everything off balance.

When they discover the story behind his sudden return, Joe and Elli must confront a profound moral dilemma that involves their past as Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.

Harry describes doing the play as a “spectacularly fulfilling experience”.

He said: “It’s an identifiably Jewish character and when I read this, that’s the reason I wanted to do the play because the script is so good.

“I thought one of the things is that his character has resonance to my parents. My dad came from Austria and my mom came from Poland – they were the only ones to get out and they didn’t go to the camps.

“The closing down about the past that my character does as you see him and as you meet him in the show is something from my parents. It’s not something they wanted to talk about a lot still, years and years and years later.

“As an actor you always look for things that offer you a way into the character and give you some relationship and that was certainly something I thought I know this about this guy.

“Like my dad he came to America and didn’t have very much to set up his life. In my dad’s case, he chose a linoleum and furniture business and my mom was a bookkeeper and my cousin was an accountant, so it’s familiar territory.

“Then he has this 40-year marriage started in adolescence that survived the camps and has remained. Their lives are competitive ballroom dancing. That’s what gives them their reason to live.”

He added: “One of things about the show is it’s like an onion you just keep opening up, thinking, ‘I see this is what that’s about’. There’s a lot of that as the show goes on.

“It’s wonderful writing, one reason why we’re all doing it, it’s what brings us together, we’re all quite partisans of the play.”

He got the call to do the play when Maureen Lipman, who he already knew, suggested him for the role.

“I said, well I’m doing this with two very well-trained British actors and so OK, I’m being thrown in the deep end!”

He describes the play as “very intense” but says there are also many moments of comic relief, often at the tensest parts of the action.

It’s certainly a long way from bass guitarist Derek Smalls in the iconic film, This is Spinal Tap, loved by many as the ultimate mockumentary about a rock band.

It has also spawned several spin-offs, including live appearances by the band, who have done Glastonbury and Wembley Arena over the years.

Harry said: “Nobody could foresee that kind of a life for what starts as a little independent thing that gets rejected.”

Apparently the studio bosses were far from convinced it was a good idea: “I thought if we got a shot at the audience and got a halfway decent release it could do a little bit of business.

“I never imagined it would have this kind of life, going to a third or fourth generation.

“Eighteen-year-old kids are coming up to me and saying, ‘I learned what not to do with my band by watching it’!

“A couple of things made it more possible for Tap – one was our original animating motivation, ‘let’s do a movie that gets rock and roll right for a change. So many movies got rock and roll wrong, it’s not that hard to get it right’.

“As it turns out, it is hard to get it right. It was always a struggle but we did it, we worked very hard at that. It’s not sillily, foolishly exaggerated, it’s what it’s like, because we had to answer to people.”

The low budget meant they didn’t have money for exterior shots or lots of props, which ironically means it looks less dated, he said. “It’s wrapped in that moment, you see no TVs, no exteriors or cars, so it lives in a way outside time with a certain look, not shoving 1984 in your face.”

Of his other famous job, Harry said that his favourite voice on The Simpsons is “C Montgomery Burns, because he’s pure evil”.

His other voices include Kent Brockman, Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, Otto the school bus driver and Mr Burns’ sidekick, Smithers.

Surprisingly, the writers give one of the most famous satirists in the US “zero input” into the scripts. He added: “I just do it, then move on.”

Luckily for us, he’s moved on to Sheffield for now.

Daytona is at the Lyceum from Tuesday to Saturday. Box office: 0114 2496000 or go to www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk