Don Warrington on playing Willy Lowman in Death of a Salesman
PUBLISHED: 00:00 29 October 2018
Don Warrington is back at Manchester’s Royal Exchange in Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman
Don Warrington is best known for role he played 40 years ago in the sitcom Rising Damp as the impossibly handsome and debonair Philip Smith, forced to share living space with the seedy landlord Rigsby and predatory spinster Miss Jones.
Now here he is, older but still recognisable although he’s wearing the kind of high waister trousers even Simon Cowell might turn his nose up at.
I soon learn the strides belong not to Don, but Willy Lowman, the character he plays in the Royal Exchange production Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
And in spite of those awful trousers, there is still quite a bit to get a bit ‘Miss Jones’ about, not least the distinctive deep voice.
Don has forged a close relationship with the Royal Exchange, following acclaimed performances in Shakespeare’s King Lear and another Arthur Miller, All My Sons. Death of a Salesman makes it a hat trick.
‘It came about because I was at a lunch with (Royal Exchange Artistic Director) Sarah Franklin and she said she was going to do it and for reasons beyond me I said “I’d love to do that”,’ he recalls.
‘I don’t know why I said it at that time but I did and the upshot of it is, here I am!’
For All My Sons he’d worked with Michael Buffong of the Tawala theatre company.
‘I then got to know Sarah Franklin and she suggested King Lear,’ he says.
‘I thought she was crazy and again I didn’t really take it seriously and then it was happening.’
Although he sounds like acting roles just happen out of the blue, Don is a highly respected thesp whose work has been rewarded with an MBE by the Queen.
He didn’t have to travel far to get it; he lives in London.
‘She’s very small,’ he says.
Now in Manchester he has grown to know the city well.
‘I love Manchester! I think it’s fantastic. I would say there’s a vibe – something is going on here and that’s great. there’s something thrilling about the city’
So do people recognise him?
‘Yes they do. They tell me. They say all the usual things you know. “What are you doing in Manchester” I say “why shouldn’t I be in Manchester?” I find the people here very friendly.
‘In London people are less forthcoming really. Manchester is full of famous and talented people too but the people here are just more outgoing. They see it and they say it, whereas, in London they see it and they don’t say it.’
Of course he’s always recognised for his role in Rising Damp, even now, after a multitude of film, TV and theatre roles in the four decades since.
‘Well it amazes me,’ he says.
‘I think, how can they look at this old man pottering along in his braces and remember that very, very young man. It amazes me, but they do.
‘It was very hard work. I was just out of drama school and it was not something I imagined would happen to me I had very different career plans but life happens.
‘I think it is what it is and I’m glad I did it. It was a huge learning curve for me because I didn’t think I was funny. So that was the surprise and it was a beautifully written piece of work.’
Don was born in Trinidad and brought up in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Someone else with an equity card had the same name, Donald Williams, so on his mother’s suggestion he took the name of the road where they lived, Warrington.
Had he always wanted to act?
‘It would seem that way. I’m told I was quite precocious but that’s not my memory of me,’ he reflects.
‘Given the present circumstances, either people reinvent the past so it makes some kind of sense or they are telling the truth. I don’t know which it is. I wanted to be an actor, I guess. I didn’t know what an actor was but it looked pretty good. It’s not what people think it is. It does have a certain mystique and glamour I guess, but not when you’re in it.
‘To some extent what you’re doing all the time is solving a problem – how do you become someone else? How do you feel what someone else feels?’
Of course, live theatre always has its ‘moments’,
‘It’s a live experience and that’s always a risky business and things can and do go wrong.
But unless they are catastrophic the audience don’t know because they weren’t there the night before, so they don’t know what’s missing.
‘I do remember one night. I was in Lear and as I came on the first thing I saw was a man reading the script, which really put me off. It really did.’
Death of a Salesman is at the Royal Exchange Theatre until November 17th
Royal Exchange Theatre, St Ann’s Square, Manchester, M2 7DH, 0161 833 9833 royalexchange.co.uk.