From Ballycastle to Broadway

Conleth Hill has wowed audiences around the world with his stage performances

As an actor, Conleth Hill is nothing if not flexible. Having enjoyed world-wide success playing a myriad of roles in Stones in his Pockets, he is currently camping it up outrageously as the gay theatre director Roger de Bris in Mel Brook’s smash hit musical The Producers.

And for both roles he picked up Olivier Awards  Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor in a musical.

For The Producers, Hill had to brush up his singing skills and learn to dance under the critical eye of director Susan Stroman. She reportedly picked up on his habitually hang-dog expression and told him he could at least look as if was enjoying himself.

‘You look like you’re dying or in pain,’ she commented. Hill says he was both.

Born in Ballycastle, Co Antrim, in 1964, Hill still lives in the town and returns there as often as possible. He comes from a creative family. His late father Patsy was an amateur actor and BBC cameraman. His sister is a producer, his older brother also a cameraman and his younger brother a soundman in the film and television industry.

As a teenager Hill cut his teeth with the Ulster Youth Theatre and was one of the first members of Fringe Benefits, a company whose work was aimed at the younger generation of theatregoers.

Few will forget his powerful performance in the early 1980s in Faustus, in which, with his curly black hair and jutting cheekbones, he was compared to James Dean.

He has always been equally at home with comedy as with tragedy. Among his earliest roles as a professional was in Theatre Ulster’s production of the Moliere farce The School for Wives, in which he appeared alongside another outstanding Northern Ireland actor, RSC associate artist Gerard Murphy.

The following year he switched dramatically, playing the title role in Sam McCready’s flamboyant production of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. In the late 1980s, Hill moved to London, where he was cast in a number of popular television drama series and films, including Casualty, The Bill, Young Indiana Jones, Goodbye Mr Chips, Cycle of Violence and the short film comedy Out of the Deep Pan.

But the pull of home and treading the boards remained strong. A frisson of excitement rippled through the theatre world in Northern Ireland when DubbelJoint director Pam Brighton cast him in Marie Jones’s entertaining reworking of Gogol’s subversive social comedy The Government Inspector and, subsequently, in Jones’s poorly-received Eddie Bottom’s Dream. This was the start of a golden period on home territory, when Conleth Hill’s name on a poster was practically a guarantee of full houses. 

Some of his finest work has been at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. Few will forget his gormless Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors, his charming Christy in The Playboy of the Western World, his louche Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest and an uproarious Bottom in a refashioned A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Robin Midgley.

As his battery of acting skills expanded, so did his confidence in taking on ever more demanding and complex roles. He was particularly impressive in two Lyric productions of plays by Tom Murphy – A Whistle in the Dark and Conversations on a Homecoming – in which he and Adrian Dunbar forged a scorching stage partnership. He also had audiences in paroxysms of helpless laughter in Marie Jones’s comedy Christmas Eve Can Kill You.

Always a free spirit, never an establishment figure, he regularly appeared in productions by Northern Ireland’s burgeoning independent sector, as well as with theatre companies across the water, such as the Tron in Glasgow, the Manchester Royal Exchange and Communicado.

He memorably appeared for Prime Cut in its Irish premieres of Criminal Genius and After Darwin, and was outstanding in the demanding role of Henry Joy McCracken in Stephen Rea’s landmark production of Stewart Parker’s Northern Star.

Then, in 1996, came Stones in his Pockets, Marie Jones’s bittersweet two-hander, which saw virtuoso performances from Hill and Tim Murphy in almost 30 assorted roles. Four years later, the play was reworked and directed for the Lyric by Ian McElhinney, with Sean Campion cast alongside Hill. The rest is history.

Hill and Campion forged a close professional partnership and friendship and took the play to unforeseen heights on Broadway and in the West End, as well as many other countries. Both actors were nominated for awards, with Hill winning a Tony Award and an Olivier Award, the latter presented by Campion.

In between various runs of Stones the pair returned to the Lyric to play the two tramps in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a moving counterpart to the rollicking comedy which they had been performing together for so long.

Since then, Hill’s career has been on a steeply rising trajectory. After he left Stones the National Theatre in London came calling, with director Michael Blakemore casting him as Gunter Guillaume, the real-life spy, who worshipped – and betrayed – the German Chancellor Willy Brandt in Michael Frayn’s award-winning Democracy. It transferred to the Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End and, having received rave reviews for his performance, Hill went with it.

In spite of his distinguished profile, Hill still fiercely guards his anonymity and relishes being able to walk around London unrecognised. One can’t help feeling, however, that that these days are numbered. Refreshingly though, he is not driven by the fame game.

’I’ve never had a particular game plan. I go wherever the work is and primarily I pick work because of the people and the scripts. Celebrity is something I’ve never been into – and never will be. I never think too much about the size or the significance of a role. If I did, I would be terrified. I’d probably never work again!’

Jane Coyle