JOE ABSOLOM: MORE THEATRE IS WHAT THE DOC ORDERED

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Reading an obituary of the award-winning thespian Sir Antony Sher was the start of an epiphany for Joe Absolom. The 43-year-old actor who came to prominence as Matthew Rose in the BBC soap EastEnders noted Sher’s success and thought that if anyone read Joe’s obituary, it would be really boring.

“He did The Bill, he did a peanut butter advert and then he did Doc Martin,” says Joe self-deprecatingly about his own career even though he won the best actor accolade in the British Soap Awards in 2000 and was nominated in the best supporting actor category in the BAFTA TV Awards in 2020. That was for his role in the ITV drama A Confession.

“I thought as a proper actor maybe I should try a bit more theatre,” remarks Joe before telling the story which convinced him that theatre should be his next step.

He was invited to a rehearsal of a one-person show, an abridged version of one of Charles Dickens’ best-known tales, at a church hall in Cornwall.

“There was a 6ft 2in blonde woman in a miniskirt with her back to me. And I thought ’wow’. It was Eddie Izzard! Eddie walked out and did two hours of Great Expectations. I thought it was fantastic and inspiring. And I thought anything’s possible. I got in touch with my agent and said I really want to do some theatre.”

“When we do Doc Martin it’s nice and we have a fantastic time but you don’t get nervous or get sweaty palms. You turn up and have a really good time for five months.”

The result is that Joe is playing Andy Dufresne, a bank manager who is wrongly accused of murdering his wife and her lover, in the Bill Kenwright production The Shawshank Redemption. It has just started a tour and Derby Theatre will be the second venue it visits.

You may know The Shawshank Redemption from the 1994 film starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman or the Stephen King story on which the movie is based.

It’s difficult to believe that this will be Joe’s first theatre tour. When he speaks he is effervescent, passionate and jovial – nothing like the sulky teenager he played in EastEnders or the likeable but unsuccessful guesthouse owner and pub landlord Al Large in Doc Martin.

“When we do Doc Martin it’s nice and we have a fantastic time but you don’t get nervous or get sweaty palms. You turn up and have a really good time for five months. You know your lines, you run through them and that’s it. You probably get three minutes’ television a day, if that. Doing a play, everyone does a lot of rehearsals and lots of talking about the intentions of the characters.”

Andy Dufresne is different from many of the roles Joe has taken in his career.

“A lot of the parts I’ve played have been horrible murderers or useless red herrings. This is cool. It’s an older role and as I get older as an actor the roles are changing a little bit.

“When I was a child actor I did adverts, a kid drinking Sunny Delight. As you get older you end up like Andy Dufresne the bank manager stuck in prison.”

Joe Absolom was born on 16 December 1978 in south east London. When he was nine, interest rates were at 16% and someone told his parents they could supplement their income by getting work for Joe. So his father sent Joe’s picture to an agent.

Joe did several commercials, including one for peanut butter, but didn’t totally enjoy it.

“When you turn up for auditions for adverts, it’s full of really annoying kids who are all good at dancing and singing. I was just a little kid from Lewisham.”

That prompted Joe to try for speaking parts because fewer children were going for them. It led to a part in a play on BBC2 and from then on the work continued.

“It was never something I really wanted to do. I wanted to be a Stormtrooper or a pilot. I wanted to be something useful because an actor’s not very useful . . .”

“It was a big decision to do EastEnders because I was at college and had to pull out of education.”

After an appearance on the BBC crime drama Silent Witness, EastEnders came up.

“I actually knew the casting director and the director because I’d worked with them before. I felt it was an easy shoe-in,” says Joe matter-of-factly without a hint of big-headedness.

“But it was a big decision to do EastEnders because I was at college and had to pull out of education. I was doing A-levels – media studies, French and politics. I was hoping to go to university.

“I remember speaking to my mum and dad and they said ‘do whatever you want’.”

Joe spent 18 years on Doc Martin doing ten series and a Christmas special. Martin Clunes who plays the central character says there won’t be any more episodes after the current series has aired.

Joe is sad to see Doc Martin finish but he feels the time is right for it to end.

“We’re going out with all guns blazing. There’s no point turning up every 18 months flogging it. Yes, it’s popular, yes we can sell it around the world, but let’s keep the quality high.”

He’s grateful to the series for introducing him to Cornwall where he now lives with his wife Liz and children Lyla who is 16, Casper who is 11 and nine-year-old Daisy. All of them have appeared in the show and Casper who wants to follow in his father’s footsteps had a small speaking part.

This year has been a busy one for Joe. He started work on the final series of Doc Martin in February, had a week off and then began rehearsals for The Shawshank Redemption. It will tour to nine venues over 11 weeks.

“All I’m focussed on now is getting the play as good as we can. I’m a bit of a perfectionist – I want everything to be fantastic.

“I’ve got a lot to do before I start worrying about the next job. I’m going to try to enjoy the tour and working with other actors in a company.

“I think the world of theatre is in a new era where they’re on recovery mode from Covid. It’s going to be difficult times. We know things are going on in the world that are putting strains on everything. So to go and spend an evening watching a play is a luxury. We’re hoping people feel that’s something they want to do.”

The Shawshank Redemption – “the nation’s favourite movie”, according to the pre-show publicity – may appear to be a depressing story to some people. But not to Joe.

“It’s a bleak environment but from that we get hope. A word we’ve used a lot in rehearsals is hope – there’s hope for the world.”

Joe admits he’s not a big theatregoer but The Shawshank Redemption has had such an effect on him that he would have done it for free. He wants to experience whether theatre will give him a real thrill.

“Theatre is a really different skill and I just want to see if I can do it.”

“Today in rehearsals I thought ‘what on earth am I doing?’ I’m full of self-doubt for everything I do in life, as all actors are.

“On the scale of things, you look at the rest of the world and life and it’s not that desperate or complicated. Let’s go and see if we can entertain people and then we can all go home.

“Theatre is a really different skill and I just want to see if I can do it. It’s a challenge and I want to feel my heart beating and going ‘I’m alive!’”

If you’ve followed Joe Absolom’s career, you won’t have any doubts as to whether he can pull off the role of Andy Dufresne. And after that? “If it’s amazing, let’s go for Hamlet!”

The Shawshank Redemption will be at Derby Theatre from 12 until 17 September 2022

* This article originally appeared in Country Images magazine

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