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Tom Vaughan-Lawlor: Nidgey, Howie, PJ and me

The actor is back on TV tomorrow in series five of ‘Love/Hate’. But the punctual, theatre-loving, Donna Tartt-reading actor has little in common with his character

It is curtain call at the end of the first preview of Mark O’Rowe’s emotionally bruising new play, Our Few and Evil Days, at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, and the audience are on their feet. On stage, five actors, among them Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, take their bows. Looking out into the auditorium, the cast seem tentative, grateful, humbled by the warmth from the audience, that previously unknowable but essential piece of the jigsaw of theatre.

“I love previews, as an actor or in the audience,” Vaughan-Lawlor says the following morning. “There is that sense that anything can happen.”

We are sitting in a tinkling hotel foyer, where all is sunlight and silvery teaspoons and where, just behind our polished table, the waitress is taking an inordinately long time to fold linen napkins into neat rectangles. Her eyes dart back and forth and back again to Vaughan-Lawlor, an elfin man, neat, dark, sprightly, knees held firmly together on the voluminous couch, elbows by his side.

He is best known to television audiences for his portrayal of the volatile, sociopathic Nidge in Stuart Carolan’s brilliant exploration of Irish gangland life, Love/Hate, series five of which begins on RTÉ tomorrow. Nidge’s journey over four series has seen him grow from sinister comic turn to dangerous cut-throat mercenary obsessed by power and status.

Maybe the young waitress was simply fearing for the china.

There is something childlike in Vaughan-Lawlor’s sweet brown eyes, in his alert, apprehensive, fawn-like attention. Palpable, too, is a lower tone of urgency, a feeling that he might spring, that something raw and elemental might uncoil from beneath his tightly buttoned, well-pressed plaid shirt.

I’d arrived early to meet him; he’d arrived even earlier.

He places his cup on his saucer, puts the novel he was reading into his backpack and sits to attention.

“What are you reading?”

American Pastoral, by Philip Roth.”

This man may look like Nidge, but there the comparisons end.

I’ve read it, too, and we get talking about books. He tells me that he spent days disappearing to read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, telling his wife, the English actor Claire Cox, that he was in the toilet while he was avidly tearing through the chapters.

He loved it until near the end, when he felt Tartt was saying that bad things happen so that good things happen, a view he found disappointingly pat and unrealistic.

Despite the tension of previews and the anticipation of a long day ahead at the Abbey – directorial notes, rehearsal, performance – Vaughan-Lawlor looks fresh and untrammelled. He emanates wellbeing and sober professionalism; a contained, craftsmanlike calm.

The son of an actor, he has always understood theatre’s demanding, relentlessly fickle nature. As a child he had small parts at the Gate and the Abbey theatres, where he would stand in the darkened wings and think, This is a very strange life.

Over the lean years of the 1980s he witnessed his parents struggle to provide for their family.

“I remember my dad and mum working like dogs to get us things,” he says. “I don’t know how they did it; they gave us everything. I remember one morning, in the snow, when the car broke down and my mother tied a cushion on to a crappy bicycle and cycled me to guitar practice. I sat there holding up my guitar while she pedalled through the ice.

“She’d buy a packet of pastilles and break it in three for me and my sisters. There was more joy in that than . . .” He smiles. “I sound old. I’m in touching distance of 40.”

I resist the temptation to kick him on his delicate shins.

His own son, Freddie, is aged three and knows no such austerity. Vaughan-Lawlor tries to curb the generosity of Freddie’s aunts, but he’s probably fighting a losing battle. It sounds entirely cliched, but when he speaks about his family he lights up.

He met Cox while they were working together at the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester in 2007, and proposed to her on the bandstand on St Stephen’s Green, the park that is his “favourite place in the world”, a couple of years later, during the first series of Love/Hate. Afterwards they went on set, and the cast applauded.

“They are another family,” he says of his colleagues on the show.

“Over the years there have been marriages and babies. We run into work; we know how lucky we are.”

He describes the “punk ethic” of the production, under the stewardship of its director, David Caffrey. “It’s in the quality of the writing, in the energy of the piece. The ego threshold is low, the schedule is tight, we’re outdoors, on the hoof, on the clock. You’ve only got a couple of goes to make it work. It’s in young actors challenging each other in the moment, with ambition, with drive.”

Despite his early stage appearances, Vaughan-Lawlor had no plans to be an actor. A quiet, studious boy – “At least all my friends aren’t books!” his sister once taunted him during a teenage row – he went on to study classics and drama at Trinity College Dublin.

I ask him what happened to ignite his desire, to catapult him into a three-round audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in London, after his degree. What persuaded him into a strict, vocational training for a profession that remains as unruly and unmanageable as a herd of cats?

“Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs and the performance of Niall Buggy in the eponymous role of Uncle Vanya at Dublin’s Gate Theatre,” he answers efficiently. “I found them phenomenal.”

When Vaughan-Lawlor speaks about Rada, about the “intensive training there that stretches the students, putting them through the mill, demanding that they play parts they’d never be cast in, pushing them to be brave and foolish every day of the week”, you get a glimpse of the coiled energy beneath the composed exterior.

“I had the runs for the first three months,” he says. “They train you to be a thoroughbred, to be the best that you can be. It was a mind-blowing experience. It really impacts on you as an individual, like the marines. For some people, it knocked their mental and emotional confidence. It was bracing, like being thrown into very cold water.”

There’d been a palpable lift in the Abbey auditorium the previous evening when Vaughan-Lawlor came on stage, a sense or expectation that things might spiral out of control. This despite the fact that he plays a nice middle-class boy from Sutton (although, mind you, we all know that nice middle-class boys don’t really exist, certainly not in O’Rowe’s universe).

“That’s the power of television,” Vaughan-Lawlor says, smiling.

His relationship with O’Rowe continues next month with a revival of his electrifying performance in the playwright’s award-winning Howie the Rookie.

A raging, virtuoso performance in a piece described as “an adrenaline-fuelled ride into Dublin’s underworld”, this is emotionally and physically exhausting work. He relishes the challenge, describing his relationship with O’Rowe as one of “respect and affection. My superobjective is not to let Mark down.

One can only imagine that, for O’Rowe, Vaughan-Lawlor’s combination of aggression and unpredictability, of danger and vulnerability, combined with a dogged, unflinching adherence to his craft, is priceless.

“The actor who doesn’t grow is a hack,” Vaughan-Lawlor says.

“I know actors who have endgamed. You want to say to them, ‘Man, if you put your head down and really focused, you’d be mind-blowing.’ I’ve seen amazing actors coming into this profession with natural talent and piss it away, others who work to be the best that they can be.”

Five years or so ago Vaughan-Lawlor failed to get a part in a new production of Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. Bitterly disappointed, he came over to Dublin and auditioned for Love/Hate. “Funny thing about fate,” he says. “It takes you on another route.”

Maybe, after all, bad things happen so that good things happen.

Vaughan-Lawlor has lived in England for 14 years, and has, as yet, no plans to return to Ireland. Recently, the family moved to the seaside town of Whitstable, in Kent, a quiet headquarters, a retreat from London’s restless streets and the increasingly heady demands of the actor’s career.

His father, Tom Lawlor, now living in Co Kerry, and an equally gentle, compassionate man, goes to visit his son, flying to London from Kerry Airport, bringing with him a gentler rhythm.

“I fall into his Tralee tempo,” Vaughan-Lawlor says. “He is so proud of us. He is a patient, grounding man.”

Vaughan-Lawlor insists on buying my coffee. He’s going to stay on, have a scone, finish his chapter before heading down to the theatre.

Take four: Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s call sheet

Love/Hate: Series five begins on RTÉ tomorrow.

Our Few and Evil Days, by Mark O’Rowe: Continues its run at the Abbey Theatre as part of this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival.

Howie the Rookie, also by O’Rowe: Landmark Productions presents Vaughan-Lawlor’s one-man tour de force at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, for six performances from November 11th to 15th, before it heads to London and New York.

Citizen Charlie: RTÉ’s upcoming television trilogy, charting the rise and fall of the former taoiseach Charles Haughey, is due to air early in the new year. Vaughan-Lawlor plays PJ Mara, Haughey’s press secretary.

Written by Hilary Fannin in the Irish Times 04.10.14