Zack to the future.

Kevin Bourke

Comedian Justin Moorhouses stint at the Royal Exchange this Christmas feels a long way from painted tiger faces on Phoenix Nights, sell-out stand-up tours and drivetime DJ’ing on Key 103. But he’s determined to pull it off, he tells Kevin Bourke

On the face of it, it might seem a bit risky to cast comedian Justin Moorhouse in the leading role of the Royal Exchange’s Christmas show, Zack. But director Greg Hersov seems to have known pretty much straightaway that Moorhouse was the ideal actor to play the good-hearted but slightly unworldly title character.

“I got a script at our house one night, then went in the next day to see Greg and a few others for about 25 minutes,” he says. “Afterwards, I’d just got up to Starbuck’s and was sitting down with my coffee and he rang me to say I’d got it. Of course, I know I’m not an actor. But I know the Exchange wouldn’t have asked me if they didn’t think I was capable of it. The thing with the part is that the company is full of great actors – and I’m not, I’m a performer. Of course there’s a validity to doing stand-up or performing as a DJ, but doing this is frightening and I did nothing for days at the beginning of rehearsals but ask questions.”

The play’s author, Harold Brighouse, was born in Eccles and is one of the ‘Manchester School’ of writers, a group of early 20th century playwrights championed by Annie Horniman (she opened Britain’s first repertory theatre here in Manchester). Brighouse is perhaps best known for the play Hobson’s Choice – it’s a perennial favourite for theatres – whereas the lesser-known Zack, a play that documents with touching humour the life and family of no-hoper Zack Munning, is rarely performed.

“I’d never read it before,” says Moorhouse, “but – and I know how this sounds – I did really love it when I read that script. The character has got such a knowing innocence of the world around him. So it’s quite easy to see me playing it, I suppose.”

Apart from a long-ago late night stand-up gig at the Exchange and an unsuccessful audition for the Manchester International Festival play Everyone’s A Winner, destined forever afterwards to be known as ‘the bingo play’, Moorhouse has had little experience in the theatre. Luckily, Greg Hersov had spotted him in the Ken Loach film Looking For Eric. “Funnily enough, I was one of the few people Ken told about Eric Cantona actually appearing in the film, and John Henshaw and I had to improvise with Cantona in this very building,” he says, shaking his head at the improbability of it all.

“We used to come here to the Royal Exchange from school but don’t ask me what we saw, it’s all a blur with things like Live And Let Die! So the fact that the Royal Exchange has asked me to do a big part at Christmas…it’s everything. You’re part of that whole Manchester Christmas experience, like being able to smell the Christmas Markets.

“It is a magical story, but not that far removed from our world today. The whole feel of the play is about the constraints of money and station and procedure, living under a budget – all of those things that are relevant today with all the cuts and austerity. It’s something that’s different to do and that’ll stretch me. I couldn’t possibly have turned it down really.”

Zack, The Royal Exchange, until January 22, 2011. Justin Moorhouse will also be headlining a late-night comedy gig on Saturday 18 December after the evening performance, starting 11.15pm with guests Steve Royle, Mick Ferry and Alun Cochrane. Image: Jonathan Keenan.

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