Reg Livermore is a lot of things – actor, entertainer, Australian theatre legend – but an octogenarian he certainly is not.
“One of the papers said today that I’m 80. But I'm not, I’m 79!” he says. “For a few more months yet.”
Livermore is sitting in the front row at the Ensemble Theatre prior to a lunch thrown to honour the company’s 60th birthday. Many on the guest list have long-retired from the theatre and are here to catch up with friends and reminisce.
Livermore, by contrast, is talking about his upcoming show, one he’s written for himself. The play is The Widow Unplugged, a one-man show created around an ageing actor, clown and raconteur Arthur Kwick, a performer who never made it big. Instead, he’s a jobbing jack-of-all-trades, hosting stag nights and clowning for children’s parties.
“He’s right at the end of his so-called career but then he gets an offer that revives his enthusiasm and his imagination,” Livermore explains. “I can't tell you what the job is because I want it to be a surprise for the audience but it brings new life to a career he thought was well and truly over.”
Is Arthur Kwick the Reg Livermore who failed, then?
“I suppose I’m embedded in it,” Livermore says. “It’s fiction and non-fiction. My career has been much more spectacular than Arthur’s but I can still appreciate where he's coming from.”
After long stints in big budget musical theatre productions in recent years (Wicked and My Fair Lady), The Widow Unplugged is a return to the self-sufficient Livermore of legendary theatrical showcases such as Betty Bombshell, Wonder Woman and Sacred Cow – minus the heavy make-up, satin duds, heels and stockings.
“I don't really want to get into high heels ever again,” he chuckles. “Never, never, never. You move on, you know? This one is much more to do with where I’m at now. And when you get to be 79, high heels and stockings are just bizarre… grotesque in the wrong sort of way.”
Livermore, who spent much of the past two years wowing audiences as the rascally Alfred Doolittle in the Julie Andrews-directed My Fair Lady, says he came close to “hanging up the stockings for good”.
“Being in a big show isn’t as much fun as it used to be,” he says. “One becomes very aware of the producers and the money situation and the business side of things. You’re made to feel like a kid that has to be managed sometimes and at my age I don't want to feel like a kid. I’ve still got a kid inside me but I don't want to be treated like one.”
Livermore says this might be his last production. Although, never say never.
“My concern is what will happen to me if I stop something I've been doing for more than 60 years? Do I just atrophy? Do I just sit in a rocking chair on the verandah, somewhere under a jacaranda?”
For Livermore, acting is a kind of communion he would find difficult to live without.
“I always set out to be a performer who had a relationship with an audience and I’m in the fortunate position to have had so many people respond positively to most of the things I've done. There's empathy between us. I know them and they know me.”
Livermore evermore: the great roles
“I played Berger after I pestered my way into the show. My sister was in it and I thought it was going to be a pile of rubbish but when I saw it I was captivated by the freedom on that stage. I dearly wanted to have the freedom for myself. Before that I saw my life as a series of ever decreasing circles, just doing the rounds of radio studios and state theatre company shows but then suddenly there was this opportunity to really express myself.”
The Rocky Horror Show (1974)
“That was very much about my relationship with the audience and getting off the stage and down among them, if necessary. If they weren't reacting the way my Frank ‘n’ Furter thought they ought to react, I'd get down and slap them about a bit. It was a wonderful role. To begin with, I thought I should be paying them to let me do it. By the time I’d done eight months of it I was adding half an hour of my own dialogue every night. If somebody did that to my show, I wouldn't allow it.”
The Betty Blokk Buster Follies (1975)
“Until I played Betty Blokk Buster, doing a one-man show had never really crossed my mind. Barry Humphries was the man doing that sort of thing. But it turned out extremely well because, after Rocky, I was able to use my skill in direct communication with an audience. I could just stand there with a microphone in an auditorium with the audience at my feet.”
“I was in London and my show [Sacred Cow] had flopped. Then I got a call. Would I like to play PT Barnum in Australia and would I like to see it in New York? I said, yes but could I fly over on the Concorde? There was this terrific intake of breath but they said yes.
“I loved that show. It was a perfect way for me to come back to Australia and after the hard work I'd done as a solo performer and then the London disappointment, it was a perfect antidote. It had nothing to do with anything I'd done previously. I was not responsible for it. I could just go out there and give it my all.”
My Fair Lady (2016)
“Doolittle was a great experience for me as an ageing actor. I used to listen to the original Broadway cast recording as a young man and I would never have thought that one day I would actually meet and be directed by Julie Andrews, be kissed on the cheek by her.
“When she first met me I know she wasn’t all that impressed. Because she's so associated with the original and the people who had played those characters, she was having some slight difficulty in seeing other people the roles. I just wasn't Stanley Holloway. But I said to her, look Julie, this is what I do and I promise you, if you give it to me I will give you everything you want. And I got it and it was just such a wonderful success for me.”
The Widow Unplugged is at the Ensemble Theatre from July 26 to September 1.
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