IT'S THE fag end of the panto season and Alistair McGowan is on stage at the Wimbledon Theatre playing Baron Hardup to Gareth Gates' Prince Charming. In a typical volley of wisecracks, the impressionist knocks out spot-on renditions of David Beckham, Billy Connolly and Gary Barlow. "Would you like to see my Russell Brand?" he asks Cinderella, played by Joanna Page of Gavin & Stacey fame. "No," she replies.
Later on, when the prince confesses to swapping roles with his servant Dandini, McGowan acts like he's outraged. "I hate people who do impressions," he says. "It's a cheap trick."
He gets a laugh, of course, but there's a bitter truth behind the gag. McGowan, who made his name with Ronni Ancona on The Big Impression, has spent the past four years determinedly earning a living from anything but mimicry. It's not that he's embarrassed by it – during our interview in a restaurant over the road, he tells a story about Richard Herring and almost unconsciously takes on the comedian's voice – but he reached a point when he wanted to do the thing he trained for at drama school.
By starring in Shakespeare's Measure For Measure, which tours to Aberdeen next month, he is fulfilling a life-long ambition. "I've always wanted to do a tour, I've always wanted to do Shakespeare and always fancied doing something that wasn't comedic," says the 44-year-old. "So this job ticks a lot of boxes."
As a student at Guildhall School of Music and Drama – where he was a peer of Ewan McGregor and Daniel Craig – he always assumed he would go on to enjoy a career in straight acting. In fact, he took a 15-year diversion, by way of Spitting Image, Dead Ringers and Only An Excuse?, and only recently extended his range to include roles in TV's Bleak House, the RSC's Merry Wives: The Musical and the West End run of Little Shop Of Horrors. He also directed students in Noel Coward's Semi-Monde.
After all that, he is planning a live stand-up tour later this year that will be "suffused with impressions", but only after his most challenging straight role yet. Working with the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, he is taking on the part of the Duke of Vienna, Shakespeare's enigmatic hero, who leaves his city under the command of his deputy, only to return in disguise to keep an eye on how things are progressing without him.
"This is going to be a big challenge for me, which is why I wanted to do it," he says. "I've not yet done anything that didn't have comedy in it. That will feel very strange, because laughter is a great pat on the back. But comedy is a difficult business, and if you can time a comic line, you can time anything. It's not about being validated, but it is about being challenged."
Classical theatre has its own challenges, of course, but McGowan insists the basic job remains the same. A sketch show requires all the qualities of conviction and empathy that any actor needs. It was not merely because of his ear for a voice that The Big Impression won five prestigious TV awards at the start of the decade.
"To do a good impression on television was an actor's job," he says. "You got the voice right, but you had to understand how the person thought and why they moved and spoke the way they did, which means you get inside their head. What we did in our show was inhabit people. When we did Sven and Nancy, they became a couple. They weren't just impressions, it was about the relationship between two people. Similarly with Posh and Becks; why those sketches worked so well was they were about almost any couple. They were about the agonies and delights of being in a relationship."
Not only that, but having taken the study of speech variations to such a high level, he understands how much diction contributes to our understanding of character, time and place. To have an ear "attuned to the nuances of language" is an advantage as he tackles Shakespeare for the first time. "I watched Easy Virtue recently and there was only one performance that really let the words speak," he says about the big-screen treatment of the 1920s Noel Coward play. "They were not enunciating properly. A lot of them try to do it in a modern, casual way and you can't do that with Coward."
When in the middle of Cinderella he asks, "Don't you want to know me for who I am?", it is a line not said entirely in jest. There was a time when McGowan used his impressions as a shield, a way of deflecting attention away from himself. So adept was he at absorbing the mannerisms of others that the Mike Yarwood-style "and this is me" moment never came. He found that people had a voracious appetite for his impressions, but seemed to care little for the man behind them. That's why his favourite line in Shakespeare is King Richard II's: "Thus play I in one person many people, and none contented."
"That's true of all of us," he says. "We owe our sense of self to all these people who have informed us and given us something, whether that's through something they've taught us or things that we've picked up from them in terms of character and voice. We all absorb. I remember saying as a teenager, 'I don't know who I am', but of course you don't; you never do. We're always changing – I hope. The people I'm interested in are those who do change and who are open to influence.
"I don't think I'm hiding behind a character now, but maybe when we were doing the television series, yes, I was a very different person then. I was still unsure of who I was, artistically, and hadn't found my voice. That's why the last four years have been so useful. It's about not worrying what people think of you. That's when you know who you are."
The route to self-understanding, like the route to the classics, has been unusual, but he wouldn't have done it differently. "I'm very glad it's worked out the way it has," he says. "I've seen every side of the world of entertainment. But to be able to come back and do something like this – which I thought I was going to do in 1989 – is very satisfying. If you train as anything, you want to put those tools to use and it feels like I'm finally doing that."
After four years of theatre and TV acting, however, he is ready to take the creative reins once more and expects Measure For Measure to be the last dramatic work he does for a while. "I'm ready to be in control again, to take that responsibility and to relish it," he says. "It's wonderful doing a shared thing, to work with other people instead of just being in a room writing, but I feel ready for that again now. If the world allows it."
Measure For Measure, His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, April 14-18 www.hmtaberdeen.com
© Mark Fisher, 2009