At the time he was cutting back on his performances as he hadn’t been very well. But towards the end of my time at the theatre, he did The Party by Trevor Griffiths, a powerful play in which he had this huge solo cameo in the middle as this old Glaswegian trade union leader. It was just him speaking for about half an hour. He’d already memorised the monologue for the first read through, as by then he was worried that they were “all waiting for the old man to fuck up”, so he’d learn a part before he’d even begun rehearsals.
Laurence Olivier seemed to take a shine to me for some reason. During my two years at the National Theatre he gave me some really nice roles, although none were with him. Often I’d see him coming into the canteen and I’d think: “Please don’t come and sit opposite me,” because I wouldn’t know what to say but, of course, he would. He’d sit in front of me with a huge plate of mash, veg and half a kilo of Spam. “Best thing to come out of the Second World War,” he’d say. I’d be pouring salt all over my meal making sure I didn’t look up. Finally, I’d put it down to begin my meal and this hand would appear, pushing the salt back towards me. “More salt?” he’d ask, grinning ear to ear.
I was on stage with Olivier giving it full welly, even though nobody saw it
I was understudying the lead actor, so I’d just sit in rehearsals learning his moves. But one day we had to have a full understudy run through. We spent the afternoon rehearsing the whole play with lights, costumes and make-up. Before we started, Olivier said: “Do you want me to top and tail my speech, baby?” He called everyone “baby”. But I was thinking, this might be my one chance to act with Laurence Olivier, so I said: “I’d like you to do the whole thing, if that’s OK.”
He turned to the rest of the cast with at twinkle in his eye and said: “Ooh, David wants me to do the whole thing. We’d better do it then, hadn’t we!” So there I was playing this leading part on stage with Olivier playing a supporting role.
He gave it absolutely everything. He had another show that night so could easily have winged it, but he wasn’t capable of doing that – there was something in him that he had to be brilliant every time.
It was incredible to be on stage with Olivier giving it full welly – even though nobody saw it. It didn’t matter. It was enough for me. It justified my two years of being at the National.
The Party was the last show he did on stage before he died – I stood in the wings watching the curtain call of the final show. As the audience rose to their feet he got down on his knees and kissed the stage.
David Bradley appears in The Strain on FX. Season Four is released later this year