GRAY O’Brien knows when he’s done his job right as Inspector Levine in the thriller Catch Me If You Can which comes to Blackpool’s Grand Theatre next week.
“At the interval while they are having a drink, the audience will be speculating on ‘who it is and what it’s about. They will all have their theories.
“If we can turn that round and they come away at the end saying ‘well,we didn’t see that coming’ then we’ve done our jobs.”
Gray - probably still best known as villainous businessman Tony Gordon in Coronation Street - is starring alongside Dallas legend Patrick Duffy and American actress Linda Purl.
“There’s a subtle art to the thriller on stage and a big demand for it,” said Gray. “I think that’s especially true now - thrillers are all we watch on TV.
“Someone said the other day that there are only seven basic plots and Shakespeare did all of them which is probably about right. Well this show has one of them but we’ve very much done it our way.
“The whole thing is set in 1965 and it has the look of that period and also the values of that time. That is interesting because some of values may seem wrong to use today - there wasn’t a Me Too movement around in the Sixties - but we should respect is as being a period piece. But it also an intriguing thriller - something has gone wrong and we, and in particular my character, are going to work it out.”
Patrick Duffy and Gray O’Brien in Catch Me If You Can (Picture: Jack Merriman)
As the inspector trying to unravel the mystery, Gray’s character is pivotal to the whole production.
“From my point of view it’s been quite a tricky learn,” he said. “I have a lot of information to impart to the audience and have to really concentrate. You can’t drop the ball and you have got to keep story moving along.
“That’s why when you come of stage your shattered and it takes quite a long time to come down at night. It’s quite involved.”
Although a tense thriller with many twists, Catch Me If You Can will surprise audiences in another way - it’s also very funny.
“There is a lot of humour,” said Gray. “And that’s not something we really understood until we took it out of the rehearsal rooms and on to the stage. You think you know what you have with a show but until you put it before an audience you won’t really find out.”
Every good thriller has what Gray describes as “that Poirot moment”.
“That’s what attracted me to this production in the first place,” he said. “I’d done a production of Sleuth around 20 years ago and there was this great reveal at the end and the entire audience would gasp out loud. I loved that moment in the show and I saw elements of that in this show. I certainly didn’t work it out when I was reading through it for the first time. I didn’t see the reveal coming and just thought to myself ‘this is good’.
One of the main attractions of the show is the relatively rare appearance on British stages of Patrick Duffy. For many people he will always be Bobby Ewing from one of the biggest TV series of all time Dallas (although some with long memories may also see him as The Man From Atlantis).
“I’ll tell you something I haven’t shared before,” said Gray. “I was in school and my friends and I were all learning guitar and we wrote a skit all about Dallas. That’s what everyone was watching back in 1981. I can remember some of it but I haven’t told Patrick yet because it’s a bit embarrassing.
“We all had the I Shot JR mugs although, at the time, I didn’t understand the thing with the shower (Patrick’s character was apparently killed after being run over but suddenly reappeared three years later in the shower very much alive). That kind of went over my head at the time. I now realise that people can get written out of shows for whatever reason, go off and do other things and then they can just bring them back.
“But he’s genuine Hollywood. It’s been so interesting to get to know him and Linda (she was the Fonz’s girlfriend in Happy Days and during lockdown she and Patrick became ‘an item’ after speaking regularly over Zoom).
“It’s great to listen to them talk about how their work has transformed them as actors and they have some great stories to tell.”
Just as Patrick will be forever associated with Dallas, Gray is unlikely to ever shrug off the role of Corrie bad boy - he was Villain of the Year in the TV Soap awards.
“It was great to be part of Coronation Street,” he said, “but what they don’t tell you is that when you play the major villain your career is kind of over really for quite a while. No-one is interested in you for years afterwards because you are so associated with that one role.
“It was great at the time but looking back I wish I’d really known the impact it would have.
“But you also got to admit that it’s one of the reasons you get asked to do shows like this and if we can bring new audiences in to see a thriller on stage that’s really exciting.”
Catch Me If You Can, Blackpool Grand Theatre, Monday, March 7 to Saturday, March 12. Details from www.blackpoolgrand.co.uk