“I never thought I was a West End musical kind of person,” says Arthur Darvill, sitting in his plushy dressing room, surrounded by cowboy boots and fringed leather finery. “But here we are!”
Here we are indeed. The 40-year-old’s own musical tastes incline more towards Radiohead than Rodgers and Hammerstein, but he has found himself starring in Oklahoma!, the duo’s 40s cowboy musical about two guys fighting over the same girl.
This is no ordinary Oklahoma!, though: it’s a dark, snarling, lustful reimagining of a classic that’s stripped away every trace of mid-century kitsch, and proven so successful that it’s transferred from the Young Vic to the West End. It’s the handiwork of American director Daniel Fish, whose original 2019 Broadway production quickly earned the nickname “Sexy Oklahoma”.
Darvill, who is up for an Olivier Award for his role in the musical this Sunday, is reluctantly embracing the label. “It fits,” he says. “But it’s also so much more than that. It’s about survival, about what a community does to outsiders, and about how people can be so cruel to protect what they have… but it’s within this line-dancing, thigh-slapping musical. It’s completely mad.”
Darvill – known to TV fans as drip-turned-hero Rory in Doctor Who and as the suspicious reverend in Broadchurch – brings something different to the role of Curly. In his hands, this archetypal all-American cowboy becomes a more fragile, nervy character. His relationship with his rival Jud (played by original US cast member Patrick Vaill), a strange loner who’s trying to woo the same girl as him, is less straightforward too. “In theory, Curly and Jud are trying to get the same girl, but it’s more of a love triangle than that,” says Darvill. “I think he’s fascinated by Jud. There’s a real ambiguity in that relationship.”
Bisexual tension and pitch-black terror might seem like something you don’t usually find in a much-loved 40s musical, but Darvill doesn’t see it that way. “It’s funny that this is seen as such a wildly different interpretation, because all that stuff is in the script – it’s so full of danger and innuendo,” he says. “It’s a good night out, but it’s challenging too.”
Fish’s directorial approach emphasises this story’s danger by ringing the stage with guns. “It’s a place where anyone can die at any moment,” says Darvill. “This is a land that’s been taken by guns, and if anyone steps out of line they could be next.”
This tension comes to the boil in a brilliantly staged smokehouse confrontation between Curly and Jud: “The theatre’s so dark, you can’t see your hand in front of your face,” says Darvill. “It feels like we’re alone in the space.”
If that all sounds pretty moody, it’s full of joy, too, that bursts out from the moment Darvill steps onto the empty stage at the start of the show and shatters the silence with the opening lines of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin”. “When we did it at the Young Vic it was so nerve-racking just opening my mouth and hoping the right thing would come out,” he says. “You’re so exposed. But now I revel in that moment. You can feel the audience bristling.”
It’s also a welcome contrast to the kind of music Darvill has spent most of his adult life making, both as a composer for theatre shows and as a singer-songwriter. “I’ve ended up singing a lot of sad songs about relationships, so it’s quite liberating to just openly sing a really positive beautiful song,” he says.
Not everyone’s been a fan of all this unabashed sincerity – Darvill’s miniature dachshund Jason barked all the way through a rehearsal rendition of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin!’”, “so I had to take him out” – but most humans have been won over. Even ones who’ve traditionally found ’40s musicals to be overly peppy or camp. And Darvill has brought new audiences to the West End – fans of Doctor Who in particular.
Darvill’s role on that time-travelling television institution was a curveball for the show. Before then, companions had tended to be female, with a little kid-friendly will-they-won’t-they sexual tension thrumming in the background.
But Rory and his fiancee Amy (Karen Gillan) felt more like the Doctor’s housemates. “If you take that tension out of the equation, there are so many other things you can explore,” says Darvill. “I know I would say this, but I really think it’s the best season of Doctor Who.”
Darvill still feels he’s part of that universe. “It’s like a secret language you share with other people who’ve been in it. I was recently on holiday with Karen [Gillan] and Matt [Smith], and me and Karen talked about how it would be really fun to revisit those characters. Why not!”
It would have been easy for Darvill to get stuck playing an endless parade of affable everyblokes after Doctor Who. Was he worried about being typecast? “I probably should have been,” he says, “but straight after Doctor Who, I played Mephistopheles at the Globe. To go from playing the nicest man in the world to playing the literal devil, it’s like, ‘I’m fine.’”
Since then, his career has also taken in everything from experimental theatre darling Annie Baker’s deeply surreal play The Antipodes (National Theatre, 2019) to composing music for shows including bawdy reimagined Greek myth The Lightning Child (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2013). Not bad for an actor who started out messing about with glove puppets on telly’s Sooty and Sweep.
Darvill’s mother Ellie is a professional puppeteer. She played the Why Bird in BBC’s Playdays (1988-1997), and toured puppet shows around the country. “My mum tells all these embarrassing stories about me,” he says. “When we went on tour I used to see the show every day so I’d shout all the lines out from the audience.”
After a childhood knocking around the corridors of the BBC, he followed his mum into kids’ TV in his late teens, with a recurring role in Sooty and Sweep. “Sooty and Annie Baker are very much the further reaches of my career,” he says.
Darvill’s career has hopped from screen to stage, from fun mainstream series to challenging theatrical experiments. He hopes that his fans will be able to follow him. But he’s clear that if the West End is to pull new audiences in, things need to change: “Expensive theatre tickets are a real bugbear of mine. You can get tickets for not too much for Oklahoma which is good, but that’s not true everywhere. Theatre will only survive and thrive if it finds a way to stay affordable, while also making sure everyone who works in it is paid fairly.”
It’s a fitting reminder from a guy who’s so down to earth that he started our chat by cheerfully making me a mug of tea in the scuffed Green Room kitchen, and who reckons the best spot in the theatre is in the cheapest seats, way up in the gods. “I’d like to have another crack at writing a musical, inspired by everything I’ve learnt over the past few years,” he says, mulling over a return to the genre he first explored with The Lightning Child, a decade ago. He might have started out as a reluctant West End musical actor but he seems right at home here.
Oklahoma! Is on at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until 23 September. The Olivier Awards take place on 2 April at the Royal Albert Hall