Birmingham actor Tyrone Huggins tells Roz Laws about living through half a century of the city's arts scene.
It seems fitting that Tyrone Huggins should have a leading role in the production which launches Birmingham Rep’s centenary.
He’s had a close association with the theatre since, as a teenager, he saw one of the last plays at the Rep’s old home in Station Street in 1970 – and one of the first in its new home on Broad Street a year later.
He went on to sit on the board of the Rep for six years and appear in several productions including Season’s Greetings, Of Mice and Men and Peter Pan.
Now he’s back at the theatre starring in the UK premiere of Philip Pullman’s I Was A Rat!
Full of music, comedy and physical performances, it promises to “surprise, delight and move audiences of all ages”.
Roger is a scruffy boy who turns up on the doorstep of aged couple Bob (Tyrone) and Joan (Lorna Gayle) and insists “I was a rat!”.
Tyrone, 56, explains: “It’s certainly intriguing. I got Pullman’s book and it wasn’t until about two-thirds of the way through that I thought ‘Oh, I’m starting to see what it’s about now’.
“It’s partly based on the Cinderella story, where the rats are turned into horses and page boys for her coach.
“What if one of the boys wasn’t turned back into a rat at midnight?
“He’s stranded, with no idea about how the world works and how to live as a human.
“It has a fairytale aspect to it and it’s funny, but also quite moving. It’s a morality tale about how we treat an innocent abroad.
“Unscrupulous people grab the boy and run off with him, so Bob and Joan try to find him. They’ve never had children and his arrival gives them a purpose in life.”
The fantastical story has been adapted for the stage by Teresa Ludovico, artistic director of Teatro Kismet in Bari, Italy who has previously brought her productions of Beauty and the Beast and The Snow Queen to the UK.
“I’m only now starting to see how it’s going to work,” says Tyrone of the play which will embark on a UK tour after its Birmingham run.
“We’ll be relying on lighting, performances from dancers and actor/musicians and the audience’s imagination more than sets and props.
“I think it will be absolutely fantastic and an exciting celebration of 100 years of the Rep. As a Brummie, it’s great to be involved.”
Tyrone was born on the Caribbean island of St Kitts and moved to Birmingham when he was five.
His father was a welder at British Leyland and his mother a cleaner at the Royal Mail’s sorting office, long before it became the Mailbox.
The family lived in Sparkhill and Handsworth before settling in Nechells.
It was as a pupil at Duddeston Manor School that Tyrone went to see Toad of Toad Hall at the Old Rep shortly before it closed.
“I was fascinated by it, partly because I had done it at school – I played a field mouse when I was 11!
“I was very lucky to be able to act at school, thanks to our English and drama teacher Pete Kirby.
“He put on three plays a year, and from the age of 11 until I left at 18, I was in every one of them. I worked my way up to Fagin in Oliver.
“It was fantastic and very unusual to be given so much stage experience at school – whenever I mention it to other actors, they are always amazed.”
Tyrone’s school and the house where he grew up no longer exist.
“They demolished Duddeston Manor last summer and it was quite poignant to see the pictures on Facebook of them knocking it down.
“I grew up in one of the back-to-back houses in Nechells with an outside toilet. It’s sad to see your history being wiped out. I kind of miss the fact they don’t exist now and haven’t found a future life. In Manchester they’ve turned their back-to-backs into student accommodation.”
Tyrone’s acting career has spanned nearly 40 years and taken him around the country. Although he has a flat in London, he’s maintained a base in Birmingham.
“The flat next to my mum’s in Bordesley Green came up for sale 12 years ago so I bought it,” he explains. “I’m fully resident in Birmingham at the moment.”