Brian Beacom

MATTHEW Joseph-Campbell was awash with excitement. The young actor, straight out of drama college, found himself working for Theatre in Education, being driven in a van to a school in which he was set to unleash his performance skills upon the world.

But those Ayrshire pupils didn’t welcome the bold young thespian with the hugs and air kisses redolent of the world he longed to be part of.

“No, they blasted the windows of the van with strawberry Pom Pom Balls,” he says, smiling in recall of the assault by hard-coloured confectionary, two autumns ago.

“Inside the van it was a bit scary. It was as if we were being hit by bullets. I thought ‘Oh, oh. We’re in for a tough time here’.”

And he was. “Inside the class where we were performing was like a mosh pit.”

Now, on your first day in the world of entertainment, albeit, a school classroom performing to the culturally disassociated, this wasn’t the idea platform in which to reveal your oeuvre.

However, the actor’s current play puts that demanding school experience into cold perspective.

Right now, Campbell is appearing in The Last Picture Show at Glasgow’s Oran Mor. Set in 1918, it tells the story of a young man, Bob (Matthew Tomlinson) who before the war played the piano in a picture house as an accompaniment to the silent movies of the day.

During the war however, Bob’s rat-strewn, sewage-full trench was bombed - and as a result he was blinded and scarred. “But when he returns home society doesn’t want to know him,” says Campbell, who plays Bob’s soldier pal, Billy. “Bob wants to return to his job as the piano player at the silent movies. It was a job he loved. But of course now he can’t see.”

The actor adds; “We learn however he befriends 12 year-old Willie, (also played by Campbell) who becomes his eyes.” Willie tells Bob what is happening up there on screen and Bob comes up with the appropriate chord or melody.

The poignant tale, written and directed by Morag Fullerton, is based on a true story. “Morag’s grandfather told her this story of the blind piano player who found his sense of self-worth again. It gives a real insight into the horror of war.

“And when I read the script I wanted to learn more. But what I learned about conditions in the trenches was beyond anything I could imagine. The artillery shells, for example, rendered men deaf instantly and their ears bled.

“And although some of the men were mutilated – in the play Bob wears a mask to hide his mutilated face - shell-shocked men would be executed because they were unable to fight on.”

The actor adds; “This was the death of a generation of very young men, younger than me, some aged just sixteen.”

Campbell can’t quite believe his luck in landing the roles in The Last Picture Show, which also features Helen McAlpine as the cinema manager. (Women found themselves promoted during war time)

“It’s a fantastic challenge for me to play these two characters,” he says.

“To get the Australian soldier’s voice as authentic as possible I’ve been listening to podcasts of Australian news programmes and episodes of Neighbours on YouTube.”

How easy is it to regress to being a 12 year-old boy again? “Not that hard,” he says, grinning. “I’m only 22 now so it’s not as if I have to go back that far. But it’s really enjoyable.

Campbell, grew up in Hamilton and at one time entertained notions of becoming a boxer. “But a few sore ones saw me chuck it,” he says, smiling. “Then I took part in a school show. A couple of pals had signed up and I went along to have a laugh with the mates. It was spoof X Factor-type play one of the teachers had written and I played an Ant/Dec character.

“I just loved the whole experience. The footlights seduced me. The adulation of class 2C1 just bowled me over. It was too much to walk away from.”

Drama college followed, then TIE work, and panto for the past two seasons.

Now Campbell will surely bring a Buttons energy to both his roles. “I can’t wait,” he says of the challenge. And it will be demanding. “But if I’ve learned anything from this play it’s not to complain about acting. Being battered by a few strawberry Bon Bons isn’t the worst thing that can happen in life.”

*The Last Picture Show, Oran Mor, Glasgow