John Joyce, who has died aged 70 of oesophageal cancer, was a jug-eared character actor best known for his stage work with the actor and director Ken Campbell, and for his performance as a distinctly unimpressed club secretary in Trevor Griffiths’ Comedians in 1975.
Comedians, which has been revived at the Lyric, Hammersmith, is a brilliant play about a night-school for comics, supervised by an old vaudevillian, played originally by Jimmy Jewel, and disrupted by the subversive performance of Jonathan Pryce as a skinhead version of the Swiss clown Grock.
This happened in the middle act, where Joyce as a fussing emcee made it perfectly clear where his sympathies lay – with the paying customers anxious for the resumption of the bingo. Once he had worked out that his character had to dislike everything on the stage around him, the tiny role made sense and he won, he boasted, several laughs in his 17 lines.
He had been in the Nottingham Playhouse company of Richard Eyre, who directed Comedians, since Eyre’s arrival in 1973 as artistic director, appearing in five new plays in that first great season: Howard Brenton and David Hare’s epic Brassneck, Brenton’s The Churchill Play, a new Adrian Mitchell version of The Government Inspector, John McGrath’s Soft Or a Girl and Campbell’s Bendigo.
The last of these was a local fable about a prizefighter, replete with mad stunts and escapades. The second Campbell play at Nottingham, co-written with Dave Hill and Andy Andrews, was Walking Like Geoffrey (1975), in which Joyce joined a group of townsfolk trying to evade paying taxes by walking like Sylvester McCoy’s village idiot.
When Campbell founded his Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool soon afterwards, Joyce played Saul Goodman, the New York cop who talks faster than he thinks, in the nine-hour Illuminatus!, adapted by Campbell and Chris Langham from the sci-fi trilogy of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, which opened the National’s Cottesloe auditorium in March 1977.
He featured prominently, too, in Campbell’s even longer landmark epic, The Warp, based on the hippy memoirs of the poet Neil Oram, which played for a total of 22 hours at the ICA in 1979. He played many roles, coached the actors, organised rehearsals and helped keep the books.
Joyce was an only child of humble origins in London. His Irish father was an alcoholic, his mother scrubbed floors, his aunt – obviously his fairy godmother – rescued him by paying his fees at Taunton school in Somerset. There he met his lifelong friend Alan Talbot, whose family sponsored him on the £10 emigration scheme to Talbot’s native Australia, where he settled in Melbourne.
With Talbot, who became a chartered accountant, he took degrees in economics and the arts at Melbourne University and worked for ICI before returning to England in 1964. He had appeared in many productions with the Melbourne University theatre company, notably as a fine King Lear.
Although he was Young Dogborough in Michael Blakemore’s famous 1969 production of Bertolt Brecht‘s Arturo Ui, starring Leonard Rossiter, his career came into focus only when he joined McGrath’s 7:84 fringe touring company in the early 1970s and zig-zagged round the country in plays by Griffiths, and John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy.
Ten years older than most of the other actors, he specialised in “dad” roles or senior trade unionists at a time when the fringe theatre was catching up with the lives of working-class people, even if that process was never really reciprocated. The Campbell connection seemed to liberate him in a new, creative direction, and he enjoyed the peripheral communal pleasures of soft drugs and drinking that were par for that course.
He rode scooters and broke his collarbone when he drove down a hole in the road while drunk during the Illuminatus! period in Liverpool. On another occasion, he was ejected from a train bound for a German production of The Warp while warming up in character as a far-gone, foul-mouthed Billy McGuinness, the tramp orator of Hyde Park Corner.
Joyce had a big success in Steven Berkoff‘s West at the Donmar Warehouse in 1983, but the work was drying up again. Over a flagon of wine in 1985, Campbell fired off a few joke job applications on behalf of his friend, including one to Eyre: “When I see your films, I get a funny nervous feeling inside… and suddenly, tonight, I know exactly what it is: I think I’m just about to come on. Carry on filming; love, while it all lasts, John Joyce.”
Ever available for whatever jaunt Campbell might propose, Joyce offered to be “on the book” for a Warp revival at Three Mills Island in Bromley-by-Bow in 1997, in which Alan Cox heroically faltered in the final stages of the monster main part. Campbell brought Joyce on for a curtain call and Joyce said, with tears welling, that he felt he was taking that call for all the unacknowledged prompters in the history of theatre.
For the last 10 years of his life, he worked as a dummy patient in doctors’ training in London hospitals, work he enjoyed and which paid the rent. He was unlucky in personal relationships and always lived alone, but he was much loved by many friends.
• John Patrick Joyce, actor, born 4 June 1939; died 15 September 2009