Comedian Chris Neill as the interviewer of actor Kerry Shale’s 2,000-year-old man  (Blake Ezra Photography)

Comedian Chris Neill as the interviewer of actor Kerry Shale’s 2,000-year-old man (Blake Ezra Photography)

This week a new show opened at JW3, based on an interview with a 2,000-year-old man who has met everyone from Jesus Christ to Sigmund Freud. Rebecca Wallersteiner chats to the Canadian actor and voice-over artist Kerry Shale about his starring role

Kerry Shale is not only a writer and actor but a top voice-over artist with a string of successful television and radio performances. He recently starred in Mr Selfridge and Doctor Who and has recorded more than 130 audio books, including Life of Pi.

Last year, Shale wowed audiences at JW3, playing the role of Harry in When Harry Met Sally. This week, he returned to JW3 with comedian Chris Neill, a semi-regular on Radio 4’s Just a Minute, to stage the UK premiere of Mel Brooks’ and Carl Reiner’s classic comedy routine, The 2,000 Year Old Man. This anarchic comedy has never been seen live in the UK until now. “In America, The 2,000 Year Old Man is very famous and part of Jewish-American culture, although it isn’t as well-known over here,” Shale tells me. Jerry Seinfeld called it: “One of the greatest bits in 2,000 years of comedy history.”

Back in 1960, before Brooks wrote The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner rewrote history – as a comedy! Perfecting their shtick at Hollywood parties, the friends recorded a bestselling album in 1960, featuring an interview with a 2000 year-old-man in a series of comedy routines that appeared on television as well as being made into a collection of records.

Chris Neill and Kerry Shale holding a photo of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks (Blake Ezra Photography)

Chris Neill and Kerry Shale holding a photo of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks (Blake Ezra Photography)

The inspiration was an exchange between Brooks and Reiner in the writers’ room for the top-rated 1950s television series, Your Show of Shows, starring Sid Caesar.

This led Reiner to begin questioning Brooks about what it was like to be a 2,000 year old man who has known everyone from Jesus to Freud to Bernie the Caveman (discoverer of ladies).

Four award-winning albums later and the Old Man was a legend. The talented London duo’s JW3 new production has brought the old man back to life in the 21st century. “I got the idea in Christmas 2013 and it took me six months to secure the rights,” says Shale.

It is an amazing coup that the great Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner have given their permission for it to be performed again. While researching the comedy and refining it into a 60-minute comedy interview, Shale gleaned many interesting anecdotes about Brooks. Each performance features an exact recreation of the original timing – with the pair wearing earphones to listen to the recordings as they perform.

Born in Canada, Shale moved to London in 1978 and has lived here ever since. “My wife is English and my two cats are English,” he quips.

The family lives in Islington, but he grew up in the 1950s in a Jewish neighbourhood in Winnipeg, Manitoba, attending Hebrew School after primary school and had a barmitzvah. “Although secular, I am Jewish and proud of my roots,” he tells me.

He has played various Jewish characters, including a yeshiva boy in Barbra Streisand’s Yentl and a north London rabbi in a BBC television series. For a taste of Shale’s adaptation of The 2,000 Year Old Man (directed by Matthew Lloyd), take a look at the YouTube clip on JW3’s website. If you’re anything like me, you won’t be able to stop laughing!

• The 2,000 Year Old Man runs until 22 March. For more details, visit www.jw3.org.uk

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