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culture: Craig not shaken as he steps into Bond's shoes; The first revival of stage play Our Friends In The North opens tonight. Barbara Hodgson meets one of the friends.

Byline: Barbara Hodgson

CRAIG CONWAY likes a challenge, so a chance to stamp his identity on a role which made the name of James Bond himself, Daniel Craig, appeals.

He's playing Geordie in the first production for 25 years of Our Friends In The North, the Peter Flannery play which inspired the 1996 Bafta-winning TV series.

An epic tale chronicling the lives of Geordie, Nicky, Tosker and Mary - four bright young things from the North-East - set against a background of social and political change in the 1960s and 70s, the series proved a huge hit, propelling into the public eye not just Daniel Craig but also Christopher Eccleston, Mark Strong and Gina McKee. So you'd imagine that tonight's premiere is placing quite a responsibility on the shoulders of the 14-strong cast. But you get the impression Craig can't wait to get on stage.

"I am in no way in any competition with Daniel Craig," laughs the likeable 32-year-old who actually has a passing resemblance to the blue-eyed star.

And he says he'll give the same answer as Daniel when his casting as Bond was revealed - before the critics actually saw the film and went wild, of course.

"He said you take on a role and people will either like it or hate it."

But Craig is an accomplished actor, with a string of TV and film roles, often playing villains. And this is a part he very much wanted. In a way it marks a full circle in his career as he had a small role in the Our Friends TV series, playing a character called Christopher Collins.

"I was in episodes seven and eight and was basically a thug," he says. "Things haven't changed!"

He met the cast and says: "I remember thinking Daniel Craig and Christopher Eccleston were amazing." So, when he heard of this new production, being directed by Northern Stage's Erica Whyman, he was keen to be involved, not least because he's from the North-East and the story details a pivotal point in our history.

Originally from South Shields, he is familiar with the backdrop of 1960s town hall corruption at the time of council leader T Dan Smith and architect John Poulson. "It's incredible to think we've come this far," he says of the region now.

He was also a member of the former Northern Stage ensemble. The original building was part of T Dan Smith's vision for a modern Newcastle, so the refurbished theatre is a fitting venue for the play.

"I said to Erica it was a project I'd love to be a part of and it was wonderful to be cast as Geordie. It's the one part I really wanted to go for.

"It was the job which got me into TV and was the real starting point of my career. I'd also worked with Peter Flannery in The Bodies at Live Theatre and I really wanted to work with him again."

Jarrow-born Flannery has revisited the original play he wrote in 1982 for the RSC when he was its writer-in-residence. He has rediscovered forgotten scenes and included a new ending. It spans a longer period, three cities and two continents, so audiences who remember the series could be in for surprises.

But Craig isn't giving anything away, just saying: "It's really exciting and builds to a crescendo. The characters are so far removed from the TV show, this is a very different medium. TV is something that can sometimes spoonfeed you, but in theatre you have to work hard and become part of the struggle so you are challenged as an audience."

He says the role was "really challenging" for him too. "Geordie says very little but has a lot of impact."

One challenge lay in telling Geordie's troubled tale on stage rather than in nine TV episodes.

There are 47 characters (actors Joe Renton as Nicky, Sonia Beinroth as Mary and Neil Armstrong as Tosker take several parts) but they don't age as they did on TV. Craig says: "Ours is basically presented as a group of actors telling the story, doubling up characters and roles. I think the writing ages the characters and the journey is more of a mental journey which ages you."

The play is at Northern Stage until October 20 and will tour with, it is hoped, a short London residency.

After several years in London, Craig and his actress wife Jill Halfpenny have returned to the region and are settled in Northumberland. Jill, who will go to see the show, is "looking at various projects".

Craig has two films in post-production, The Tournament; and Doomsday, with North-East director Neil Marshal, due for release next year.

He plays Sol in the futuristic tale about a renegade gang left behind in Scotland. "Malcolm McDowell was my dad!" he says. "He's one of my top British actors - it was fantastic."

Craig's in panto again this year at Newcastle's Theatre Royal. He has also set up his own production company, Headboy Productions, and there'll no doubt be more movie roles to keep him even busier.

"I've always wanted to do films," he says.

And a Bond one? He laughs. "I would love to be James Bond, but I haven't got a hairy chest! But then I don't think Daniel Craig has either, has he? Maybe there is a chance - if I work out a bit. But I'd rather be a Bond villain. I've always loved villains."

Our Friends in the North is at Northern Stage from tonight to October 20. Tel: (0191) 230-5151 or see www.northernstage.co.uk

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TYNESIDE REVISITED Joe Renton, Craig Conway, Sonia Beinroth and Neil Armstrong star in Our Friends In The North.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Sep 29, 2007
Words:950
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