Exorcising ghosts

• John Howard, Paul Ashcroft and Whitney Richards star in Tim Winton’s Shrine. Photo supplied

• John Howard, Paul Ashcroft and Whitney Richards star in Tim Winton’s Shrine. Photo supplied

John Howard has heard all the stories about sharing a name with a certain former prime minister and makes it clear he has no interest in talking about it any more.

The prickly thespian clearly doesn’t relish talking about himself during our interview, giving him plenty in common with Tim Winton, the playwright of Shrine, in which Howard is the star turn (the posters feature only Howard but there are other characters too).

The veteran actor prefers to be “doing things” such as mending fences on his NSW property, than hawking himself about the circuit, drumming up publicity.

But he’s a Winton fan from way back, appearing in the author’s first play Rising Water and he let it be known well in advance he was up for a role should Shrine make it to the boards.

While Winton is “relatively new” to playwriting the seasoned author, “has the magic and poetry,” rasps Howard, who also writes.

The roadside crosses that litter Australia’s highways are the inspiration for Shrine, set in WA’s south-west.

Howard’s character, Adam Mansfield, is a successful developer whose son Jack dies in a car crash.

A year after the event, broken Adam meets small town girl, June, who’d shared a strange and life-changing night with Jack shortly before his death.

The play is about, “grief, ghosts, expectations and redemption” says Howard.

“[Winton] nails it, he gets into the bones of the characters.”

Howard’s character, Adam, is a far cry from Bob Jelly, the bombastic real estate agent and mayor he played in TV’s SeaChange. Jelly’s redemption in the eyes of millions who’d tune in each week was his love for his wife, Heather, and his kids—and the fact he never succeeded in his various schemes.

“[He] kept failing. Apart from the house he sold Laura (Sigrid Thornton) he never sold another.”

Howard studied and talked to a number of real estate agents to get into character for Jelly, something he does for all his roles, including the grumpy but brilliant surgeon Frank Campion in All Saints.

Well into that series he pointed out to writers his character’s success rate with patients was dismal.

“The first 30 odd patients died,” he says with a rare glimmer of a smile.

Born in country NSW in 1952, the then-lanky Howard grew up in Sydney where acting was far his thoughts.

“I come from a long line of shepherds, farmers and teachers, a long way from show biz.”

Leaving school he dabbled with going into medicine, law or landscaping.

“I was a boy who didn’t know what he wanted to do.”

A chance meeting with A Country Practice’s Anne Tenney introduced Howard to acting and he was hooked.

“I went to NIDA and that was my ticket.”

Shrine is on at the State Theatre, William Street, Northbridge, August 31 to September 15. Tickets at ticketek outlets or on 1300 795 012.

by JENNY D’ANGER

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