Five minutes with... Nigel Harman

The former EastEnders star tells us about appearing in David Mamet’s razor-sharp drama Glengarry Glen Ross, which comes to Cambridge Arts Theatre this March

What’s Glengarry Glen Ross about? 

It’s about a group of salesmen in 1980s Chicago who are in a tense sales competition. Someone will win a Cadillac, someone will get a set of steak knives and the other two will get fired, so basically their lives are in the balance. At the same time, the office gets broken into and it’s likely to have been one of our main protagonists, so it’s also a whodunnit. It’s one of the great American plays written in the last 40 years. 

How would you describe your character, Ricky Roma? 

It’s a brilliant part to play and it’s incredibly challenging. Ricky Roma is very bright. He’s street smart. He presents himself as a happily married man, but he can be one of the lads too. He can be whatever he needs to be to make a sale and he’s very good at it. Morally his compass is a long way off, but if you get caught in his tractor beam you think he’s really cool. It’s only afterwards you realise he’s probably been speaking a load of rubbish and he’s just taken 40 grand from you. 

The play is more than 30 years old. What’s the secret to its longevity?

I think it’s really interesting looking at it through a prism of today, because this is set in 1983 and these guys are already becoming obsolete. Their skills, their mindset, their brash demeanour; they realise everything they value is rapidly becoming less valuable. But you could also argue that the guy sitting in the White House at the moment comes from that salesman era, so it’s still so relevant…

Many will know the story from the Oscar-nominated film version; what does seeing it on stage bring to the story?

It was written as a play, so it’s designed to be live. The film is really good, but I think the play is better. Live theatre is special because you can smell it. Literally. Every evening is unique; whatever you come in with will affect how you interpret the show. The way the audience has travelled, if they’ve had a good day at work, if they’ve had a hard day, if it’s raining outside – everything is set up for that one moment, that unique evening. If you get moved in the theatre it’s so much more powerful than being moved by the screen. 

People still recognise you most from EastEnders. what was that experience like?

It was quite a rollercoaster ride. I look back on the whole thing and I’m incredibly proud to have been a part of that show which is still doing its thing. One day I’d like to sit down and watch an episode. I was always working, so I never watched much of it. Maybe one day I can go back and direct an episode to be part of that gang again, because they’re a really special bunch. There are some people who think I’ve retired, just because I’m no longer in EastEnders! 

What can audiences expect from the show? 

You can expect a rollercoaster ride of a show. It’s in your face, it’s provocative and it’s evocative of the time, but it also really makes you laugh. The brilliant thing about this show is we’ll be done by 9.30pm. You can go and have a three-course meal afterwards, and still be home by 11.30pm! It’s literally my perfect theatre outing.

Glengarry Glen Ross runs 11 to 16 March at Cambridge Arts Theatre, tickets from £20.