I was born in Belfast on 6th August 1959. The son of Cal McCrystal, the journalist and author, and Stella McCrystal, a social worker. Two younger brothers are Damien, a media consultant, and Kieran, a lecturer and counsellor.
My family moved to London in 1964 where my father became chief reporter for the Sunday Times. I attended Moss Hall School, Finchley. In 1967 my family moved to the United States when The Sunday Times appointed my Dad its New York and Washington bureau chief. The next three idyllic years were spent mostly in Teaneck, New Jersey where the 3 sons attended Lowell Elementary School and Cal senior commuted across the George Washington Bridge to his office on East 42nd St.
Returning to England in 1970 we settled in Totteridge, north London. I started at Challoner Grammer School where I was nicknamed ‘Yankee’ for the accent I acquired in New Jersey.
Apparently “charming but disinterested” to my teachers I moved after two years to East Barnet Senior High School where I achieved consistently low academic grades until I left at the end of lower sixth. My interest in performing otherwise had been nurtured by the drama teacher, Helen Woodhouse, during this time, and it was with a sure ambition to become an actor that I left school to enrol in a catering course at Southgate College. The two years at this establishment were significant in that I didn’t learn to cook but took leads in two musical shows for the drama dept, began my classical singing training with Claudio Barr and formed several close friendships that I cherish to this day.
In 1978 I chose the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama to pursue my training. The Academy then was quite a traditional school, impressively housed in the centre of Glasgow with the emphasis on Shakespeare, Chekhov and The Greeks. These three years were the usual mixture of incredible angst and joy, failures and triumphs and growing up.
Considered by many of the Academy staff to be a pain in the arse, I, nevertheless, graduated in 1981 – when I was immediately given a contract by Yorkshire TV and spent the best part of two years presenting young peoples programmes for the ITV network.
For the next 10 years I was in and out of work as an actor in rep, film, tv, radio and also a fair bit of music hall at The Player’s Theatre in London, while subsidising my wages with a healthy run of over 30 tv commercials.
In 1989 an actress friend and I answered an advert in Time Out magazine challenging us to ‘Find Your Own Clown’. The workshop was being given by the Swiss Clown, Pierre Byland. It was a tough two weeks but a huge learning curve. Pierre was planning a production and asked me to join the cast. I was unable to do so as I had signed a contract with ITV to present a live Saturday morning series, Motormouth.
Pierre had suggested that I would enjoy working with the legendary Philippe Gaulier. Fearful of his reputation, I joined his first London summer school for ‘Le Jeu’. This point marks the beginning of a watershed in my career. I found a very like-minded soul in my new mentor and enjoyed the work profoundly. Philippe asked me to perform in his clown show, The End Of The Tunnel, one that has some painful memories for cast and audience alike. We opened to huge hype at the Assembly Rooms for the 1991 Edinburgh Festival. The show was panned and we had many walkouts each night: a painfully high profile flop. We would sneak down the fire escape after the show to avoid audience members loitering in the foyer. This was to become my equivalent of the stand-up comic’s years of dying in the northern clubs they set such store by. But, as they say, out of adversity… We carried on working hard on the show with Philippe and by the time we went on tour it was in good shape. I am proud of the work we did then, and I am sure I could not be a director now was it not for that experience.
In 1996 the newly formed Peepolykus company asked me to work on their first show, Let The Donkey Go. It became the surprise hit of the Edinburgh Festival that year. I went on to direct their next two shows, I Am A Coffee and Horses For Courses in 97 and 98 respectively while I tried to juggle my acting career and direct shows for, among others, The Mighty Boosh and Cambridge Footlights whose performers (John Oliver and Richard Ayoade) had admired my work. It was around this time that a group of friends, Toby Park, Aitor Basauri and Petra Massey, who had met at the Gaulier School, approached me to direct them in Stiff, a show that would be set in a funeral parlour. This began my long and happy association with the brilliant clown company, Spymonkey.
In 2001 I was approached by Cirque du Soleil to create comedy routines for their 2002 show, Varekai. The numbers I created with clowns Claudio Carneiro and Mooky Cornish were a hit with audiences and I was asked to return to Cirque the following year as Comedy Director of Zumanity, the new erotic cabaret at the New York New York Resort Hotel in Las Vegas.
Another notable career development was being asked by Sir Nicholas Hytner in 2011 to join the Royal National Theatre as Associate Director on a new comedy for James Corden, One Man, Two Guvnors. My brief was to make physical comedy routines and create a comedic vocabulary for the show. My title was changed to Physical Comedy Director before the transfers to the West End and Broadway. The production was nominated for 5 Olivier Awards and 7 Tony Awards with Corden winning Best Actor. My involvement with this show opened up new opportunities as a comedy consultant for the film industry. Soon after this I began one of the most joyful ongoing relationships of my career – as director of the much loved Giffords Circus.
Actually, I think of myself as an actor who directs, though my performing work has very much taken a back seat in recent years. The last time I performed on stage was in the disastrous Popular Mechanicals directed by Geoffrey Rush at The Arts Theatre, London in 1997. The reviews were so excruciating for this Australian clown piece that we closed after four performances (much to my relief). But again out of adversity… By good fortune, I met my partner Matt, a film journalist, at a dinner party I would have been unable to attend had the show been a success. Matt and I married in 2006.
All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds!