Double act from a man who thinks big

DESMOND Barrit was 18 when he began his first profession, largely as a result of reading Teach Yourself Accountancy from cover to cover.

By the time he was 33, the Welsh coalminer's son was doing the books for Sadler's Wells. At that point, fate intervened in the form of an actress friend with a taste for the odd flutter.

''She was one of three girls who had just graduated from the Webber Douglas School and we were having a party to celebrate,'' said Barrit in London.

''We all got terribly drunk, which is probably why I found myself boasting that I could get an acting job if I wanted to and she bet me five pounds that I couldn't.

''To my great horror, I did and felt such a fraud. It was hellishly difficult to get an Equity card in those days and there I was, brandishing one.

''When my family heard about it, they thought I'd either gone completely mad or was having them on. It wasn't till they saw me on the telly that they realised they were wrong.

''I've never trained specifically for anything. Drama school? Never! In my first week I'd be told to lose a lot of weight, then I'd end up looking like every other actor.'' It is this man - all 130-odd kilos of him - you will be paying good money to see in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of The Comedy of Errors, now playing at the APA Lyric Theatre from February 5-10. What's more, Desmond Barrit has the starring roles.

Plural? Correct. As if casting a hefty 46-year-old in what is traditionally a juvenile lead's part isn't shocking enough, the RSC has entrusted Barrit with the task of playing both Antipholus of Syracuse and his identical twin, Antipholus of Ephesus.

Admittedly, there is enough of him to stretch to two merchant's sons, but surely audiences deserve more. They will be getting it with interest.

The Comedy of Errors, directed by Ian Judge, happens to be the winner of three 1992 Olivier Awards - for designer Mark Thompson's set and costumes, and Desmond Barrit's Best Comedy Performance.

''I've done the set like a town square which starts in black and white, then goes into bold colour. It's rather quirky, combining surrealism, Op Art, Pop Art and a lot of revolving doors, but then it's such a mad farce,'' Thompson said during a technicalrehearsal for Hongkong.

Over at the RSC's rehearsal rooms, Barrit was happy to expand.

''The Comedy of Errors is possibly Shakespeare's first play and definitely his shortest. This production is also uplifting, stimulating and the nearest thing to theatrical magic I can think of.

''Funny? It should come with a Government Health Warning. Even people who are intimidated by Shakespeare or feel their English isn't good enough, have wanted to see it again.

''When we did it in London, people were queuing at 7am. It's a real family show - perfect for mothers, fathers, children and grannies.'' First performed in April, 1990 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, Judge's production of the comedy which revolves around two sets of identical twins has been a hit from the word go.

''Utterly hilarious,'' said The Sunday Times. ''A triumph in releasing the play's comic potential,'' said The Guardian taking up a refrain which soon swept Britain.

When the 1992 Olivier Awards were announced, few were surprised by the hat trick - except, perhaps, for the accountant-turned-character actor.

''It was a wonderful thing for someone like me,'' said the big man who started out as a puppeteer for a children's theatre group, earning GBP45 (about HK$600) a week.

The humility is more than matched by robust self-confidence. ''Who, or what, has been your greatest influence?'' one interviewer asked. ''Myself,'' Barrit said without hesitation.

He first came to national prominence as Brogard in Nicholas Hytner's production of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

''With hump back, withered arm, twisted leg, orange hair and an eye in the middle of his cheek it was hard to miss him,'' wrote Robert Workman in Plays and Players.

The critic was similarly taken by Barrit in his first stint at the RSC which saw him as the Porter in Macbeth, Banjo in The Man Who Came To Dinner and Trinculo in The Tempest - ''a deliciously plump pink and green confection with a kiss curl, flaming cheeks and fastidious mince''.

In his fire engine red jacket and matching hat, Barrit doesn't exactly fade into the background in The Comedy of Errors, either. Its sartorial splendours delight him.

''It's certainly not dressed traditionally - very much today and terrifically colourful - and there's also the most wonderful music composed by Nigel Hess.

''With 10 musicians in the show, this Comedy of Errors is virtually a musical and we play it very fast.

''It gets a lot of laughter, though at the end, I've actually heard audiences go 'Aaaah'. That moment, when the twins finally meet, is so moving.'' He means both sets, of course - the Antipholus pair and their identical servants, the two Dromios, played by Neil Caple.

Best of all are the effects created by those masters of illusion Ian Judge and Mark Thompson.

''Just wait till you see Dromio cut in half. It's side-splitting,'' said Barrit with a wicked glint.

Zelda Cawthorne was flown to London by British Airways for this interview.