Paul Nicholas stars in New Wolsey’s Quartet and has no plans to retire
- Credit: Daisy Walker/TWM
Paul Nicholas shot to fame as the first West End lead in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to him about returning to the stage playing a retired opera singer at the New Wolsey Theatre in Quartet
For many people Paul Nicholas will always be Vince, the charming wideboy in the BBC comedy Just Good Friends; to others he is the pioneering musical theatre star who stripped off with Oliver Tobias in the West End hippy musical Hair, breathed life into Rum Tum Tugger in Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats or was the swashbuckling Pirate King in the ‘80s West End production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. Younger audiences will still see him as Gavin Sullivan on EastEnders or remember him sampling life in active retirement on the BBC’s The Real Marigold Hotel.
This swift, potted resume of his career serves as an illustration that he has never been one to stand still, never content to let the grass grow under his feet.
Blessed with a youthful face, he has spent much of his career playing people younger than his actual age, now having joined the cast of Ronald Harwood’s play Quartet, he is enjoying playing someone older than himself.
Paul Nicholas playing Wilfred, one of a number of retired opera stars living in an industry retirement home and wanting to revisit past glories by staging an fund-raising concert to celebrate Verdi’s birthday.
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He is joined on stage by equally powerful co-stars in the form of Wendi Peters (Coronation Street, Oh What A Lovely War), Sue Holderness (Only Fools and Horses) and Jeff Rawle (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Drop the Dead Donkey) who have great fun conjuring up old rivalries and resentments as their safe world is turned upside down by a new arrival.
Paul says that the play, which is directed by the New Wolsey’s artistic direct Peter Rowe, is a celebration of the desire to grow old disgracefully and how the urge to perform never really leaves you.
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You say you are really enjoying rehearsals for the play but can you see yourself being in this situation sometime in the future, or does the idea of being surrounded by fellow performers in a retirement home fill you with horror?
PN: “I think the play presents us with a very positive experience, how you can maintain your independence and identity while growing old. What you are left with at the end of the play - and Ronald Harwood writes about this - is the knowledge that we don’t actually change as we grow older, as long as we stay reasonably healthy, we still have the same sort of spirit within us, we just happen to be in an older body.
“I think that when you view old age from a younger perspective you tend to think that these people are completely different, you think they have changed when they really haven’t. They are retirement homes like this for performers and I think it is probably nice for performers to be surrounded by other performers. They can talk about old times and performers, generally, have a pretty positive view on life. They will have weathered their fair share of rejection at auditions and will have learnt to just keep going. So, to answer your question, no, it doesn’t fill me with horror. I think the play gives a very good image of performers and old age.
So, you can see yourself galvanising your fellow residents to stage a production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the age of 80?
PN: “Oh yes, I can see that. I think that would be a great idea. Funnily enough the other day I was thinking that we could get the company of Hair together and perform it as an older company. Obviously you have to retain some sort of modicum of health but otherwise there’s no reason why you couldn’t do it. While you may not be able to run around for as long as you did before but you’ve lost in energy you’ve more than made up for in experience. You’ve learned what’s important and what’s not. You’ve learnt about economy. It’s very difficult to stop performers performing. The addiction is the lights and the applause - and the energy you get across the footlights. It’s immediate. You take the reaction on board as you are performing and you shape your performance accordingly. You don’t get that from TV or film - that’s the magic of theatre, of live performance.
From your long career is their one job that you feel is particularly important or has long-lasting personal memories?
PN: “Obviously Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar were incredibly important in establishing me but landing the part of Vince in Just Good Friends arguably had a bigger impact on my long-term career, because it not only exposed me to a far bigger audience because it was on TV but it proved that I could do things other than musical theatre - plus it was so well written and a real joy to do.”
Quartet, by Ronald Harwood, runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, until March 3.