Trading the bustling West End for East Anglian tranquillity
THEY say that the villains provide all the best roles and Harwich-based West-End actor Sean Kingsley is having a ball playing the dastardly Fleshcreep in Jack and the Beanstalk at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich. Buried under a bizarre wig and an extraordinarily colourful costume, fans of his performances in Les Miserables, where he played the lead Jean Valjean, and Mr Braithwaite in Billy Elliot would be hard-pressed to recognise him.
Sean says that having Christmas at home is something of an enjoyable novelty. “Normally I am dashing across the country struggling to get home on Christmas Eve, only to turn round again and dash off again on Boxing Day.
“This year not only am I already at home. The family got to come and stay at my place and on top of that I get to spend two months working from home. It’s wonderful. A real treat.
“When I first came out of drama school I swore that I would never do pantomime or sing on cruise ships, that they were beneath me, well I have done both now and just have had the best time ever.”
He said that he was cast as Fleshcreep at the same time that he was cast as the crazed dentist in a revival of the New Wolsey’s production of Little Shop of Horrors and was thrilled to be invited to take part in his first actor/musician show.
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“It came as part of a double package. They took the production of Little Shop of Horrors that they did here to Birmingham and threw this part in as well.
“Accepting the part was a no-brainer because it was my first chance to do an actor/musician show, to see if I could do it. It was way out of my comfort zone, so it was a challenge which is great. I play three or four instruments, more than most people but the master of none.”
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Talking to Sean backstage, it’s clear he is loving every moment of the New Wolsey’s very own brand of rock’n’roll yuletide silliness.
“It’s hard work but tremendous fun. I am amazed at the talent of everyone here. It’s dazzling. I stand here looking at people who can play not one but three and four instruments and not only do they play but they can sing, dance an act too.”
But, Sean is being a little modest when it comes to his own talents. It turns out that he is something of a real-life of a Billy Elliot character himself.
Born in Liverpool to working-class parents, he fell in love with Fred Astaire movies on television and swiftly found himself attending dance classes then ballet classes, much to amusement and bewilderment of his mates.
“I remember being chased down the road from the community centre with my tap shoes over my shoulder and it wasn’t until I lost my rag when I was a bit older and had started ballet classes that I beat the living daylights out of one of these guys, then they left me alone. It’s really something to find yourself being beaten up by a ballet dancer who has got muscles that you haven’t even discovered.
“And once word got around, that made sure that I was left alone. Funnily I got quite friendly with some of them after that but you do have to prove yourself first.”
He said that his prowess on stage was his passport out of the Liverpool council estates but he said that the Billy Elliot story was essentially a mirror image of his childhood.
“I knew this was the life I wanted since I was six years old, ever since I started tap dancing on the stone floor in our kitchen in Liverpool.
“I was addicted to those old black and white Fred Astaire movies and as soon as they finished I was in the kitchen tapping away, it drove my Mum mad, because she was trying to cook Sunday lunch. She said ‘why don’t you sod off and go to tap classes, if you are serious about this.’ So I started tap classes at six.”
He said tap classes led to an interest in other forms of dance, including ballet and a love of drama.
“This then led to an offer to go to the Elliott Clark Stage School in Liverpool, which is often described as the Italia Conti of the north.
“I went there from 12 years old and we did the usual academic school stuff until 3pm and then we did the vocational side of it. I did ballet at the time but increasingly drama became the focus of what I did. That was what I was interested in.”
He said that from the age of 14, he knew that he wanted to make acting his career. “But, interestingly at the sametime I discovered rock music and I was singing along to Rainbow and Deep Purple and that gave my voice a special quality that a lot of actors didn’t have. The voice is a muscle and in order to develop it, you have to use it and my singing did just that. In the end I ended up with a very high rock tenor voice – the kind that stands out from the crowd.”
He said that rock operas like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar were written for voices like his and has recently played Judas in a production of Jesus Christ Supertsra at the Minac Theatre in Cornwall. “It was a fabulous production and immediately before that I had been invited to perform in the 20th anniversary production of Chess in Oslo, in front to 10,000 people which was amazing.
“It was the first time I had been onstage and there were two huge screens either side of me, providing a close-up of my face. I have to admit when I started singing I had to sneak a look at myself blown up so large. I couldn’t resist but I paid the price because all I could see was my profile and this huge double chin.”
For all his three years in Les Miserables, his West End performance opposite Elaine Paige in The Drowsy Chaperone and the international Chess concert, the one show that has special resonance for Sean is Billy Elliot. It’s a story that never fails to reconnect him with his roots.
Sean said that he is impressed with the way that the musical has established a life of its own away from the film. Although one is inspired by other and tell the same story, the West End has different feel to that of the film.
The stage show has its own book and has characters that didn’t appear in the film. My character Mr Braithwaite, the piano player in Billy’s dance classes, was written especially for the stage show. He does a dance duel with Billy to see who’s best and we discover that he’s really a bit of closet dancer and he has hidden this from the rest of the mining community.”
He said that Billy Elliot is well on its way to becoming a modern classic but he is concerned that there are not many other modern shows following on its wake.
“The theatre did take a hit after 9/11 and it is recovering. There is work out there but it is the quality of the work that concerns me.
“I think reality television is killing our industry. It’s making a mockery of it. It’s teaching our kids that you can be a superstar over night without having put any of the effort in. They are saying there’s no need for training. No need to learn your craft – and it’s simply not true. It’s taken me nine years to get to the position where I am capable of reliably performing a leading role in the West End. It’s not something that you can just walk into. You need stamina and focus to do eight shows a week.”
He said that it was unfair to the people concerned to promise them a glittering career when at best they were mediocre talents.
“When their career fails to progress they are reduced to doing ‘Best of the Musicals’ tours around Britain. That’s not what they signed up for.”
He said that if the West End and the acting industry was serious about providing new talent for the future they should be investing in regional theatre where new performers get to learn their craft and new plays and musicals could be tried out before transferring into London.
“I love theatres like the Wolsey. It’s a real theatre, a proper working theatre, that doesn’t need Australian soap stars to get people through the door or to do really exciting work.”
He said that he felt that he had fallen on his feet having moved to East Anglia and found this vibrant, producing theatre on his doorstep.
Although Sean did admit that he arrived in Harwich by mistake but fell in love with the historic town the moment he arrived. “I was just desperate to get out of London. I had just been working in the Costwolds, doing my first pantomime actually, and I had fallen in love with the countryside. I had been living in Walthamstow for 20 years and had just had enough.
“At the same time Cameron Macintosh gave me the lead role of Valjean in Les Mis and for the first time I had enough money to go out and buy a house. I could actually afford a deposit. And my main criteria was that I wanted to be at least an hour-and-a-half outside London. I wanted to be away from the noise and the streets because I was just hating the place at the time.
“So I started looking around the Cotswolds. What I was looking for was the chocolate box thatched cottage. I wanted to live in a village – be part of a community. I had enough of walking around London, looking at my feet, not meeting anyone’s eye, feeling like a drone in society.
“Living in London was so different from where I grew up in Liverpool. Liverpudlian nature meant that each street was like a little village. We all knew everyone, we all knew everyone’s business. Everyone’s door was open. We talked to everyone. If you sat on a bus you spoke to the person next to you. That’s what I found so strange when I first came down to London. If started to talk to someone on the tube, you could feel them edging away from you.”
He said that as he explored likely properties within his one-and-a-half hour radius he found himself in the Essex town of St Osyth and reluctantly having to turn down a thatched cottage because it needed too much work doing to it.
“On that trip there was also this place in Harwich which I had put to the bottom of the pile because it was in Harwich town and I didn’t want to live in a town. But as soon as I drove into old Harwich, through Dovercourt with its beautiful Victoriana, I was sold. Everywhere I looked there was Tudor and Georgian facades.
“My place used to be an old pub and as soon as I walked into what would have been the saloon bar I realised that I had found what I was looking for.
“I also love the fact that Harwich is a real place. It’s not Twee-on-Sea. It’s very much a working class harbour town and it has a real sense of community.”
He said that he has been given hand-written documents relating to the pub dated three months after the American declaration of independence and said that it gave his home and the town a tangible sense of history.
For the moment he is just enjoying playing the bad guy in an enjoyable but challenging show. He said at present he has nothing planned for when Jack and the Beanstalk ends in February but is not worried as something usually turns up.
“I have started doing a one man show. I am not particularly bothered about rushing back to the West End. I spent three years in Les Mis and it’s fully focused for eight shows a week and it is exhausting. You can’t be thinking about redecorating the bathroom. You have to concentrate on the show and on your part.”
He said that he would enjoy some time getting the house together and getting to know the area.
n Jack and the Beanstalk runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, until February 5.