The Green Room
As I have said before on these pages, there is a strong and ever growing link between acting and pop music. A lot of actors would, deep down, like to have been rock’n’roll stars and quite a few singers have been quite respectable actors. The 1973 film That’ll Be the Day and its 1974 sequel, Stardust, were two of the best and truest films about life in a successful pop group in the heady days of the 1960s and 70s. The films’ three main stars were all rock musicians but from different decades; David Essex, Adam Faith and Ringo Starr and all gave outstanding performances.
One of the band members in Stardust was Paul Nicholas who had tried, not very successfully in the 60s, to become a pop singer himself. With the advent of new musical shows in London such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Grease Paul found his true calling as a singer/actor enjoying great success throughout the 70s and 80s in stage musicals, films and BAFTA nominated TV sitcoms. Ironically, he eventually found success as a solo pop singer in 1976 with two top ten singles.
Although he is known for and, to a certain extent, specialises in musicals, he was at the Everyman in November in a very spooky ghost story, The Haunting.
We met up in his dressing room just before the show and I asked him how he got started. “I started out aged 17 as a rock’n’roll piano player for Screaming Lord Sutch - I was one of his Savages. Wearing a leopard skin for Sutch’s big Jack the Ripper number was the nearest I got to drama school. I used to play the victims and he used to stab me and pull out rubber hearts and lungs and things. What I liked about being with him is that it was more of an act than a normal band, it was very theatrical.
“In those days, if you hadn’t made it as a pop singer by the time you were twenty you’d had it. So I got a job with a music publisher, I would’ve been about 21, and I really hated it all by then. But at that point, luckily for me, Hair came along. I walked in off the street for the audition and got a part and very soon realised that’s what I enjoyed doing.”
Paul then went on to take the title role in Jesus Christ Superstar and the lead in many more big West End shows. He had finally found a niche in which he felt at home. “Singing for me was never really enough but with the acting and the dancing I felt this is what I could do and make a living at, and that’s what I’ve done ever since.” he explained.
“I would always be more interested in watching, say Singing in the Rain rather than an Elvis film. It was musicals that appealed to me. If you are a performer and are able to sing a bit, it’s good to have more that one string to your bow as work as an artist is always hard to come by. The downside of being versatile like that is that people don’t really know what you do and you’re not taken very seriously.”
Paul’s father, Oscar Beuselinck, a former MI6 agent, was a top show-biz lawyer who represented people such as John Osborne, The Rolling Stones, Richard Harris, Sean Connery, The Who and many more. I wondered if that was a help for the ambitious young Paul. “I was aware of what he did and I occasionally would meet his clients but it wasn’t really that significant for me.
“When Just Good Friends came along in 1983 I was thought of as a pop singer because I’d had two big hits a few years before. That was a comedy show so nobody thought of me for it. It was only that the show’s writer, John Sullivan, had seen me in a short TV play with Judy Cornwall that he overcame his prejudice and I got the part. Everyone is very compartmentalised and it’s very difficult to move from one compartment to another. Most of the performers I know can do much more than they’re allowed to. It’s a pity, but there you are.”
In spite of the great success of Just Good Friends, and other comedy or straight plays, Paul is mainly thought of as a musical star. He has appeared and played the lead in dozens of musical shows and films in the last forty years including Cats, Grease opposite Elaine Page, Charlie Girl opposite Hollywood star Cyd Charisse and the Ken Russell films Tommy and Lisztomania in which he played Richard Wagner. I asked him was there a difference for him between, musicals, comedy or straight plays. “I think it’s all the same really. It’s all theatre.”
The tour for The Haunting was short but will go out again in the New Year. Was Paul happy touring? He must have gotten used to it when he was a pop star. “I never toured with that. To be honest, I wasn’t that interested in it. What I was interested in was having a hit record, not in all the things that went with it like touring and performing. I enjoyed the process of making them and I enjoyed the promotion of them on television and seeing the thing go into the charts but I wasn’t interested in doing concerts or tours.” But surely he must have performed the songs on stage at some point? “No, never. The only time I ever sang them live was a couple of times on television; Top of the Pops or whatever.”
I backtracked a bit and asked Paul about his early career choices about whether he’d wanted to be a great actor or sing or whatever. Looking back would he rather have been Mick Jagger or Laurence Olivier? “Neither, I would like to have been Gene Kelly. In fact I played the lead in Singing in the Rain which was directed by Tommy Steele. He did the London version at the Palladium and I did a big touring version.”
Paul is now doing something different again. For the past few years he has had his own production company specialising in musicals. His greatest success is the current West End production of Grease which first opened in 1993. Incidentally, the show is directed by David Gilmore who comes from Cheltenham and worked at the Everyman right at the start of his career. Paul’s company has also produced Jesus Christ Superstar, Pirates of Penzance, Evita, Chess and many, many other great shows. Just when most people of his age are thinking of retiring and enjoying the free bus pass, Paul seems to be busier than ever.
What you've seen and what you've missed
SPEND, SPEND, SPEND
As a general rule, anything that comes from the Watermill Theatre, the West Berkshire Playhouse, is going to be good. In spite of being one of the smallest producing houses in England, it always manages to be innovative and original and Spend, Spend, Spend, which was at the Everyman at the end of October, was no exception.
The story concerned Viv Nicholson who, in 1961 with her husband Keith, won a record £152,000 on the pools.
This may not sound much by today’s Lottery Roll-Over and Euro Millions standards but was the equivalent of a worthwhile £5m in current terms.
The show traced the rise of the desperately poor Castleford couple as they spent their way through pink Cadillac’s, Leopard skin coats and open tabs at the local until his death and her ultimate bankruptcy. A salutary lesson for us all.
The whole production, directed and choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood, was fast paced and tight. The cast, as is the fashion in many of today’s musicals, was also the orchestra so you had a brutal father carrying a tuba under his arm and one of Viv’s lovers playing the bass in bed. This is a convention that takes some getting used to for the audience. Chess, which also employed this technique, is a very stylised piece unlike Spend which has a Coronation Street type setting.
The young Viv – an older Viv narrated the story – played by Kirsty Hoiles was outstanding and thoroughly convincing. In fact she won the TMA Award for Best Supporting Actress after the show opened in July last year. This was a really good show and if it comes round again be sure you get your tickets in time.
RUM & COCA-COLA
The play was not altogether successful. On paper it had all the right ingredients, its credits looking like a Who’s Who of West Indian performing arts. Most of the components worked well; the acting was good, the setting and lighting were good and the music was good. The problem was, it wasn’t much of a play. I don’t mean in quality, I mean in quantity. There just wasn’t enough to hold the main house for an hour and a half. It was just too small, too insubstantial and would have been much better if presented as a one acter in the more intimate space of the Studio Theatre.
That said, the performances by Shango Baku and Okezie Morro as the beach-bum, wannabe calypso kings were well judged and sympathetic. The mood created by Anthony Lamble’s evocative set along with the atmospheric lighting and sound effects would almost have you believing you were lounging on a Caribbean beach sipping pina colada from a coconut shell. The only danger was, that if you closed your eyes you’d probably fall asleep.
One show that was certainly very much at home in the Studio was Missy Malone’s Burlesque Revue which played there at the end of October. This was a return visit after the show’s sell out success last February, but this time had a Halloween theme.
I quite liked it but I think it rather fell between two stools. It wasn’t really bump and grind sexy and it wasn’t really glamorous. Missy Malone herself looked good and her two spots were the best, though not the biggest, things in the show.
The problem is that the novelty of seeing semi-naked ladies wears off fairly quickly - especially if you’ve already seen them once that evening - and you need a bit more. The show was missing something and I was expecting/hoping for more variety. Yes, there was a fire eater, but some other specialty acts would have been good. The compere, Desmond O’Conner, although his songs were clever and entertaining, was not all together strong or funny enough to really hold the show together. Had he been able to get the audience going, it would have made all the difference.