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Brian Conley on Norwich and picking a pocket or two in Oliver!

PUBLISHED: 09:05 05 July 2012

New line-up at the Thearte Royal. Pictured: Oliver! - Brian Conley as Fagin

New line-up at the Thearte Royal. Pictured: Oliver! - Brian Conley as Fagin

Seamus Ryan

He brings light to a shady role as the leader of an army of junior pickpockets and is looking forward to bringing a world-class show to Norwich. STACIA BRIGGS met Brian Conley to talk about Fagin, goatskin coats and skim-reading Dickens.

At stage school, Brian Conley’s teacher explained that she wouldn’t put him forward to audition as one of Fagin’s junior pickpocket crew on the basis that he was somewhat portly.

“You can’t have a fat kid singing Food Glorious Food,” she told him, little knowing that in years to come, Conley would be heading the cast of the most lavish production of Oliver! to hit the stage.

Four weeks into the role as Fagin — by the time he arrives in Norwich Conley will have played the role for more than two months — he says it still feels “very new” and that he’s “still learning”.

“This role is mine until November 3 when I’ll be off to do panto in Birmingham again. It’s a part I’ve wanted to play for a long, long time, but this is the first time I’ve been free,” he said.

“It’s a massive, massive show. There are 108 of us on the tour and 57 of us on stage at one time: everything is bigger and better than other shows because that’s the way Cameron Mackintosh does things.

“The cast is fantastic and the kids are all great. They keep you on your toes – sometimes they’ll even give you bits of advice about acting if you’re lucky.

“I’m absolutely loving every minute of it and it’s a brilliant part to play. Somehow, you have to find the sympathetic side to a man who teaches children to pick-pocket for him and gives them gin. It’s not exactly a glamour-role…”

Brian’s first television job was as the late Kenny Everett’s warm-up man and his career has included stints as a stand-up comedian, roles in films and theatre, TV presenting and musical theatre.

He boasts an incredible CV, having starred as Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang! Bang! at the London Palladium, Al Jolson in the Olivier Award wining Jolson at the Victoria Palace Theatre, Bill Snibson in Me and My Girl at the Adelphi, Harold Hill in The Music Man and Edna Turnblad in the West End production of Hairspray.

Cameron Mackintosh’s lavish production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! recently completed a two-year run at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane where it opened to rave reviews, sell-out business and the biggest advance sales of all time for a West End Show.

In 2010, the musical celebrated its 50th birthday and Brian has recently taken over the role of Fagin from Neil Morrissey, who opened the tour.

On stage, Brian wears a bespoke £8,000 goatskin coat and stage make-up which takes more than an hour to apply and — if there is a matinee performance — must stay on for up to 12 hours a day.

“The coat is beautifully-made, but of course once we got our hands on it we had to ‘Fagin-ise’ it by completely trashing it. It feels like I’m wearing a giant goatskin chamois leather!

“Under the coat there’s big woolly shirts, two waistcoats and of course I’m wearing make-up, a bald wig and then another wig. Just in case I’m not quite hot enough, there are gloves, the beard and lots of dirt.

“Playing Fagin is the only job where you go to the toilet, wash your hands and then go and put some dirt on them again.”

Brian pauses and then, deadpan, adds: “Of course it takes a lot longer for me in make-up than it took for Neil Morrissey – he didn’t need to wear the bald wig.

“The bald wig stays on all day. There’s no popping out of the theatre for a sandwich for me, I have to stay here all day. The wig is tightly glued to my head and sometimes it springs a leak and sweat will pour into my eye. It’s a tough old life!”

When Brian won the part as Fagin, he read Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Well, kind of.

“I read from when Fagin appears in the book. I might manage the whole thing one day…” he admits.

“Fagin is a shrivelled-up redhead who contrives to get Bill Sikes to kill Nancy and goes mad in a prison cell before being hanged. This being a musical, it’s a lot less darker than that.

“What Fagin does is try to diffuse some of the terrible situations with comedy and he gets some great songs. If people feel sorry for him, it’s because he makes them laugh.

“I’m obviously a comic, so I can’t help but bring that to the role and I seem to get more and more Jewish as the nights go on. I’m a London lad, lived in Paddington close to where Oliver! was set and so I’m at an advantage because I’ve already got the accent.

“I actually went to Dickens’ house in Portsmouth on his 200th birthday and I’ve read a lot about how Lionel Bart came to write the musical. The more I play the part, the more I get to know Fagin.

“It’s only when you read Dickens that you realise how many of his lines have entered our popular culture. I just have to stop myself calling everyone ‘my dear’ all the time…”

Influenced by previous incumbents of the role such as Ron Moody, who was Fagin in the original London produc-tion of Oliver! and Alec Guinness in the 1948 film version, Brian is relishing playing Fagin which he describes as “a dream job”.

“Being involved in a production as huge and impressive as this is an honour. It is hard work and it can be difficult to be away from your family, but they’re great and make sacrifices so that I can do the job I love,” he said.

Brian and his family, wife Anne-Marie and daughters Amy, 15 and Lucy, 10, have rented a house in Norfolk for the duration of the five-week Oliver! run so they can explore the county.

“Quite often you go to a town or city for one night and don’t remember the place at all and then when I go back, all I remember is the dressing room,” he said.

“When you’re there for a while it gives you a chance to find out a bit more about where you are. I’m looking forward to visiting the Norfolk Broads and the beach. And I hear your mustard’s good!”

I speak to Brian on his daughter Amy’s birthday (“it’s all about money for clothes”) and during the interview his wife calls to let him know that Amy had pancakes for breakfast – presents will be opened later via a Skype phone call.

“The hardest thing about being on tour is being away from my family, but I see them at weekends and when they can, they join me wherever I am,” he said.

“Lucy is 10 and very much wants to follow me on to the stage. She was recently in an amateur production of The Sound of Music and she was great: I was so proud.

“I’d encourage her to do it. I’ve had a great time and I’m still having the time of my life. It’s a case of ‘please sir, can I have some more?’”

t Oliver!, Norwich Theatre Royal, July 3-August 4, first night £40-£6.50/Mon-Thurs £45-£6.50/Fri-Sat £47.50-£6.50, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

www.oliverthemusical.com

PLEASE SIR, A LITTLE MORE…

t The 1960 original production of Lionel Bart’s musical played for over three years at the London Palladium (1,366 performances), grossing £40 million at the box office. The 1963 Broadway production won Lionel Bart won Tony Award for Best Composer and Lyricist

t The 1968 film directed by Carol Reed won six Oscars including best picture, best director, best art direction, best achievement in sound, best musical score, best choreography. Ron Moody received an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe Award for his screen role as Fagin.

t Moody reprised his celebrated role in a 1984 revival of the stage musical and was nominated for a Tony Award for outstanding performance by an actor in a musical. And Robert Lindsay won an Olivier Award for his Fagin in a 1997 production.

t The recent Drury Lane production was nominated for three Olivier awards including Best Musical Revival and ran for 866 performances.

t Some 690 children from Inverness to the Isle of Wight appeared. For the 1998-99 UK tour the children rehearsed for four full weeks before their first performances, with two teams of approximately 18 children at each venue.

t Oliver! has played in 22 different languages including Basque, Bulgarian, Faroese, Hebrew, Hungarian, Japanese, Polish and Swedish.

t Other actors who have appeared as Fagin include Russ Abbott, Jim Dale, Roy Hudd, Barry Humphries, Jonathan Pryce, Rowan Atkinson, Omid Djalili, Griff Rhys Jones and Neil Morrissey.

t Young actors who have appeared as The Artful Dodger include Phil Collins, Davy Jones, Anthony Newley and Jack Wild, while Mark Lester and Dennis Waterman have both played Oliver.

t The name ‘Artful Dodger’ is variously translated. In Hungarian it is Pitkakynsi meaning light-fingered. In Swedish it is Raven meaning the sly and cunning fox. In Hebrew it is Ha’Chamkan which translates as Slippery Roger.

t In Food Glorious Food the boys dream of cold jelly and custard but in foreign translations of productions, some of the local delicacies boys dream of are a fresh fish (Finland), goulash soup and chestnut puree (Hungary), huge cakes and pork chops (Poland), meat pudding (Sweden), porkham (Japan).

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