Five minutes with... Brian Conley & Les Dennis

Date Posted: 30/06/2010

Hairspray stars, Brian Conley and Les Dennis, speak to Rebekah Tailor about the current UK tour of this smash-hit musical.

What’s it like working with alternating co-stars at each venue?
Les: Well for the first nine weeks of Hairspray I was married to Michael Ball, then we got divorced and I married Brian Conley. When I was rehearsing with Brian it was like I was having an affair! It’s great because it keeps the play alive for you. Working with them has been a joy – it’s different but it’s always an interesting dynamic because they’re great actors.

Brian: The only time I really change is at Leeds with Nigel Planer, and I worked with him when I joined the West End show. I’ve enjoyed working with Micky Dolenz from The Monkees (that was a great honour because I was a huge fan), and me and Les have worked briefly together in the past, doing a summer season many moons ago. It’s nice doing it alongside different people because it keeps it fresh.

Do you feel more or less pressure sharing the role with two other actors?
Les: I share my role with Nigel Planer and Micky Dolenz but I haven’t seen either of them in the role and I think it’s best to do that because otherwise you might be influenced by what they do. You always try to invest what you do in a role, and bring something new to it. I’d seen Hairspray, the movie, with Christopher Walker once before I knew I’d be playing Wilbur and I decided then not to look at it again because I didn’t want to think, “it’s got to be played that way.”

Brian: Well obviously I’m sharing the role with Michael Ball and Michael Starke, and it’s great for us. There’s not really any pressure, you enjoy it more dipping in and out. Having a couple of weeks on, a couple off has worked out really well for me as I’ve got two young girls and I’ve virtually got the summer off so we can go away and enjoy that.

Are there any venues you’re particularly looking forward to visiting?
Les: I’m looking forward to visiting Milton Keynes because it means I can commute - I live in north London so it’s easy to get up and down. I love Milton Keynes because I came originally with Kiss Me Kate, and then a couple of years ago with Eurobeat, Almost Eurovision, so it’s a lovely theatre to work. And I’m looking forward to Liverpool of course as it’s my home city.

Brian: Yes, definitely Milton Keynes as I can commute and stay at home rather than in a hotel. Plymouth, because I’ve been there before and the Birmingham Hippodrome, because that’s a lovely theatre. The last time I was in Milton Keynes was when I went to see Robbie (Williams) at the Bowl. I was hoping we could play there and then we’d only have to do one show – get 85,000 people into watch it (laughs).

Why do you think the show holds so much appeal to audiences of all ages?
Brian: It tells a wonderful story about accepting people for who they are, with a lovely nod towards racialism in the early 60s. Young kids can get an angle on it and the audience is aware of it, but the show doesn’t get bogged down by it. Most importantly, what do you want from a great musical? Great songs. There’s not one moment where you think, oh there has to be a good one coming up in a minute - every song just takes you somewhere.

Les: I think the songs push the show and the story forward. They’re never sung just for the sake of it. They’re part of the process and the journey taken by the audience. It’s also a feel-good musical, it takes you away from any troubles or worries you might have for two hours and sends you out on a high - it sends us out on a high!

Brian, you played the role of Edna in the West End show. Does this touring production differ in any way?
Brian: No not at all, and they’ve not skimmed one iota. Everything is the same, they haven’t thought, oh now we’ve finished in London, let’s downsize this or downsize that. I actually think that the sound is better, the band is fantastic.

And how has it compared performing the same role on tour as in the West End?
Brian: Better! There have been bigger laughs and people know the show more. It sits better in the theatre than on film. It was written as a musical with a beginning, an interval, and an end. There’s a lot they miss in the film, so if you like it, you will like the stage production much better.

What’s your favourite routine or musical number from Hairspray?
Les: In the second act, Edna and Wilbur sing a song called You’re Timeless To Me, which is almost old-fashioned Vaudeville. It really goes back to that era and it brings the house down so I love doing that. The most moving one for me is I Know Where I’ve Been in the second act, and it’s about the struggle of the minority of the black population in the days when there was still segregation.

Brian: It’s got to be You’re Timeless To Me, the one I do with Les – singing about our love for one another! Also, Welcome to the 60s, which is my transformation – I start off quite dowdy then I have about 20 seconds to change into this glamorous female.

You’ve both done television, film and theatre. Is there one you prefer?
Les: I love all of them! I loved the fact that I went from the tour at Wolverhampton to hosting a children’s game-show, and I had to go into a different mode entirely. I love that I’m not doing the same thing day in, day out. In Hairspray obviously you’re doing exactly the same show every night, but every audience is different so it always feels varied.

Brian: Well I love working live. I do love the immediacy of television, sadly though I can’t ballroom dance, I can’t cook, and I hate the Jungle so that’s my TV career down the pan! I must say, I’m where I want to be and I’m doing things that I want to do. You can’t beat live theatre - the immediacy and the danger of it all. There’s a rawness about appearing live that I enjoy.

Any mishaps so far on tour?
Brian: We’ve had moments! Wilbur didn’t turn up on cue for about a minute and a half so we had to kill time. That was fun. Its keeps you on your toes, and that’s what makes it live - that’s what makes it fun. You do play off the audience as well - if they’re good, you’re good. There’s not one night we haven’t had a standing ovation.

Could you single out one career highlight
Brian: I would say it was when I did Jolson. Up until then I was in a box as a young zany comedian, and then it won an Olivier and that was the turning point. You know, where everyone went: “Oh, there’s a bit more to him.” That for me was a highlight.

Les: There’s been so many things I’ve loved doing, but the highlight is being taken seriously in the last few years. To not just be seen as a gameshow host, which is just one of the things I do. I’ve been seen seriously as an actor in musical theatre, and the shift for me has been through more than one particular job – although Extras was probably responsible for that, so I have to look back at it and think that that was a highlight.

What do you have planned after the current tour of Hairspray finishes?
Brian: In conjunction with this I’m doing The Best of Brian Conley - my own tour. I did the tour last year and it went really well so we’re doing a bit more. It’s going all over the place, two weeks in September, two weeks in November. I’m also doing panto so the year’s all mapped out.

Les: Well Hairspray goes on until at least April next year, but I leave in November to go and do panto in Liverpool - my hometown - which I’m looking forward to. It will be my third year and when I went up there to promote Hairspray they said I should have my own resident dressing room!

And finally, why should people come and see Hairspray on tour?
Les: Come and see Hairspray because you will be uplifted, thought-provoked, entertained, and you will go away singing the songs.

Brian: You will come out embracing life! It will take you to another place, it’s just such a feel good show.

Hairspray is currently touring the following venues until spring 2011:

•Liverpool Empire Theatre
17th August to 4th September
•Sunderland Empire
7th to 18th September
•Milton Keynes Theatre
21st September to 9th October
•Birmingham Hippodrome
25th October to 6th November
•Bradford Alhambra
30th November to 11th December
•Edinburgh Playhouse
14th December to 9th Janaury
•Woking new Victoria Theatre
18th to 29th January
•Norwich Theatre Royal
1st to 12th February
•Nottingham Theatre Royal
1st to 12th March
•New Wimbledon Theatre
15th to 26th March
•Bristol Hippodrome
12th to 30th April

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