Understudying Elaine Paige

~ Mark Shenton for The Stage - 19/06/2008 ~

We all need to step out of ourselves from time to time. And so it is that I came yesterday to be understudying no less than Elaine Paige in her occasional ‘Spotlight on….' series of West End and Broadway celebrity interviews at the Shaw Theatre. With Elaine unwell, I was asked to step in to hold the spotlight on Michael Ball; I'm not much of a follow-spot operator (though I did do it once in my student days at the Cambridge ADC, when the operator didn't show up on a show I was producing!), but the good thing about Michael is that - like all star performers - he knows how to find the glow of the spotlight and bask in it.

So although the audience may have been expecting both the leading man and woman of the West End musical stage to be in the same place at the same time, they got the leading man and me instead; but since that leading man was the ever bouncing Ball, I reckon they still got pretty good value.

I've interviewed him in private several times, and he's virtually unstoppable. Put him in front of an audience, though, and he can't help but playing to it, with a seemingly endless stream of anecdotes about a professional career that next year reaches its first quarter of a century.

No wonder his largely female fan base was out in force; but also, delightfully, were two younger groups, one from a stage school and the other from his former alma mater, the Guildford School of Acting (who gave a big cheer when he said he hadn't been a very good student!). Michael provides a wonderful role model to young actors everywhere - not just in how seriously he takes the responsibilities and disciplines of his craft, but also truly exemplifying it in sessions like this, where he shared what goes into it.

I've previously also hosted a Masterclass session with Victoria Wood as part of the Haymarket's series, and Wood was just as generous. It's inspiring to see, and as critics typically only witnesses the end result, it is fascinating to get a glimpse at the person behind the work. Of course, as someone who regularly also does profiles, I actually meet many actors, directors and writers; but the conditions are usually restricted, built around an in-built, implied contract between both parties: they're there to promote something and you're there to help them to do it. You spend thirty or forty minutes gathering quotes, but though you might hopefully establish something of a rapport, it's over before it begins.

The public interview, especially one conducted over a longer period as here, is different. Of course, the good news is that Michael and I have built up a strong degree of trust over the years that I've been interviewing him; and since he is the same age as me (or rather a month older, as I mischievously pointed out onstage yesterday), I've been following his career and seeing all his major performances since his early break-out role as the original Marius in Les Miserables , a year after he left drama school.

I therefore arrived at the Shaw with a “back” story of my own; and we were simply able to pick up where we've previously left off. The only problem was that Michael is always so fascinating about his own career that, although I had wanted to rewind over all the major landmarks of it, I only covered the first decade to reach 1995 and his starring role in Sondheim's Passion in the first 45 minutes before I realised I would need to throw it open to the audience for them to ask their questions.

And for 30 minutes more he fielded them with grace and passion - particularly when it came to reality TV casting, both castigating producer Cameron Mackintosh for being “graceless” about the public's choice of the Nancy winner in the recent Oliver! contest, and also for the failure of the producers of the most recent revivals to adequately refresh them before putting them back onstage. While, as he pointed out, every winner so far has in fact had professional training - thus underlining the importance of it - the shows have not necessarily been worthy of them. It was a novel and provocative point of view, and extremely well-made. The interesting thing about Michael, of course, is that he speaks from the inside; and with a weekly Radio 2 Sunday morning show, he has another public platform to do so from. It's great when someone with his well-earned authority can call his own profession to account.



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