Life's a drag, but Michael is having a ball

~ Scotland Herald - 27/04/10 by Brian Beacom ~

Michael Ball is now something of a British institution, a cosy Cliff-like figure who’s a box-office guarantee in musical theatre and the gentle voice of Radio 2 on Sunday mornings.

Soon, he’ll be fronting his own ITV Saturday evening show, confirming the popular view that the curly haired crooner has firmly captured the middle ground that is light entertainment. He’s not at all keen, as it happens, to have labels such as “housewives’ favourite” stuck to his 47-year-old forehead, but who can deny his twinset and pearls popularity?

To consign Ball solely to the middle ground is to do him a disservice. Yes, he may have played the original Caractacus Potts in the Chitty stage show, he may have once represented the UK at the Eurovision song contest in 1992 and he once co-starred with Petual Clark in Sunset Boulevard, but the performer does like to go to the edge.

Right now Ball is set to tour the UK in Hairspray, the theatre version of the film by John Waters. Ball plays an “agoraphobic fat mother”, Edna Turnblad, whose big-boned teenage daughter Tracy sets out to racially integrate a local TV dance programme on which she has starred.

Few actors like to fat up for a role. Even less are prepared to drag up. However, Ball, who first played Edna three years ago and won a major award for his role, loved the idea of becoming a big girl grotesque right from the start.

“I love dragging up,” he says, grinning. “You can really let yourself go, have a lot of fun. And I don’t get embarrassed at all. There’s something really liberating about putting on the gear – in a comedy sense – that frees you up to have a laugh.”

There are actors who’d rather die than drag up. Some of Stanley Baxter’s greatest comedy creations were females, but Stanley, for one, hated the idea of donning skirts and bras.

“I know some actors aren’t keen on the idea, but for me it’s always represented a great challenge,” says Ball. “You’re trying to play this outrageous character, and for the first few minutes the audience are thinking, ‘That’s Michael Ball in a dress.’ But after that, if you give the right performance, they will go with you. And it’s a fantastic feeling.”

He adds: “The part of Edna is perfect for a bloke. It just adds to the sense of madness and fun in the storyline.”

Ball, who once busked on the streets as a student, is right of course. He points out that simply because a bloke wears a 46EEE bra doesn’t mean he can automatically create a character that works.

“I loved the original film but I wasn’t too keen on the Travolta remake. It just didn’t work for me. Travolta wasn’t Edna.”

Michael Ball appreciates that in order to survive in showbiz you have to evolve. And while he knows he can excel on Saturday TV or gentle Radio 2, he knew he had to develop an edge and be seen to be able to take on challenging roles.

“I didn’t want to play an ageing juvenile forever,” he says. “And what I do know is that you have to take risks: be bold.”

Was he taking a chance in

agreeing to appear in Hairspray? “Perhaps, but what I’ve learned about the theatre is that nobody knows anything. No-one can predict what will make a hit show and what won’t. And you certainly can’t tell what will transfer from film to theatre. Just look at the example of Gone With The Wind.

“I’d never have thought it would fail. Yet, on the other hand Legally Blonde has been incredibly successful and it’s terrific. And The Producers was utterly brilliant. Yet, I had a really good feeling about Hairspray. The book is terrific, the songs are great.

“I’ve also known what it’s like to be in a theatre show that’s bombed. That was the case with The Woman In White when it transferred to New York, and I guess that’s because the audiences are different. I think what I’m saying is that it’s showbiz, you just don’t know what will happen.”

As a teenager, Michael Ball joined drama college with the intent on becoming a straight actor. However, after landing his first professional part in Godspell it was hard to deny the power of his voice. But he wasn’t all consumed with the notion of fame. Indeed, his first major success in Les Miserables threatened to consume him. He was stricken by panic attacks and at time couldn’t leave his house.

Years of experience, and a solidifying relationship with partner Cathy McGowan have strengthened his performance resolve.

“I love being busy,” he says. “I love the idea of so much going on, the new telly show or returning to Radio 2 soon.

“But I never thought I’d be doing a theatre show for so long. I never stay longer than a year but I was with Hairspray for over two years initially, and there was never a day when I thought, ‘Oh no, I’ve got to do it again tomorrow.’

“Now I’m producing the tour as well as doing a lot of the shows and I can’t wait to get back to Edna. I’ll be doing Edna for the rest of my life in one way or the other, I’m sure.”

Ball, in conversation, emerges as likeable, and not at all anodyne. While he may be regarded as the safest pair of hands in British musical theatre, that’s not an indicator of the man’s character.

He can be bold, outspoken, and controversial such as when he described West End musical fantasia Kismet, set in Baghad, as “embarrassing”.

In 2007 he appeared at the Proms, singing a collection of songs from musicals. The furore from classical musical purists could be heard on Broadway. “You’d swear,” said Ball, at the time, “I was responsible for global warming.”

In Hairspray, however, Ball, who has performed Radiohead songs on stage, is all about unconditional love. “That’s what Edna is all about,” he says, smiling. “And fun. And don’t think for a second this is a nice, safe musical. It’s very family friendly but it’s still leftfield and really clever and brilliantly realised onstage.”

And part of that brilliant realisation is down to Ball himself.

“Well, I don’t know about that,” he says, modestly. “But I do know I have lots of fun.”

Hairspray, tomorrow until May 8, Clyde Auditorium.

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