|Kevin Colson as Joey Bishop|
20 Questions With...Kevin Colson
Date: 15 September 2003
Australian actor Kevin Colson, who plays Joey Bishop in Rat Pack Confidential which reopens the West End's Whitehall Theatre this week, reveals why Noel Coward is better than the Queen & the truth about Dame Judi's admirers in the wings.
Having established a successful career in TV and theatre in his native Australia, in 1965, Kevin Colson came to London where he took the title role of Robert Browning in Robert and Elizabeth. He followed this with another West End production - Cabaret, opposite Judi Dench.
Colson's film credits include Khartoum, Star, Nightwatch and Trapped in Space. On the small screen, he's appeared in Man at the Top, Spytrap, First Among Equals, The Woman He Loved, Poor Little Rich Girl, Executive Stress and Crossroads.
His vast theatre experience takes in plays such as The Glass Menagerie, Charley's Aunt, Hamlet, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? After the Fall, The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Sleuth, The Destiny of Me and Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell.
In musical theatre, Colson has originated roles in the world premiere productions of Queenie, Two Cities, Chess, Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard, Children of Eden, Bronte, Jekyll and Maddie, as well as the European premiere of Follies. More recently, he played Daddy Warbucks in Annie in the West End and on tour. And in April 2003, he performed in the workshop production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical The Woman in White at the Sydmonton Festival.
Colson plays Joey Bishop in Rat Pack Confidential, Paul Sirett's stage adaptation of Shawn Levy's group biography of Bishop and fellow Rat Packers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr and Peter Lawford. The production, originally seen at Nottingham Playhouse, transfers this week to the West End, where it reopens the Whitehall Theatre.
Date & place of birth
Born 28 August 1937 in Sydney, Australia.
Lives now in...
I don't live anywhere, I'm homeless! I sold my place in Australia and I gave my main house in Fulham to my wife, who is no longer my wife but she's still my best friend. I'm looking for a new place, so at the moment I'm looking after a friend's mansion in Islington near where Tony Blair used to live, which is very nice.
I have never trained. I left school determined to be a radio announcer, but TV was starting and I managed to get a job presenting a religious programme on Sunday afternoons. I was then asked to be the station presentation announcer. A few years later, I was given the juvenile lead in a play, The Pleasure of His Company, which was transferring from Broadway to Australia. It's now 43 years later, and they haven't sussed me yet.
How did you come to be live in the UK?
I actually came to England to train, but within two days, I had been offered the chance to take over the lead in a West End musical. You see, I knew several actors in the production who invited me to a cast party. I met the right people and was offered an audition the next day, so my friend June Bronhill - who was playing the female lead - came along and sang with me and I got the part. It was in Robert and Elizabeth, and I played Robert Browning for a year and a half at the Lyric.
First big break
I think actually being asked to work as a presenter on the Seven Network in Australia. That got me a name, so when I got into doing theatre, they were more likely to employ me because I had a name in TV. It's like the soap stars who come over here to act, like Jason Donovan. Actually, my niece has just come to London and signed with Robbie Williams' management, and she's going to be great. Her name is Sia and she writes all her own songs.
Every day is a highlight, it really is. So many moments... coming over here and doing Robert and Elizabeth and then doing Cabaret with Judi Dench, it was all very exciting. But the most exciting was when I went to America. I wanted to train at the Actors' Studio, but I had no work permit; I could work in UK so I came here instead. But when I did Aspects of Love, I got to go to Broadway with it. I was very confident because I'd already done it for a year in London. Then, to appear on Broadway, starring in a musical ... that was a big high. I used to just float up the 31 floors to my apartment, which overlooked the Hudson and had the Lincoln centre at its base - didn't need the lift!
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was enthralling, and the writing was musical. It was so easy to learn, it just came out like music. And then Aspects because I got to do it in Australia after Broadway, and it was the first time I worked in my home town of Sydney for 28 years and suddenly I had old school friends watching. Everybody came, so that was a favourite because of all those things it brought me.
Judi Dench, a lovely person. She wasn't married when I met her, and she had a gaggle of admirers she'd be trying to get rid of. They'd wait in the wings - some of them quite famous - handing her notes on stage! Sometimes she'd exit into the same wing as me when normally she went off the other side. I'd look at her questioningly, and she'd whisper, "Have you seen who is waiting for me in the other wing?". We've stayed in touch. Also the actress who played Rose to my George in Aspects of Love when we did it in Australia, her name was Delia Hannah. I've also got to mention all the kids in Annie over the two years I was in it. I was astonished at their talent.
I did a production of Sail Away in Australia and Noel Coward came to oversee rehearsals. He was introduced to everyone, rather like the Queen (but much nicer - when I met her she just mumbled a few words and carried on down the line). Coward was such a joy. He used to sneak into my dressing room to escape the old ladies who followed him round. His insight was incredible. In a flash, he saw things and understood how to give an actor simple and effective notes. Fast-forward three years. I was on the boat coming from Australia and I hadn't seen Noel since. After five weeks on a ship, I visited the Riviera and, when I got to Cannes, I decided to stay and check out the film festival. Well, I was on the beach with some other Aussies who told me Coward was at the festival and staying at the Carlton, and they dared me to give him a call. I did, and the next thing I knew, I was sitting on a balcony at the Carlton with the likes of Rex Harrison, Rachel Roberts, Otto Preminger, Hugh O'Brien, Noel and other great gods of theatre and film. It was incredible. After I rekindled my friendship with Noel, he came and saw everything I did, and he was always bringing glamorous companions like Marlene Dietrich.
Edward Albee, because of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Coward - and Shakespeare's got to come in there, too.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I've no hankerings, I just want to keep working. If I stop, I might fossilise. Between 1970 and 1985, I was out of the theatre - I ran an oil business and a TV production company, both of which failed - so there were a few roles I missed out on in that period like Peron in Evita. I think I could have done that.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
There was a black American actor who came to star in Ragtime recently at the Piccadilly theatre. Kevyn Morrow was his name, and I found him electrifying. He sang, danced and acted wonderfully, and I thought he was magical, although I've never met him. I was sad to see that production go.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I am absolutely apolitical, but if I had the opportunity, I think I would like to swap places with Tony Blair and sort out a few problems in this country that I think have very simple solutions.
I tend to read books of plays. I just did Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell and obviously Rat Pack Confidential. Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White is very good, too. I recently performed a workshop for Lloyd Webber's musical version at his Sydmonton Festival. It was a wonderful cast they got together for that and I really enjoyed it. I'm also planning to read Collins' The Moonstone. When I was younger I was mad about Ayn Rand's books, like The Fountainhead. She writes very big, long books which talk about the importance of objectivity, and they gave me a sense of having a goal and trying to achieve it.
Favourite holiday destination
Australia - as I'm in England. Also, the Greek islands and Barbados. I'm a sunshine person, I don't go skiing. I love Mykonos. I used to go there when it was just a little fishing village. Now it's one permanent party.
If you hadn't been an actor, what would you have done professionally
I've no idea. I think I'd be a bit useless. My father and brothers were all taxi drivers so probably that.
Why did you want to accept your part in Rat Pack Confidential?
The idea amused and enthralled me because, although I'm playing Joey Bishop, I'm wrong casting for the part. He's a small, dark, wiry New York Jew, and I'm a tall, bald Aussie - but I'm playing him when he was nearly 80 so I get away with it.
I was offered a part in a fringe production of a Stoppard play, which was going to the United Arab Emirates at the same time as Rat Pack Confidential was happening. I did this instead because there was the opportunity to come into the West End, and the boys in it are extraordinary. I just tell the story you see, and I don't have to sing very much.
Were you a fan of the Rat Pack?
Yes, a great fan of them. I've been to Frank Sinatra concerts in Australia and at the Royal Albert Hall and met Sammy Davis when he was doing cabaret at the Playboy club in the late sixties. I'm also a big fan of Dean Martin. I adore that era and that music - I could play it forever!
How do you feel having another Rat Pack-based show in the West End at the same time?
I think it's very confusing for audiences and brave for our producers to go in, but ours is a very different show. The other (The Rat Pack, now playing at the Strand Theatre) is the show the boys did in 1960 at the Sands in Las Vegas, whereas Rat Pack Confidential is an in-depth study of their lives, and not only includes all of their great music, but also exposes, warts and all, some of the more embarrassing and sordid moments of their lives. Dean's addiction to drink and drugs, Frank's involvement with the mafia and women, it's all exposed in the piece. There's a great deal of humour and tragedy as well. I don't really call it a play or musical - it's a docu-musical. We've had a wonderful response, with people dressed up in feather boas and everything, so it could easily become a cult thing. Audiences will certainly get a lot more than they bargained for - it's all in Shawn Levy's book, we just bring that to life.
What's your favourite song from Rat Pack Confidential?
"I Did It My Way" - which is the story of my life.
What are your plans for the future?
Playing in the West End, that's it for the moment. I want to find a new flat, go and visit family in Australia, find some work there, and hopefully be involved in Trevor Nunn's production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Woman in White in 2004. I believe Les Miserables is to vacate the Palace theatre for it by moving into the Prince of Wales.
- Kevin Colson was speaking to Hannah Kennedy
Rat Pack Confidential opens at the Whitehall Theatre on 18 September 2003 (previews from 16 September 2003). It's currently booking until 6 December 2003.