Tom Chambers On ... Tap dancing into Top HatDate: 16 April 2012
Tom Chambers' acting career started with the National Youth Music (NYMT) before progressing to Guildford School of Acting (GSA). He describes himself as having been unemployed for six years following graduation, taking bit parts in London Fringe productions of The Rover (Young Vic Studio), Journey's End (Courtyard) and Bloody Poetry (Brockley Jack).
Just as he was about to give up on acting, Chambers recreated Fred Astaire's solo tap routine from the 1937 film A Damsel in Distress which led bizarrely to him being cast as Sam Strachan in BBC1's Holby City, a role he played for three years.
Chambers stars in Matthew White and Bill Deamer's screen-to-stage adaptation of Irving Berlin's classic 1935 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie Top Hat having won the sixth series of the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing in 2008.
The show starts previews on Thursday (19 April 2012) ahead of an opening night on 9 May 2012 and is brought to the London stage 77 years after its original cinema release and includes numbers from the film such as "Cheek to Cheek" and "Top Hat" as well as other Berlin numbers selected by the creative team.
When I was at Guildford School of Acting I used to argue that the only reason I was there was because I was inspired Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Cary Grant. All my peers were into Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone and I felt like I had been born into the wrong generation. I'd always loved that era and the pure joy of watching tap dancing done well. There's such a liberating feeling when you're watching it. I always argued that it would come back into fashion.
My career is a very weird circle. When I left drama school I was unemployed for six years with only jobbing and bit parts in profit share shows.
My agent had fired me because I had turned down an audition for the Bob the Builder arena tour. I said I'd rather wait for a "proper" acting audition and my agent let me go because they couldn't afford to loose the commission.
I was about to throw in the towel when I thought, well I've always believed in this Fred Astaire malarky so I'm going to do it.
I went home, made a floor, put up mirrors, put on an old VHS tape on pause frame by frame and I had a lightbulb moment of how to get a new agent. I wanted to get on the Royal Variety Show and I thought it might be more modern with a drum kit rather than just the old fashioned tap dancing.
I spent nine months recreating the number from A Damsel in Distress where he's tap dancing and kicking the drums at the same time. I got it ready and then three weeks before I would have gone down to London for the final selection they phoned me and said not to bother because they had already filled the bill.
I'd done all that work! I went back to my old school and filmed it on their stage. I then sent out 1,000 copies - 600 to the UK and 400 to America - and I got two responses. One was from a man wanting to do "An Evening with Fred and Ginger", the other was an audition for Holby City.
They were looking for an American doctor for one episode. They thought that as Fred Astaire was American I must be too. Bizarrely enough I went into the audition and they decided that they would use me for another part. I got the Holby City gig and that was a three year contract as Sam.
The weird circle was that I did the tap dance, it got me Holby, and without that I wouldn't have gotten Strictly and without that I wouldn't have gotten Top Hat. I was doing the tap dance to try and get something like Top Hat in the first place.
Top Hat is a bit frightening because the show has never been done before - it's a world premiere and from a personal point of view Fred Astaire is such a demigod, an almost impossible dancer to replicate or try and live up to. Many, many hours have been spent going over the choreography and trying to get the speed, rhythm and body right.
Tom Chambers & Summer Strallen in Top Hat. Photo credit: Alastair Muir
It's very exciting because the challenge is so great but also quite daunting because we just want the audience to feel that they're witnessing something from that golden Hollywood era.
The plot is very simple: it's boy meets girl, a love story with confused identities and mis-timings. Dialogue is so important in musicals and ours is based on good strong characters.
I think we're all surprised how amusing people have found the story, the book, and the characters. It's a very witty script which has beens slightly tweaked and updated for a modern-day audience. The response has been incredible.
I read recently a dance professionals say that they think the likes of the dancing programmes like Strictly have increased the idea of getting up and dancing in the public consciousness. It has dispelled the idea that dancing is something you only do when you're drunk at a relation's wedding. When I was in the NYMT we performed Pendragon at the Lyric Hammersmith and Sadler's Wells but this is my first West End role. It's like stepping into the unknown. - scary and daunting but I was quite lucky in that I was able to have bit of a warm up with White Christmas at Sunderland Empire over Christmas 2010. That was getting back on the boards and getting comfortable again back on stage.
It's very different from working on TV. Having had the comfort of just a crew and the cameras it's really nerve-wracking. When you're on stage you are always exposed whereas on TV if you're make a mistake then they just cut the camera to another person and then come back to you.
Summer Strallen has got a real First Class quality. She just knows the theatre and the stage and what works in front of an audience so incredibly well. Her antenna for theatre work and performance is second to none, she's absolutely got it down to a tee.
She's been an absolutely invaluable help to me. She puts the icing on the cake. We've had quite a long journey together. To begin with it was quite difficult because I didn't know her and she didn't know me. I hadn't been used to the stage and we were all trying to understand where we were meant to be going with Top Hat and how it's meant to be presented to the audience. Where we are now we've really learnt a lot of new things together. It's fantastic.
Top Hat opens at the Aldwych Theatre on 9 May (previews from 19 April 2012) where it is initially booking until 26 January 2013.