He is well known for his role as Nicely Nicely Johnson in the National's revival of Guys and Dolls,
for which he won the 1997 Olivier for Best Supporting Performance in a
Musical. He has also appeared in plays such as Money, Measure for Measure, Trackers and most recently The Ladykillers. He has also become a Hackney institution during his eight years at the Hackney Empire in panto.
Rowe recently finished Kiss Me Kate at the Chichester Festival theatre and will be resuming the same show at the Old Vic in London next month. He is performing a cabaret show, titled Rose's Front Stalls Bar, at the Crazy Coqs at Brasserie Zedel in London from 15-20 October 2012.
Clive Rowe & David Burt in Kiss Me Kate
I started working at the Adelphi Theatre in 1985, and there was a barmaid who worked at the front stalls bar at the Adelphi called Rosie and she kind of took me under her wing. Before the interval she would get me to sing unaccompanied at the bar - I would sing things like “The Way We Were”, “Moon River” and “When I Fall In Love” by Nat King Cole. I would sing one song before they went into the theatre to see the show. So what I’ve done is I’ve commemorated the show to Rosie and I’ve set it kind of in the bar – to get the atmosphere of me at that age. It’s kind of a journey but it’s through my songs rather than my life. The first part is your traditional Gershwin and Cole Porter type of songs and the second part is my theatre songs; rather than being all jazz or all theatre it’s a mixture of the two. It’s quite a mellow evening.
What made you want to do a cabaret show?
It’s been a long time since I’ve done one and everyone’s always saying I should do another cabaret so I put one together earlier this year. I did a night at the Landor Theatre, and then I did a night at the Delfont Room, which seemed to go quite well. And I’m also hopefully going to be doing the Hippodrome later in the year, but they’re all ifs and maybes. I love singing; cabaret can be a bit daunting but I love singing and people seem to enjoy me doing it as well.
Do you have a preference between solo shows and being part of a big company?
I love being in a big company of actors. What you’re putting forward is yourself with cabaret, whereas with a show you can kind of hide yourself. I will always prefer doing the big musicals like Guys and Dolls and Kiss Me Kate. But with cabaret there’s something very poignant and something very attached to you as a person so as much as it’s scary, there’s also a feeling of letting people in. It’s about me going ‘this Cole Porter song has a direct effect on me’. If they want to know dates they can go and look them up, but this is about the stories behind the songs.
Do you have a favourite song that you sing?
I do. "Moon River" is the longest song I’ve been singing in cabaret, and "Secret Love" has always been one of my all-time favourite songs. I call myself a balladeer. I like to sit back and get mellow. I want people to listen but I also want them to relax. I would have liked to be around the time of Ella and Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. That’s the era I would have felt most at ease.
Do you have a career highlight?
Company; Guys and Dolls; The Ladykillers. I’ve been blessed. I’m not a religious person but the universe has given me an awful lot in my short time on this earth for what I do and what I love doing. I’m not proud because they were hits, but because of the friends I made doing them. With Company it was lovely to work with Sam Mendes who directed it but also getting to meet Sondheim. We did a rehearsal before the show and he came up to me and went ‘you’ve got chops’. Or I could say Guys and Dolls which again was a fantastic company experience. I got an Olivier for that which was fantastic. Working with Richard Eyre and Joanna Riding who I worked with in Carousel was again fantastic, and Nick Hytner directed it. So there’s many. It would be easy to say the things I’m not proud of but I wouldn’t.
You said you love singing and musical theatre but you’ve done a lot of TV as well – what would you say is your favourite?
I love the immediacy of theatre. I love the fact that the audience is out there and they let you know right away if it’s good, bad or indifferent. I find TV very difficult because of that, unless you’re filming in front of a live audience which has a different feel to it. But even then you’re stopping and starting and chopping and changing. I just love that thing of being out in front of an auditorium of people who have an immediate visceral response to what you’re doing.
Are you looking forward to bringing Kiss Me Kate back to the Old Vic?
Yes, I haven’t played at the Old Vic for over 20 years now. I did Carmen Jones there, directed by Simon Callow many years ago. Since then I have done one 24 hour plays there but I haven’t actually performed a proper show there in that time. So yes I’m really looking forward to going back there. I think Sally Greene is a lovely, lovely woman and I can’t wait to be back in her building. I enjoy Kiss Me Kate and I think people like what I do in it, and I’m really looking forward to it.
In Kiss Me Kate you’re playing one of the gangsters with David Burt who you were in The Fantasticks with; are you enjoying being reunited?
I love working with David. He’s inspirational in that he comes into the room with so much and he’s so open to discussion. We know of actors that have been in this biz for a long time who are not so open to change. We feel like we created the gangsters together; it’s still moving. You don’t have to completely change everything but if you’re looking to improve and sharpen what’s happening within a scene and on it should always be ready to evolve.
You’ve done panto at the Hackney Empire eight times. Have you got any plans to go back?
Never say never. Who knows what’s going to happen in the future? Hackney is a place I love and panto is something I’ll always love. But I don’t want to go back to Cinderella; I don’t like playing The Ugly Sisters. I loved playing opposite the brilliant Tony Whittle, but I don’t enjoy the show. And this year I had an operation on my knee, and have to be careful because you average 11 shows a week – with the amount of dancing in panto, I couldn’t justify putting myself through that. I doubt very much that my pantomime time is over – I just don’t know when it will be returned to.
I’ve been asked to do a pre-pilot pilot for a new TV show called Aunties. I’m also doing some workshops for a show called The Light Princess that is scheduled to be at the National next year. If The Light Princess comes off it will run most of next summer. It will start probably June or July. I need a couple of months after Kiss Me Kate but I haven’t made any decisions yet. I’m hoping Kiss Me Kate might transfer into town. But if The Light Princess comes off I will be doing it. It’s being directed by Marianne Elliott, and the music is by Tori Amos. And I’d like to do my cabaret again, maybe at the Hippodrome.
- Clive Rowe was talking to Rosie Bannister
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