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Alistair McGowan On... His Musical Makeover

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Actor and impressionist Alistair McGowan, best known for his BBC show Big Impression, took over last week from Julian Clary in the role of the Emcee in Rufus Norris’ production of Cabaret at the Lyric Theatre. It marks the latest in a growing list of musical theatre productions for McGowan, who earlier this year was nominated for an Olivier award for his role in Little Shop of Horrors.

From the age of about ten, I used to go on trips from my home town of Evesham in Worcestershire with my mother’s amateur theatrical group to see whatever was going; Cats, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, and I just sort of fell in love with the whole thing. Then I went off to university and got more interested in acting and drama itself but not musicals as at that age musicals seemed a little bit shallow - I was a student and I wanted to do revolutionary theatre to change the world!

It was when I started at drama school (Guildhall) that I realised that one of the things I really enjoyed was the sound of a band and just the magic of the musical. My teacher was very, very good and I always harboured ambitions of doing it but when I started doing stand-up I didn’t do anything musical for ten years. Then once I started doing the Big Impression show we put musical numbers in and one Christmas did a sketch called ‘Eastenders: the musical’ which was really just a shameless audition for a part in a musical!

I’d been very lucky as before I started the Big Impression, I had worked at the Nottingham Playhouse with an established director called Martin Duncan. Martin then went on to Chichester and all the time I was doing the Big Impression he was dangling things in front of me saying would you like to do this and that but it wasn’t quite right. However, when I felt we had taken the impressions as far as we could go he was in touch again and offered me a summer at Chichester. I did The Government Inspector and a new play called 5/11 and he also got me involved with lots of musical activities which in turn led to me being recommended for Merry Wives: the Musical at the RSC. I’d always wanted to do Shakespeare, I’d always wanted to do a musical and I’d always wanted to work at Stratford for the RSC so that was just an amazing job really – it ticked all the right boxes.

The Olivier award nomination (for Little Shop of Horrors) was a complete surprise, I still thought they were for other people really. I just couldn’t believe I was not being asked to present one, which is what normally happens – I’m just asked to turn up and do an impression and it felt like my decision to more or less turn my back on impressions was somehow vindicated. It’s nice because maybe people won’t think ‘he only got that part because he’s famous’ now, they might think 'he got that part because he's good on stage', which is what's happening with Cabaret - I don’t think it's because of my name, it’s because I can do the job.

The Emcee is really everything you could want in a part, there’s bits where you can be very mean with it, some bits can be very funny, very camp, very extrovert but also quite dark and moody. I’ve done a lot of research and I’ve learnt some German phrases to throw in because I want it to feel like he’s a German man who’s welcoming you to that set up and that period in Berlin.

I’d never say never to a return to TV impressionism, but at the moment I am so enjoying being involved in the theatre and being away from popular culture. To be involved in things which are classic and have things to say like Cabaret is a nice change, and it’s good to be part of that world. I’m really proud of the stuff I did with Ronni (Ancona) and I really enjoyed every second of it but as I say, to go back to that again would mean immersing myself in what Jordan and Peter Andre are doing and to be honest, I’d rather be studying the world of 1930s Berlin!

- Alistair McGowan was speaking to Theo Bosanquet

Cabaret is on at the Lyric Theatre, London, and is currently booking until January 2009.


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