WhatsOnStage Logo

Brian Conley On … Stepping into Ball's Gown

WhatsOnStage logo
Brian Conley recently returned to the West End to take over from Michael Ball in the cross-dressing role of Edna Turnblad in the multi award-winning Broadway import Hairspray at the Shaftesbury Theatre.

Having found fame in TV variety, Conley’s stage career rocketed when he created the title role in the 1995 West End musical Jolson. Last summer, he starred in The Music Man at Chichester Festival Theatre, for which he won Best Performance in a Musical at the TMA Awards for regional theatre.

He's joined in the new cast by newcomer Chloe Hart and Liam Tamne, who took over from original stars Leanne Jones and Ben James Ellis as, respectively, Tracy Turnblad and heartthrob Link Larkin. Nigel Planer, who co-starred with Conley in TV comedy The Grimleys, continues as Wilbur.

I was absolutely delighted to be cast as Edna. I went to see Hairspray at Christmas with my two girls and we just loved it, though I didn't drive away thinking 'I'm going to do that one day'. But I had a phone call shortly after asking if I'd like to come along for a meeting, which of course is a posh way of saying “audition” - it's not a part you can just walk into because obviously it's quite a stretch playing an 18-stone woman from Baltimore!

I've enjoyed getting up to speed with the role. Michael was very good at it, and he was there for such a long time which I can understand because it's such a wonderful part. It's got lots of comedy in it which I absolutely love, and I've tried to take elements of Michael's performance but do my own thing with it. There are lots of lines which seem to work very well with my deep voice – it feels like it was written for someone with a deep growl.

Michael said to me “go home and walk around in your heels”, which was very good advice. I only normally do that on a Wednesday but doing it all week takes some getting used to. I've got a lot more sympathy for women who wear heels; my back's in agony! Mind you, I am carrying a lot of weight. I've got a huge fat suit on as well as big wigs and dresses. I can't say it's something I've done before, and I've also had to learn to iron – how pathetic at my age!

It's been great fun. Having to kiss Nigel (Planer) was hilarious, I never actually did it until the dress run. I worked with him on The Grimleys a couple of years ago, though we only had a few scenes together. He's a lovely, charming man, a proper actor. And it's great being there with Chloe Hart; it’s her first ever job, she’s just come out of drama school so I've sort of latched on to that enthusiasm. The same goes for Liam, who came from Wicked but is also very new to the business we know as show. It's a very young company, and you do get swept along by its high octane energy.

People say “Tracy Turnblad’s the lead and Edna’s the star”, but I think Chloe's really the star. She really hit the ground running; the first day of rehearsals she knew every line, and virtually knew all the dance steps by the second day. There's only one scene she's not in, whereas I'm just some bloke in a fat suit who wanders on occasionally. And no, it's not the same fat suit as Michael's – mine's slightly bigger. He'll kill me for saying that!

I've loved musical theatre since doing Me and My Girl back in 1991. I was born to sing but I learnt everything else. I love attention to detail, the full orchestra, the big company; it takes an audience somewhere special, which gives me a buzz like nothing else. Which is handy, because I can’t ballroom dance, I can’t cook and I hate the jungle, so looks a return to telly isn't exactly on the cards at the moment!

Hairspray is currently booking at the Shaftesbury Theatre until 28 March 2010. Phill Jupitus takes over as Edna from 26 October, ahead of the introduction of Sunday performances from 8 November.


Tagged in this Story