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Brief Encounter With ... Omid Djalili

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Iranian stand-up and TV actor-comedian Omid Djalili makes his musical debut as Charles Dickens' legendary Jewish creation Fagin in Cameron Mackintosh's record-breaking West End production of Oliver! at the West End’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where he recently took over from his “comedy hero Rowan Atkinson.

Well known as a stand-up from his various tours and stints at the Edinburgh Fringe, Djalili wrote and starred in The Omid Djalili Show, the second series of which aired on BBC One earlier this year. He has also been seen on screen in the US sitcom Whoopi with Whoopi Goldberg and had substantial cameos in films including The Mummy, Gladiator and Pirates of the Caribbean III.

Were you surprised to be considered for the role of Fagin?
Absolutely. I was so surprised I didn’t even take it seriously! I’ve never done musical theatre, I’ve never thought about doing musical theatre, it’s never even been in my peripheral vision. The only person who has ever in my life told me that I’d be perfect for musical theatre is Cameron Mackintosh. He said, “you’re extremely different, it’s a little bit from left field and it would be a surprise, but I really think you can do it.” If someone like that has faith in you, you have to at least give it a shot.

So Cameron Mackintosh persuaded you to make your musical debut?
Cameron said “we want you ... but you have prove you can do it”. So I went along and presented “Reviewing the Situation” to him and this group of nine people. I was so bad, genuinely terrible, because I hadn’t learnt it. It was a very busy time for me, I was recording my TV show at the time, but they understood that. They were so supportive and extremely encouraging even though I was clearly awful. They must have just thought, “no, hang on, there’s something here”. They should have dismissed me immediately because I had shown such little understanding of the process, and the fact that I was supposed to nail it, but they didn’t. They gave me a few more weeks and let me come back to try and convince them again.

How did you prepare for the role after that?
I went into rehearsals as a completely open book and I let them play with me. The first question they asked me was, “what do you think about Fagin being...”, and I said “let me stop you there, I don’t think anything, I’m a black canvas so let’s just paint something together that’s completely new and fresh”. I think what we have is something that’s surprised them and even surprised me. I have, of course, been taking singing lessons. A woman named Claire Underwood has been training my voice. I still don’t think I can sing, but I’m better than I was!

In addition to your musical debut, Oliver! marks your West End debut – and the first time you’ve acted on stage in more than 15 years.
Yes - it’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life, and the biggest risk. During the technical rehearsals, we were doing the curtain call, when everyone sings “Consider Yourself” as a reprise, and I just stood there in my costume with everyone belting it out around me and thought, what the hell am I doing? The whole thing is ridiculous and completely out of my comfort zone, but I’ve just been swept up on a wave of kind of luvvie goodwill. That kind of goodwill is irresistible.

How do you feel following in Rowan Atkinson’s footsteps?
What you have to understand is that Rowan Atkinson is one of my comedy heroes. In my eyes, that man can do no wrong. He’s brilliant. So, yes, it’s intimidating coming after him. That’s another one of those “what the hell am I doing?” things. But I’ve been directed away from everything that Rowan did with Fagin. Almost every beat, every moment is different.

How familiar were you with Oliver! before this job?
Everyone’s seen the film. I was chilled to my bones by Oliver Reed’s performance as Bill Sikes, and I thought Ron Moody was untoppable as Fagin, magnificent. And I became a fan of Lionel Bart’s music. It’s like a British institution, isn’t it? I’ve since learnt a lot of things about Fagin I had no idea about. Like, I had no idea that he was Nancy’s pimp when she was younger and that Bill Sikes used to be his own little Artful Dodger. And I didn’t know that, in the book, he gets hanged. They were going to try and intimate that in this production, but they couldn’t make the lighting work, so I just walk off into the distance with Jewish pride.

Now that you’ve started your Oliver! contract, you clearly won’t be able to get to the Edinburgh Fringe this month. Do you miss it?
Not at all. It’s not as if Edinburgh is some kind of drug that I need to take. I only go up when I have something new to say. I hope that I will have something new to say in a few years’ time after this particular experience, but at the moment I’m very happy to be in the West End.

So you think Oliver! will provide you with some good stand-up material?
Yes, I think so. I mean, stand-ups often do stuff just to have something to talk about - David Baddiel would do a colonic, or Frank Skinner would do a parachute jump, for instance. What better than a West End musical? But I wouldn’t disrespect the process because I think it’s amazing. I never knew that musical theatre could be so much fun. I’m actually annoyed with myself that I closed that particular door off in my mind for so many years because I could have been doing this all along.

- Omid Djalili was speaking to Terri Paddock

Oliver! is running at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where Djalili started performances on 27 July 2009. The current cast also features Jodie Prenger (as Nancy) and Burn Gorman (Bill Sikes).


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