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Jason Manford on ... Playing Pirelli in Sweeney Todd

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Comedian Jason Manford takes over as 'Italian' barber Adolfo Pirelli in the Whatsonstage.com Award-winning revival of Sweeney Todd at the Adelphi Theatre tonight (2 July 2012), starring alongside Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton until 27 July.

A stand-up comedian who will be known to fans of television shows including 8 out of 10 Cats and Odd One In, Manford's acting credits include appearing in Channel 4's Shamless. He is also one of the voices on BBC comedy sketch show Walk on the Wild Side.

Jason Manford: I’ve always wanted to be in a proper musical. I did some musicals when I was at university - I directed a few and was in a few - which gave me a taste for it. Then my stand-up took off and I forgot about it, or it certainly went on the backburner.

A couple of things got me back into it. I did some singing with Alfie Boe, who’s a friend of mine - I went on tour with him and did four or five dates. We did a couple of duets from Les Mis and other shows, which was great. Then ITV were doing a thing for Save the Children called Born to Shine which was about celebs picking up different skills, and mine was to opera sing. I had to sing Brindisi and I ended up winning the thing. Afterwards I thought ‘the phone’ll ring in the morning, the parts will be flooding in.’ But no calls came. Nothing, not a jot.

So again I just stopped thinking about it until I saw a round robin email from Spotlight saying they were casting for Pirelli for Sweeney Todd. Seeing as it was only for a few weeks in the summer I thought there was no harm putting my name in for an audition. When I turned up there were lots of proper opera singers doing their ‘me-me-mes’ and stretches in the corridor and I felt completely out of place. I did the audition and I could tell when I walked in they were thinking ‘what are you doing here?’. But it went alright, and they said “ok, why don’t you come back for another audition and see (director) Jonathan Kent and let him decide if you can do it.” And I was obviously delighted when he gave me the go ahead.

I wanted to do a ‘proper’ musical, not one that’s been running for ages where they just parachute in Dean Gaffney for a few weeks. No disrespect to those kind of shows, but I wanted to be cast on merit, not on the basis that I’m on TV. With Sweeney Todd it doesn’t matter that I’m in it, it will sell anyway because it’s got two national treasures in it and it’s a brilliant show.

Pirelli’s a tough role, and Robert Burt has set the bar very high. I sat next to Frank Skinner on opening night and he was laughing his head off after the Pirelli scene. He said “you’re going to do that?!”

I’ve been working very hard - I can’t tell you what I’ve spent on getting a private singing coach; they’ve been coming to the house four times a week and they’re not cheap! Financially I’m probably making a loss overall. I’ve sung the song about 200 times but even so there’s still moments where you turn up to rehearsal and you go ‘is that right? Is that the right note?’ I was also a bit concerned that my Italian accent sounded more like Borat at first, but it’s coming on now.

Jason Manford & Michael Ball in Sweeney Todd
On his eminent co-stars

I’ve known Michael for a few years and he’s such a lovely man and brilliant as Sweeney – you don’t even know it’s him. When I saw the posters I thought ‘they’ve done a bit of messing around on the computer there’, though they hadn’t at all. And his voice is completely different as well - it’s only with the odd note you go ‘oh there he is, there’s our Michael’.

And Imelda, oh my god, I’ve never seen a performance like it. It’s a masterclass. I mean, I count myself as being able to turn a funny phrase or turn something that’s not funny into something that’s humorous. But as Mrs Lovett she’s getting laughs out of lines that are not even jokes in the script - she’s phenomenal.

Of course there’s part of me that worries I’m having to slot in to a cast that have been working together for months, and I know that Robert Burt is very popular as well. So I’m very much the nervous new kid in the playground but everyone I’ve met so far has been lovely. I suppose in a way it’ll be nice for them to have some fresh blood around for a few weeks. I hope so anyway!

On tabloid notoriety

I texted Jimmy Carr the morning his tax story broke, I said ‘Jimmy, I know you’re upset, or a bit embarrassed, but remember that the people who hated you before still hate you and the people who liked you before still like you.’ It’s a difficult time, because you’re harder on yourself than anyone else will be. Of course there’s going to be the odd person who goes ‘I’m done with that guy’, but you have to try and get through it.

It’s harder with stand-up of course because people are going to heckle you - no-one’s going to do that during Sweeney Todd. The way I dealt with it was to put the onus on the audience. I’d say, “you’ve had all day to think of your heckles, whereas I’ve got to think of something immediately, so make it good.” That put quite a few people off, though others still had a go. And to be honest nobody ever said anything that I wasn’t expecting them to shout. I think Jimmy will have the same thing, but he’s a good gag writer and, like me, he hasn’t legally done anything wrong.

I did initially write some jokes about the scandal, mainly because it wasn’t really an upsetting issue at home – it was much more of a big deal in the media. But it got to a point where I realised that not everybody in the audience knew about the Twitter thing, and many of them had forgotten about it. So all I was doing was reminding them about it and it sort of became a self-fulfilling prophecy, so I got rid of it. But the annoying thing is that it’s always there. But everyone’s got something. It’s just whether it’s out there I suppose - all you can be is honest and apologise, and gently remind people that it’s none of their business.

- Jason Manford was speaking to Theo Bosanquet


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