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Past/Present/Future for … Nigel Planer

Nigel Planer rose to fame in the early 80s playing hippie Neil in BBC comedy series The Young Ones, and he was an original member of The Comic Strip, alongside the likes of Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson. His writing work includes I, An Actor, which introduced his alter-ego, the über-luvvie Nicholas Craig, and he has also made a successful transition to the musical theatre stage, appearing in the original West End productions of Chicago, We Will Rock You and Wicked. He recently took over from Ian Talbot as Wilbur in Hairspray at the Shaftesbury Theatre.

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PAST: I suppose I rather fell into musical theatre - I wouldn't say I'm a musical theatre fanatic, though it’s great fun and I enjoy doing it. In fact, my first job before I got into comedy was in a musical. I was in the ensemble of the original company of Evita, singing and dancing and understudying David Essex. That’s how I got my equity card, and in those days getting an equity card was something that was really hard to do. So I 'did my time' as it were, and have the greatest of sympathy, empathy I should say, with the dancers, singers, crew, with everybody working in a theatre building.

I don't think it's in any way surprising that my career's encompassed both comedy and musicals - there’s always been a very strong connection between comedians and music, going back to Flanagan and Allen, Morecambe and Wise doing their dance routines and Peter Sellers with his ukulele.

Playing the Wizard in Wicked wasn't a role that I initially thought was for me, so it was a real journey of discovery. I think in America they prefer to make him a rather nice, jovial chap with a slight weakness, but Stephen Schwartz encouraged me to bring out the darker side of him, which was great, because I don't get to do that very often with my characters. As with any long running show you go through periods of boredom, but it was perfectly survivable - I certainly wasn't screaming to leave. I think I finished at the right time, when I didn't think I could get anymore out of it.

PRESENT: When I went to see Hairspray for the first time I thought it was just brilliant - I defy anyone not to feel better having seen the show. I think the role of Wilbur must've been made in musical comedy heaven especially for me! Some roles that you get you think 'oh I can do that', but it’s not necessarily been custom-built, whereas with Wilbur they must've had me in mind when they wrote it, even before Jerry Stiller played it in the original film. I'm sure they were thinking 'this will be a good role for Nigel in 20 years time'.

I've usually been in original productions, where you get to organically create a character and gradually build up speed. But stepping into a role is very exhilarating, because you're literally just diving in and having to swim at the same pace as the others. There are advantages of creating a role for the first time of course, but there are also advantages to stepping in, because there's a few routines and bits of business that they've tried and tested before  and you just have to learn them. In that sense it's an easier gig mentally, as you're not constantly having to go back to the drawing board.

Working with Michael Ball is exciting and terrifying in equal measure. He's a very bold performer, and obviously because he and the rest of the company have been doing it for so long they know it inside out. But I've had the advantage of both Mel Smith and Ian Talbot's creativity before me, which is hugely helpful. I'm certainly not a big ego saying 'I don't want to do it their way' – if it's working, why change it?

FUTURE: I’m certainly interested to go and see what Rupert Goold has done with Oliver!, and what Rowan's doing with Fagin. I’d be very interested in that, because there aren't that many roles for people my age and type. The other role I crave is Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha - I've actually recently done a workshop for that. Largely because of the movie, many people see it as a sort of light entertainment, but in fact it's an amazingly strong drama, written by the guy who wrote the stage version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I think it's just the most brilliant musical, somewhat in the range of Sweeney Todd. There's not many roles of that quality – but then you just have to see what comes along.

Aside from that, we're planning more forays into the BBC with Nicholas Craig – after all, he’s been on and off the BBC for nearly 20 years now and I don’t think he’s going to go away in a hurry! They call on Nicholas when they’ve got a spot they don’t really know how to fill. We recently did a spoof culture interview with Mark Lawson on BBC4, which was great privilege and my favourite thing we've done with the character so far. So we'll see what else we can get on – the trouble with the BBC is that it's a very large beast that can be rather difficult to mount, so to speak.

- Nigel Planer was speaking to Theo Bosanquet

Hairspray, which also stars Michael Ball, Leanne Jones and Ben James-Ellis, is currently booking at the Shaftesbury theatre until March 2010.


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