Comedian Brian lands the part he always wanted
BRIAN CONLEY has proved himself to be one of our most versatile actors, appearing in many different guises – as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Al Jolson – the role he created in hit musical Jolson – as a comedian and in pantomime.
Despite his long career, he's still incredibly excited about his latest challenge – as Fagin in Cameron Mackintosh's spectacular revival of Lionel Bart's Oliver! The show Oliver! runs at the Theatre Royal Plymouth until Saturday, September 8.
"Only Cameron Mackintosh can put on a show like this," says Brian. "There is absolutely no skimping. Even Fagin's coat cost £8,000 to make. There are 57 people on stage – including a dog – and there are 108 people in the show. I'm really proud to be part of it."
Oliver!, based on the Charles Dickens story of orphan Oliver Twist, is one of the most popular musicals of all time with great songs including Food Glorious Food, Consider Yourself, You've Got to Pick-a-Pocket or Two, I'd Do Anything, Oom Pah Pah and As Long As He Needs Me. Ron Moody played Fagin on stage from 1960 and also in the 1968 film.
Brian admits that audiences are often quite shocked at the way he looks on stage.
"I spend an hour in make-up and that's a chance to really get into character. People don't even recognise me. I'm not on for the first 40 minutes and by the time I do come on, people are desperate for you. It's a wonderful part and the character is full of nuances. There are some great moments and there's a lot of comedy in there.
"A lot of the great Fagins have been comedy performers. But there's no denying that he was a dark character. He very much instigated Nancy's death.
"In the musical, Lionel Bart has created a Fagin who is quite comedic to defuse situations. That's the way he tries to protect the boys from Bill Sikes.
"It's a part I have always wanted to play," says Brian. "I grew up with this musical. I went to the Barbara Speake Stage School and all the children from the film came from there, including Jack Wild.
"I was a huge fan of Ron Moody and it had such wonderful songs. Lionel Bart didn't write music – he just had it all on a Dictaphone and would give it to a guy to transcribe.
"The first choices to play Fagin in the film were Dick Van Dyke and Peter Sellers because Ron Moody wasn't a huge star. But Mary Poppins had been a huge hit for Julie Andrews in her first film, so they were prepared to take a risk.
"Ron Moody epitomised that role."
Brian admits that the voice he uses for Fagin is nearest to his own. He grew up in Paddington and finds himself offering pronunciation advice to other members of the cast.
He's also offering inside tips on Plymouth, having been here many times before.
As it's the summer holidays, he is joined during the month-long run by his wife, Anne-Marie and their daughters Amy, 15, and Lucy, ten.
"I always enjoy Plymouth. It's a wonderful theatre and I've done so many great things there. We're not just going to be on stage in Plymouth... we're going to engulf it!"