Sophy Coombes-Roberts, Arts Editor caught up with West End superstar Lee Mead ahead of his debut in Plymouth’s pantomime, Robin Hood
CATAPULTED to fame in 2004, musical theatre star Lee Mead is no stranger to the stage. After winning Andrew Lloyd Webber’ s talent show Any Dream Will Do, Lee has enjoyed a successful career in the West End starring in Legally Blonde, Wicked and of course, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Despite swapping the curtain calls for his new role in Casualty, he has well and truly caught the performing bug and is down in Plymouth for the Christmas season taking the lead in Robin Hood.
With three albums to his name, a solo show and a role in a popular TV drama, “why panto” I ask? He laughs, “I got asked to do panto a few years back just after I finished Joseph, but at that point I hadn’t done much television or straight acting work and was really keen to do more of that before I went back into musicals and pantomimes”. Nevertheless, last winter he starred in Jack and the Beanstalk in Southhampton working for the biggest pantomime company in the country, Qdos, “I really enjoyed last year” he admits, “Panto is a chance to have fun and do a show over Christmas which is going to make people happy and give people a good time – so I sort of agreed to come back and do it again this year”.
Coincidentally, Robin Hood holds a special pace in Lee’s heart. As well as being a classic tale and a great story, the character was his first ever stage role. “I was nine years old in junior school and it was a school production of Robin Hood. I remember being so nervous standing on the assembly hall stage in the costume and a peaky green cap – so it is nice to play the role again”. This time around he informs me they are sticking with the popular story but adding a modern twist “and a few gags in-between” he adds.
With rehearsals fast approaching, Lee is excited to come down south to Plymouth and take a break from his hectic schedule. Without prompting Lee tells me he is looking forward to working alongside his good friend Nigel Havers, whom he shared a stage with last year in Jack and the Beanstalk. He speaks very highly of the former Oscar nominee: “Nigel has become a good friend; he has had an amazing career and done some great work over the years. Essentially, like me, he sees panto as the time of year to have some fun and make people laugh”. Also joining the cast is funny man Bobby Davro whose impressions and Saturday night comedy Lee grew up watching. As with all shows he explains that once the rehearsals commence with himself, Nigel, Bobby and the 40 man-strong company, they will undoubtedly adapt the script and dialogue to work around each other. However, “rumour has it that there can be a lot of ad lib and going off the script with Bobby,” he jokes, “but it is a lot of fun and I am looking forward to working with him”. As if that wasn’t enough, this year’s director is former BBC Head of entertainment Tudor Davis, whose accolades include directing the Royal Variety Show. “He is so talented and to have him directing the production this year is incredible”.
Script and actors aside, Lee promises that Robin Hood will be fun for all generations with in-jokes for the older members of the audience but plenty of laughter for the kids. “I have a young daughter who saw me for the first time on stage last year in the panto. If I was doing a musical she would be too young to come, whereas with the pantomime she will understand a good proportion of the show especially with the special effects and funny characters”. Talking about his daughter Betsy he tells me how last year “she was in the audience screaming and screaming, when there was a quiet moment where I came on stage as Jack and I heard her cry ‘daddy’ from the audience”. A lovely moment for Lee as a father and a performer as he assures me she will be back this year as well.
Moving on from chatting about Robin Hood, I couldn’t let him go without talking a bit about his success. Quite simply brilliant on the reality TV show Any Dream Will Do Lee describes the process as “a lot of fun but extremely scary”. The pinnacle of any musical theatre career is to work with the Andrew Lloyd Webber and of course it was Webber’s show Lee first triumphed in. “Genius, he is a genius,” Lee tells me, “You don’t achieve his level of success without a lot of hard work, an amazing talent and his incredible passion. When I was in Joseph it was amazing to work with him and once in a while we meet up, but very rarely. It is funny because growing up I used to watch his shows and listen to his music so to see how he works is surreal and quite humbling”.
Despite working with such iconic figures, Lee wasn’t always set on a future in the arts. “I started very late actually; I was 17 and playing football before that. My best friend, who is now my daughter’s godfather, belonged to a local amateur dramatics company and one day I went down with him. I auditioned for my very first show A Slice of Saturday Night – I was nothing special but could hold a tune and got the main part. I really enjoyed the show and got more into it at school”. After his A-Levels he trained at a performing arts college, then got his first job as a cruise singer and the rest is history.
With hundreds of budding thespians at Exeter, I made sure to ask Lee what advice he would give to students hoping to pursue a career in Musical Theatre. His response epitomises his down to earth demeanour: “It is important not to take it too seriously whatever level you are at, work very hard, be professional and just enjoy it, have fun. Whether it is serious acting, panto or musical theatre it is about having fun yourself, because if you enjoy it then the audience will too”.
Nevertheless, Lee didn’t get where he is today without hard work and a stiff upper lip as he emphasises: “you can’t expect to have great results without putting in the time; rejection is part of the job but it is a life choice. I never expected to have the level of success I have achieved but succeeding for me has always just been getting paid work and getting to do what I love – so I regard myself as doing well for the six years prior to winning the show as I am now, because I was working in what I loved doing”.
Lee Mead’s success shows no sign of slowing down. He is signed to Casualty for the next year with his first episode airing in early 2014 and on top of that, he has his own concert tour yet still finds time to work on his fourth album as well. For his fans an imminent return to the West End seems unlikely but a return within the next couple of years is certainly not off the cards.
Robin Hood is running from Friday 20 December – Saturday 25 Janurary 2014 at Theatre Royal Plymouth so students have a good few weeks to catch the show at the beginning of the spring term.
Sophy Coombes-Roberts, Arts Editor
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