Dean Chisnall interview - 'Now I'm in Les Miserables, I feel like I've hit the jackpot'
This summer’s Les Miserables cast change brings Dean Chisnall back to the West End stage, having spent time last year working at fringe theatres for the first time in his career.
Chisnall has previously played the title role in Shrek at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and had parts in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Woman in White at the Palace Theatre, and Love Never Dies at the Adelphi. He returns to the West End this summer as Jean Valjean, but this comes after his first foray into the fringe, where he had roles in the Menier’s musical adaptation of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, and Southwark Playhouse’s Working.
The actor told us about what made those experiences so special, what it was like playing a firefighter in the days after Grenfell, and why treading the boards at the Queen’s Theatre is so special.
You were in two fringe musicals last year, one being Adrian Mole which was a real feel-good, intimate show.
That's exactly what it was. There was talk of it coming back this spring. Obviously that hasn’t happened. It would be really sad if it didn’t, because I absolutely loved doing it and it felt like we had something really special. And the audiences went mad. I’d be sad if it doesn’t come back, we only did 5 weeks at the Chocolate Factory and there’s an awful lot of people who didn’t see it who would like to. But that’s above my pay grade…
And then you were also in Working at Southwark Playhouse?
That was a beautiful show. Complete contrast to Adrian Mole, but it was a stunning piece of theatre.
Being new work in intimate spaces, they were both a complete contrast to something like Les Mis…
Working was my first experience doing an intimate, fringe venue. The show had never been done in Europe, or on that scale, so to have that creativity as an actor, but also feel like you’re presenting it to all these people in your front room, was really special. Every single person in the audience could relate to that show.
I’ll never forget doing it because I was playing a fireman who talked about going into a building and saving people’s lives. We’d just had Grenfell. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do on stage, especially in the first few days after the tragedy.
Was being in a smaller space a bit of an eye opener for you?
It was. When you’re doing big shows, you still have a connection with the audience, but it isn’t the same electricity. I felt like I became a better actor almost instantly.
But now you’re going into one of the biggest shows in the West End…
It’s the biggest show that’s ever been done! If anyone offered me anything in exchange for what I’m doing now, I wouldn’t take it. I feel like I’ve won the jackpot.
You’re playing Jean Valjean, is that a role you’ve always wanted?
I think anyone who wants to get into musical theatre wants a part in Les Mis, and you get to a certain age and you can’t play the younger characters. This opportunity came to audition, which was exciting, and when I was offered the job it blew me away.
Yesterday was a day in my life I've dreamed of for 20 years. I shall never forget it. What a special company, on AND off stage. A wonderful team effort and i'm proud to be a tiny part of that @lesmisofficialx NEVER stop dreaming. X
— Dean Chisnall (@DChisnall) June 12, 2018
Is it a show that you revisit often?
I do, because I love it, but I've also had various pals in it. It never gets old, we’ll be the 34th year in London. It’s utterly timeless.
How are you planning on putting your own stamp on the role?
I’ve been really delighted with how much freedom we’ve had as actors, it feels like we’re creating the show for the first time. We can do things differently, whether its movement or the singing. If the directors don’t like it, then we talk about it. I think that’s why the show has lasted as long as it has, because they allow their actors to being something to the party.
Are there any moments of which your perception has changed now you’re performing them rather than being an audience member?
Definitely. The biggest is probably “Bring Him Home”. It’s a company number with the entire cast on the barricade, and as an audience member you’re watching this one man sing this beautiful song. But on stage, it feels like a company stage, and everyone is having their own “Bring Him Home” moment.
Why should someone book in to see, or even revisit, Les Mis?
It’s an incredibly popular show with people from all walks of life. If you came to the West End for the first time, why wouldn’t you go and see Les Mis? It’s the iconic musical, it’s part of British theatrical heritage.
Les Miserables tickets are available now.
Production image credit Johan Persson