From Fun Home to Waitress, from Next to Normal to Finding Neverland - it's always fun collating the various rumours flying around theatreland. After a very busy...
Hayden Thomas meets Simon 'The Big Bad Wolf' Webbe
Today marks the official opening of Stiles & Drewe's family-friendly musical The 3 Little Pigs - part of a trilogy which also includes Goldilocks and the 3 Bears and The 3 Billy Goats Gruff - at the West End's Palace Theatre. We decided to send our reporter Hayden Thomas (Twitter: @WestEndReporter) and the hairs on his chinny-chin-chin over to catch up with The Big Bad Wolf himself (and member of pop group Blue) Simon Webbe.
Read on to find about Simon's thoughts on rubbing shoulders with theatre royalty like George Stiles, Anthony Drewe, Sheila Hancock and Whoopi Goldberg, as well as the current influx of popstars into the West End.
Hayden Thomas: Thanks for squeezing us in, Simon. And what a great wig you're wearing too! So, I've got to ask how's your huffing and your puffing coming along?
Simon Webbe: (Laughs) Do you know what, it's been fantastic! The reaction from the crowds has been unbelievable and it's been quite unexpected. What really enticed me to the show is the actual script and the meaning behind the musical. What I've noticed is that a lot of the adults are more into it than the kids.
HT: Parents are dragging their kids along for selfish reasons!
SW: Exactly! I think it's a great excuse for the parents to relive their childhoods as well. My Mum is 60 and is something she said she never got to do when she was younger. Now she loves going to the theatre and she has seen me in plays before. Obviously I'm her baby, but it took her 5 minutes to forget that it was actually me in this show and she just really enjoyed it.
HT: We all know the famous nursey rhyme, but could you give us a brief synopsis for this Stiles & Drewe version?
SW: Sure. Well, the age recommendation is 3 upwards, but we've had even younger kids coming in as well and they've also really enjoyed it. Everyone knows 'The 3 Little Pigs' and I think the moral behind it is - if a stranger comes knocking at your door, don't open it, especially when you're a child. I remember this particular nursery rhyme as a kid. My Mum used to get me ready for school first and then go and get herself ready, whilst I was eating breakfast. She always used to say: "If anyone knocks at the door, don't open it. It's the Big Bad Wolf!" So when I used to see a silhouette of the postman delivering a letter or whoever it was, I used to think it was the Big Bad Wolf. That used to stop me from opening the door.
HT: ...And stop you from ever sleeping again because of the nightmares!
SW: (Laughs) It's all good fun though. The best thing about the show is the length of it. It's not too long. It's 55 minutes long and I think that's perfect for adults and kids.
HT: The show's composer and lyricist, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, have obviously been very hands on during the rehearsal process. Was that an added pressure for you?
SW: I think it is an added pressure that I put on myself. Anthony and George are two spectacular writers. They are renowned for 'Mary Poppins,' 'Honk!,' and various others. They're Olivier winners for 'Mary Poppins.' So, coming into this myself, I wanted to step up my acting a little bit. The last thing I did in the West End was 'Sister Act' with Whoopi Goldberg and ever since then I've been kind of searching for something else to sink my teeth into, so to speak...
HT: Excuse the pun!
SW: (Laughs) Yeah. And mostly a song called "Misunderstood" attracted me. After doing "Strictly Come Dancing" last year, it took a while for me to find my feet. I don't know why I keep coming up with these terrible puns! But yes, it took me a while and I felt I was misunderstood. I watched myself back a couple of times afterwards and I think it was after the Rhumba, I saw my face and I actually felt really devastated. But my face looked really arrogant. My shyness can come across as arrogance sometimes. That's something that I've had to look at and change, so I don't come across the wrong way. It's been a lesson for me.
HT: You mentioned 'Sister Act' before as this is not your first time playing the villain. Your West End debut as bad guy Curtis Shank handed you the opportunity to act alongside both Sheila Hancock and Whoopi Goldberg during your run. I can imagine they are two very different personalities to work with?
SW: Oh definitely! Sheila Hancock off-stage is one of the nicest people, but when she's on stage and she's looking at you dead in your eye, there's a coldness that goes right through you and it forces you to act. She's got this power that brings the best out of you. And Whoopi - she was like my favourite Auntie. She knew she only had a couple of weeks of rehearsals and there were around 30 nuns and 40 crew members and she got to know everybody and shook everybody's hand and she was the one playing 'blow darts' in the corner. So while we were acting in front of the crowd, she did this exercise where if she shot you with an invisible blow dart, you had to pretend to die, but put that action within your movement. So I would be grabbing my chest, for example, whilst putting my line across.
HT: I was fortunate enough to see them both playing that role of the Mother Superior and it was remarkable how different the two performances of the same role were.
SW: Oh yes, they were very different. But that's what makes those two individual actresses legends, as far as I'm concerned.
HT: So, I've seen your good self in 'Sister Act,' I've seen Duncan (James) in 'Legally Blonde,' and I've seen Antony (Costa) in 'Blood Brothers.' But I want the full set! What's the situation with Lee (Ryan)?
SW: Lee has done plays, but he hasn't done musicals. I saw him in a play in a small theatre and I was looking for him, thinking "Where's Lee?" for about half an hour. But he was actually there, acting in front of me and I didn't recognise him. I hadn't seen him for 6 months and he had grown his hair and put on a bit of weight for the character. I think he's doing panto this year. We all are actually. I'm going down to Nottingham to do 'Aladdin.' As Blue, this is something that is an extra string to our bow. We were all actors before we were singers. We actually all wanted to become actors. It's pretty weird that we all then met up to be in a boyband and to still be together 15 years on. And to still have all four members in the same band, which is unheard of right now! Especially if you are from the Nineties or the Naughties. No offence to anybody out there - obviously they all have their own circumstances. For us, I think that just shows as a testament of the amount of love we have for each other.
HT: Can you ever imagine all four of you in the same cast of the same show at the same time?
SW: Oh I think that would be very interesting to have us four in the cast of a West End show as different characters! I think that would be amazing!
HT: I don't think it's ever been done before with an entire pop group.
SW: And Blue were the first group to duet with Sir Elton John and we've worked with other legends like Stevie Wonder. We've been so lucky as a group and I'd love to do a musical with the boys and I know they would too. It's about coming up with the right project, I suppose.
HT: Now you're not the only popstar in the West End at the moment. Beverley Knight and Matt Cardle are performing in 'Memphis,' Amelia Lily is in Green Day's 'American Idiot,' Kimberley Walsh is going into 'Elf the Musical,' Alexandra Burke is on tour with 'The Bodyguard,' the list goes on. I was just wondering if you've ever experienced any negativity from theatre purists about the influx of popstars into the world of theatre?
SW: I have heard of experiences like that. I'm not going to name any names, but I really thing it actually comes down to the particular artist who's going into the play. They really need to forget who they are. When I went into 'Sister Act,' the first thing I said to everybody was: "Please don't look at me as Simon from Blue. I'm just here as Simon Webbe and I really want to learn something from you guys." I do feel though like I've leapfrogged over everybody who has been to drama schools and been to all the auditions. And they're not getting paid anywhere near what I'm getting paid. They really have to slug it out. I have so much respect for them. I really felt I was welcomed into this family though and we really got on like a house on fire. So it all boils down to the popstar and the individual. I can speak for me and the rest of the boys - we're really easy to get on with but I have heard other reports from other people. I just bumped into Matt Cardle the other day and he's really nervous because he's opposite Beverley Knight every night, who is the Voice.
HT: Yep, it's a tough ask.
SW: I just said to him that I don't know any one who can sing like him, who is male. I'm going to go and see him in 'Memphis' either tomorrow or some time next week.
HT: Do you have any further stage ambitions after 'The 3 Little Pigs'?
SW: To be honest, in terms of my CV, I'm not sure if I'd do another production in the West End right after this. But I really want to go to Broadway and then maybe onto Hollywood. I kinda want to take those proper steps through the proper channels and earn my stripes. As I say, acting is something I've always wanted to do, even before singing. So I still thinks it's in me. Maybe something like a Netflix TV series. I'm constantly watching Netflix. In the West End, I'd be ready to tackle something a little bit more out of my comfort zone next.
HT: Thanks, Simon. All the Best with the rest of the run.
Stiles & Drewe's The 3 Little Pigs is currently booking through to 6 September 2015 at the West End's Palace Theatre.