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West End interview: Mrs Henderson's Ian Bartholomew
New British musical Mrs Henderson Presents is currently delighting audiences at the Noel Coward Theatre where it opened to strong reviews and was nominated for a handful of Olivier Awards, including the top prize of Best New Musical. Based on the film of the same name the show tells the story of Mrs Henderson and Vivian Van Damm who together fight to save The Windmill Theatre against closure by introducing nude tableaux.
Leading man Ian Bartholomew was nominated for an Olivier for his role as Van Damm, a role he created in Bath where the production enjoyed a successful out of town tryout before transferring to London. No stranger to the West End or musical theatre, Bartholomew's musical theatre credits including 'Assassins', 'Take Flight' and the Open Air Theatre's revival of 'Hello, Dolly!'
We caught up with him before a performance in his dressing room at the Noel Coward to talk about the role and its historical impact.
DOH: Firstly Ian, congratulations on your Olivier nomination. I'll start with the obvious question - how does it feel to be recognised?
IB: Well it's really great to be nominated, it's very nice to have that nod. If you start to take it too seriously then it becomes too consuming, and it becomes about who you are, what you are and where you are, but it's a very nice thing. Does it matter if I win? Probably not. It would be great if I did, it's a very nice thing to have. You never know what's going to happen so you just take it as it comes and enjoy it rather than stress about it.
DOH: Do you feel the show has now settled in to its run at the Noel Coward?
IB: Yes – having done it in Bath we sort of knew what we were doing but there were some new people so we did have to adapt in some ways but ultimately it's the same show with just a few tweaks. We've made it slightly leaner I think and now is the time it really starts to bed in and feel like it can develop. I think it's developed quite a lot – it's much richer and for me that's always the way to make it fresh – you try something new. You don't change what you're doing and walk to the other side of the stage, but your thought processes have to be spontaneous – you have to relive it every night because that's how audiences see it. They see it once, we do it every night, and it still needs to be fresh and 'in the moment', and that's the challenge. Letting it develop into something more – make it as good as it can be.
DOH: Did you make many changes to your character between Bath and London?
IB: I think when we started rehearsals for London I wanted to make him slightly more volatile than I had in Bath. Everything happens around him – he's sort of the still centre of the play whilst everybody else is either taking their clothes off, doing the dancing or having grand ideas. He anchors it all, and I felt that he needed to be a little more present and a little more flamboyant – not massively so. I think it's probably more for me than something an audience may notice. Something about making him more clearly defined, and when you have a longer rehearsal period and get into a run you can really lock that down, try new things and see how it can develop. When he's angry he's angry – when he's sad he's sad, when he's depressed he's depressed. It's about taking it a few degrees further into the emotional side rather than him being even tempered – keeping his cool rather than showing that side.
DOH: Had you seen the original film? Was this a role you had previously thought about playing?
IB: Not at all, I hadn't seen the film, I only knew that Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins were in it. I'd done the demo recording – I was working with Terry [Johnson] at Stratford East on 'Oh, What a Lovely War!' and he asked if I could come and sing for a few sessions to put down these songs. I wanted the chance to sing, we did the recordings and I read the script. It was very unlike me – but I said if this goes I'd like a shot at this, will you bear me in mind? And when it was ready to go I got the call. I had a meeting and it went from there. I sort of tried to stick my tail on the donkey as it were early on and luckily it came up.
DOH: And it's such a wonderful part...
IB: It's a great part. It's a really good show – it's got a lot of strong female characters, they're all clearly defined as people. Terry is a craftsman and a showman, he puts on a good show. Everybody has a moment even if it's fleeting. Everyone has a moment to make it about them which is wonderful.
DOH: Did you ever feel the pressure of working on a new British musical and how so many people really wanted it to succeed?
IB: No – the fact that it was a British musical, an original British musical and it wasn't a jukebox or it wasn't songs that have already been written shoehorned into a story was never a pressure it was always a pleasure. You thought "great, this is what I want to be doing". We're British – let's do a British show with a quintessentially British theme. I haven't felt any pressure at all really – it's been a dream. If you look for problems you often will find them, but you have to work through things and when people see the show you have to let them make up their own mind. If you try and guess what people think or how it's going to come across then you're on a hiding to nothing really. You've got to do what's in front of you and make it work.
DOH: Were you familiar with the story of The Windmill before hand?
IB: I did a musical called 'Radio Times' which is set in the same period but is about comedians. Parts for men of my age in a musical don't come around very often. It's a leading role but it's got a love story as well, which is a side issue. It's about theatre and that's what I signed on for because I love theatre. I do musicals when I like them and when they come along – I don't do them very often but when I do it's because I really want to do them. I know that sounds rather grand...I've never been one for the big overblown massive 'behemoth' musicals – what interested me about this was that it's about a time that very important and interesting in our history. It's about a theatre that survived against the odds.
DOH: What was your access point into the role of Van Damm?
IB: A very good friend of mine is a comedian called Barry Cryer, and when I found out I was doing this role I rang him to talk to him about it because I knew that he'd worked at the Windmill. He gave me really interesting pieces of information which I have used to help build the character. Van Damm's love and his hobby was comedy – bringing in the comedians. He had the girls, he had the music and all the stuff that kept it going, but he was really interested in the comics and the comedians that came through the door. If you look at post war British comedy the beginnings of light entertainment on television, it's unbelievable how many of them learned their trade at The Windmill. Barry auditioned for Van Damn and two hours later he was on the stage. Over the next few days Van Damm took him into his office and completely reshaped his routine and gave him his career in comedy – he taught him how to be a comic. That was my way in. Although you don't see that relationship on stage, for subtext it was a really strong way to understand him.
DOH: Is it difficult as an actor to play a real person on stage?
IB: You can do all the reading and all the research, but at the end of the day you can only do what has been written and you have to make that work. He's very much a theatrical construct – he's not a real person because the real person was very different to the person I play, I would suggest, in as much as he was slightly more involved in the artistic endeavour of the theatre. He was a impresario and a producer. There's a certain amount of pressure when you know there are relatives still alive and you know they're coming to see it. They're happy, so I'm happy. You feel a responsibility playing someone who is real. It's such a lovely show and such a good West End show that you have to think "this is about theatre and this a show so lets sit back and enjoy it". It's about entertainment and giving people something to grab hold of.
Buy tickets to see Ian Bartholomew in Mrs Henderson Presents by clicking here.