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The Big Olivier Awards Interview: Gavin Lee

First published 17 Feb 2005

Gavin Lee as Bert in Mary Poppins
Gavin Lee
February 20th will see the elite of London Theatre gather at the Hilton Hotel, Park Lane, for the glittering 2005 Laurence Olivier Awards ceremony. Among the nominees for the first time will be Gavin Lee, nominated for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance as Bert in Mary Poppins, a show which has nine nominations in total. Matthew Amer caught up with him to discuss the glamorous event, where you can see more stars than at the Greenwich Observatory…

“It’s very exciting. I think it’s any actor’s ambition. I know it was mine from being back in college when I was 16. You just think ‘to ever get an Olivier nomination…’” Gavin Lee has the excited look of a child at Christmas in his eyes, an expression of innocent glee, as he talks about his first Olivier nomination. “Not even to go any further than that. It really is to get a nomination. To win would just be ridiculous!”

His night out at the Olivier Awards ceremony will cap an exciting year for Gavin Lee. After landing the part in Mary Poppins – his first West End leading role – came the out of town run in Bristol, before the London opening last December. And all the time the public anticipation surrounding the production grew. When the press finally got their hands on the musical, they were universally impressed and five star reviews were sprinkled like icing sugar on the top of a very magical cake. An Olivier award would make the sweetest of cherries. But Lee is under no illusion about the very stiff competition he faces; also nominated in his category are Paul Hegarty (Sweeney Todd), Lee Evans and Nathan Lane (The Producers). “I’m up against three amazing people. I haven’t seen Paul, but Nathan and Lee… I went to the first night [of The Producers] and they’re fantastic; they’re perfect for their roles.”

Mary PoppinsAs always with awards ceremonies, the rivalry between Mary Poppins – which has nine nominations – and fellow new musical The Producers – which has eight – has been talked up in the media. Some parties would have you believe it could well be settled with splurge guns at dawn. Lee, grinning cheekily, suggests that on the night the two camps might be found lurking on opposite sides of the venue, “so we can boo and throw bread rolls at them across the room”.To win would just be ridiculous!"

Lee has spent the majority of his 14-year musical theatre career out of the limelight, playing supporting roles and understudying leads. He is living proof that persistence, in any walk of life, pays off. “When I reached 30 I thought ‘that ain’t gonna happen. I’m not really being propelled into a lead role. It’s not really happening for me, but I’m still working in the West End, still doing understudy’, and I was quite content. Then something like this happens – to be doing this and to have a phone call from your agent saying you’ve got an Olivier nomination – and suddenly you’re the luckiest guy in the world.”

"I think it’s any actor’s ambition."

Lee’s dressing room, where we chat before a performance, is reminiscent of a small living room from a 1970s sitcom. A sofa is flanked by coffee tables holding small lamps, while under the television table lurks a well-loved Buckaroo. The walls, though, are adorned with Mary Poppins artwork. It is the type of living room in which you could happily warm yourself with a mug of soup while watching an icy downpour through frosty windows. And Lee seems at home here, lounging back on the sofa in jeans and a jumper. He has been spending quite a bit of time here since before Christmas, but apparently has only just settled in. “The whole of December was really hectic; we seemed to be in all the time, rehearsing, changing things, tweaking bits. It was really nice when we got to January 1st and went to a regular eight shows a week.”

Mary PoppinsThe creative names brought together for this production of Mary Poppins read like a theatrical Who’s Who. Starting with producers, two of the biggest in the West End, if not the world, Cameron Mackintosh and Disney threw their collective might into the show. Sharing the director’s chair, which was possibly made into a sofa for the occasion, are ex-National Theatre Artistic Director Richard Eyre and ballet revolutionising Matthew Bourne. Joining Bourne as co-choreographer is the equally lauded Stephen Mear. A heavenly theatrical trinity. “The three of them – Stephen, Matthew and Richard – work so much as a team. There was never ‘well, this is my department. I’m the director, I’ll direct!’ Because we had Matthew being co-director/choreographer it meant that they put all their ideas into a hat and picked out the best ones.” If audience reaction is anything to go by, the best ones are really very good.

With three leading theatrical lights steering the production, one might think that there would be a clash of ideas; three egos tussling and a hint of pulling rank in a power struggle. But, it would seem the cast and crew didn’t even need a spoonful of sugar to sweeten their working relationships. “It was the easiest rehearsal period I’ve ever been involved with” claims Lee.  “It was soooo relaxed, there was never anyone losing their temper. You always get someone in the stalls while you’re on stage going ‘what the f**k is going on? Why is the lighting not right? Why are you not in the right place?’ Someone will always blow their top, but it didn’t happen at all.” This is even more surprising considering the hype and expectation that built up around the show.

"I didn’t put soot on my face and go on a chimney sweep course for a week."

The history of Mary Poppins, out of which much of the hype grew, was a bit of an unknown quantity to Lee. It is quite possible that he had habitually gone into hibernation on bank holidays, preferring not to emerge from the warmth of his lair-like bedroom, as unlike the majority of bank holiday television watchers, his knowledge of the Poppins phenomenon was less than extensive. “I had never seen the film before. I just thought ‘it’s all about Julie Andrews, isn’t it?’” The large role played by Bert was soon to become apparent.

Mary PoppinsThe part of Bert was made famous on celluloid by the singing, dancing and acting of Dick van Dyke. Having made the effort to see the film at least once, Lee came to the same conclusion as the rest of us: “His accent was appalling. Everything else about him is great”. The lovable cockney rogue, who acts as the storyteller, has a roving profession, at times being a street painter, a salesman and, most famously, a chimney sweep. Though a method acting approach wasn’t required – “I didn’t feel I needed to put soot on my face and go on a chimney sweep course for a week” – a couple of extra hours at the gym in preparation for the run might have been useful. “I sweat an awful lot every night. In every one of my costumes I’ve got a handkerchief and – you probably won’t notice, but – I’m forever turning round and mopping my brow. No-one wants to see a big sweatbox on stage!”

In addition to belting around the stage, singing his heart out and doing it all with a chirpy smile on his face, Lee has an extra special trick – a little bit of theatre magic – that really is a show stopper. Although careful not to give too much away, he does share a little: “The buzz I get from doing this trick... it’s just fantastic! After my first rehearsal in the theatre I barely slept a wink because my brain was ticking over and my mind was racing; my imagination was going mad about what could happen if something mechanical or technical went wrong. But I’ve got over it now and it was worth every minute of the scariness I had in the beginning.”

Laura Michelle Kelly as Mary Poppins
Laura Michelle Kelly
It is not just Lee who has been nominated for an Olivier on the back of Mary Poppins’ success. Also in with a chance of picking up an award are Bob Crowley (Costume Design and Set Design), Howard Harrison (Lighting Design), Matthew Bourne and Stephen Mear (Choreography), Matthew Bourne and Richard Eyre (Director), David Haig (Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical), Laura Michelle Kelly (Actress in a Musical) and the musical itself (Best New Musical). Lee saves a lot of his praise for Michelle Kelly, who has a lot to live up to in the title role. The up-and-coming musical star has proved a revelation in the role, and Lee is particularly pleased that the part did not go to a ‘celebrity’. “If it had been a star vehicle for someone it would have changed the whole story. The way it goes now, the stage production is a real story about the family; the Mum, the Dad, the kids; falling apart and hopefully getting together again, and it’s because of Mary Poppins… and maybe Bert. The focus is on the family unit, which gives you a ‘full circle’ story, rather than ‘A nanny comes in. She’s the star. She goes again.’”

If this doesn’t sound exactly like the film (which follows the ‘A nanny comes in…’ formula a little more closely), there is a reason. The stage show is not an adaptation of Disney’s motion picture, but is based on both the film and the seven books about Mary Poppins written by P L Travers. Julian Fellowes was employed to bring the stories from the page to the stage. “It’s nice that they injected some new life and new storylines into a format, a film, that everyone knows so well. What would be the point of doing a complete carbon copy on stage? I just think good on [Fellowes] for coming up with all these new ideas and not just going ‘oh, we’ll use the penguins.’”

"The buzz I get from doing this trick... it’s just fantastic!"

Lee has come a long way since following his big sister to dance class and “giving it my John Travolta on the dance floor”. After learning the moves and joining the local am-dram group, his first stage role was in the cast of Bugsy Malone: “I was in London, in a hotel, with a bunch of kids, and we were all just dancing around a stage every night. It must have been hideous for the director.” However, it is at the Prince Edward theatre – the home of Mary Poppins – that many of his best memories are to be found. “This is the first place I ever played a lead [as understudy in Crazy For You], so to come back ten years later and actually have my name in the programme as the lead is just great.”

Mary PoppinsWith an acclaimed lead role in a hit West End musical and an Olivier nomination to his name, Lee could be forgiven for letting success run away with him. Yet working cruises, swing and understudy has had a grounding effect on him. “As much as I would love to be in LA in five years time, making Hollywood blockbusters, realistically I would like to think I can stay with this show for a good couple of years. Maybe they will take me to Broadway, which would be another dream. This is the perfect year for me to get all the right people in from the BBC and Carlton and say ‘look, he can be a funny guy. Give him a chance in a lovely new sitcom’”. If that was the case, musical theatre’s loss would be television’s gain. With typical self-deprecation, a hint of a smile and a gleam in his eye, Lee finishes: “Hopefully, within the year, anyone who is anyone will have come to see Mary Poppins and hopefully thought ‘Gavin Lee… he played Bert… he was alright’”.

To buy tickets for Mary Poppins, please click here.

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