Last week, I saw the fantastic revival of Vernon God Little at the Young Vic. Besides being a great production of a great story, it stood out for the simple fact that Vernon was played by Joseph Drake, a completely unknown actor plucked from obscurity to make his hugely impressive professional debut. Later that week, I saw US import Million Dollar Quartet at the Noel Coward Theatre. Slightly less impressive in every way, I was still quite surprised to read that a number of the cast were making their West End debut. (Granted, on the night I attended I saw the alternate Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, and granted there aren’t a huge amount of high profile actor-musician shows for them to cut their teeth on.)
At this point in time, there are plenty of West End star turns being made by big Hollywood and TV stars, returning to the stage (often apparently their first love) or treading the boards for the first time. While I find this fascinating, I’m more interested in the notion of casting young, unknown actors in high profile roles. It all sounds a bit like X Factor, with the the zero-to-hero mentality, but I suppose it’s worth remembering that the West End now has its very own X Factor thanks to Mr. Lloyd Webber and friends. The British public loves an underdog, and they vote in their millions to see their favourite crowned as Joseph, Maria, Nancy, Dorothy or, indeed, Toto in the West End.
Of course, if you look too closely, you start to notice the holes. Joseph Drake graduated from the renowned Bristol Old Vic theatre school, and was picked up by agent Simon Beresford, who also represents Michael Ball, Richard Griffiths and Ralph Fiennes… Lee Mead had already played Pharaoh in Bill Kenwright’s No.1 tour of Joseph, and was contracted to Lloyd Webber in The Phantom of The Opera at the same time that he first appeared on the TV casting show.
The necessity for this level of training and support is completely understandable and to be encouraged– acting is an incredibly difficult and challenging profession, particularly in big West End productions with eight shows a week. However much the public would love a supermarket check-out girl to step straight onto the stage, she probably wouldn’t be able to cope with the job. She might lose her voice, struggle with the pressure, or go a bit Susan Boyle. And in an industry where audiences expect the same standard of performance day in, day out, that’s a risk that I wouldn’t be willing to take as a producer. It’s much safer to cast that bloke who’s already understudying Raoul in Phantom.
This is not to belittle Mead’s talent, or to say that once you’re in a West End show, you’ve made it and don’t need any more help. There are hundreds of talented performers who get stuck in a rut of understudying or being shoved in the back row of the ensemble. For an actor in the early stages of their career, the industry seems to exist as little more than a series of filters – you audition for theatre school; if you make it through that, you apply to an agent; if you make it through that, you audition for the ensemble; if you make it through that, you audition for the principle, and so it goes on.
I heard a rumour the other day that the upcoming ATG tour of Legally Blonde had received 10,000 actor submissions, 150 of which received an audition slot. There’s a whole sea of obscurity for you to be plucked from.
Meanwhile, Joseph Drake’s already confirmed to be in Lucy Bailey’s next play at The Print Room, and Lee Mead has confirmed his move from Wicked to Legally Blonde later this year. These artists are now in constant demand, and will continue to be until they place a foot wrong, do a Charlie Sheen, or until the public forget why they liked them in the first place: when they were the underdog, plucked from obscurity.