By Laura Joint – Plymouth Theatre Royal
In a career spanning three decades, Brian Conley has appeared in award-winning West End musicals and television sitcoms, presented his own chat shows, recorded three albums and completed numerous sell-out tours of the UK.
He has presented the Royal Variety Performance on eight occasions and was a contestant on the 15th series of BBC 1’s Strictly Come Dancing in 2017, partnered by pro-dancer Amy Dowden. The couple were fifth to leave the competition but not before Brian wowed the nation with his endearing dance routines and loveable personality.
On stage he has starred as Edna Turnblad in the hit West End musical Hairspray and the title role in the UK tour of Barnum, which played Theatre Royal Plymouth previously.
Brian has completed a nationwide tour of Brother Love, celebrating the music of Neil Diamond, directed and choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood. He has also starred in the nationwide tour of Oliver! playing Fagin; and played the title role in Jolson, for which he was nominated for an Olivier Award.
He has had leading roles in Me and My Girl, The Music Man and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and last year Brian embarked on his UK tour, Still the Greatest Entertainer (in his Price Range) and is currently back in the West End starring as Franklin Hart Jr in Dolly Parton’s
9 to 5 at the Savoy Theatre.
Brian Conley was born in Paddington, London in 1961. He was brought up in West London and studied Performing Arts at the Barbara Speake Stage School. As a teenager, Brian had a few minor television appearances, including an advert for hot dogs and a small role in a 1977 episode of the science fiction series Survivors. At the age of 16, by lying about his age, he started work as a Pontin’s Bluecoat.
Brian Conley loves Plymouth. He’s taken to the Theatre Royal
Plymouth (TRP) stage numerous times over the years and he can’t wait to step out in front of Plymouth’s ‘great’ audiences once again in this year’s pantomime, Cinderella, as Cinderella’s best friend Buttons.
“They tell me that I have starred in more productions at Theatre Royal Plymouth than any other performer,” said Brian who first played
Buttons at TRP in 1999-2000. “I’ve done loads of big shows in Plymouth: Barnum, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Hairspray, Oliver, Jolson – it’s like a second home to me, and I love it.
‘It’s a great audience, and it’s a beautiful theatre. You feel like you’re really on top of the audience, so there’s plenty of fun to be had. And fun is what pantomime is all about.”
Jolson, especially, has good memories for Brian. Renowned for his comic genius, he once commented that playing the lead role in Jolson in the 1990s transformed his career, showing he could take on serious parts and nail them. “And that all started in Plymouth,” he said.
“Everything was built and made in Plymouth, we rehearsed there, and we had the World Premiere there. Then we went on a short tour with that set and those costumes and we were in London for two years. So as a performer, you know you’re surrounded by professionals in Plymouth, and no-one else has those sorts of facilities.”
Brian has been appearing in the West End as Franklin Hart Jr in Dolly Parton’s smash hit musical, 9 to 5, but is leaving that day job behind to take on the starring role in Cinderella from 20th December to 18th January: “I’m the only entertainer to have a 9 to 5 job,” quips Brian.
Brian has made the role of cheeky little chappie Buttons very much his own, and he’s clearly the driving force behind this production of Cinderella, writing the comedy routines and keeping the fast pace going, from curtain up, to curtain down: “I don’t hang about, from the moment it starts, I’m out to drive it to the end,” he said.
“Cinderella just completely epitomises pantomime, doesn’t it? I genuinely am excited, more than I’ve been for a few years, because I have been doing 9 to 5 for so long – since last Christmas – so it will be just a breath of fresh air for me to step away from it and have some fun.
Michael Harrison, managing director of Qdos Entertainment’s pantomime division said: “We are absolutely delighted that Brian will be leading the cast of the Theatre Royal Plymouth’s pantomime. Brian is the ultimate showman and always delivers a true masterclass in panto, winning rave reviews for us every single year. Plymouth will be in for a treat as Brian and our fantastic cast will bring comedy, stunning vocals and plenty of surprises to the production packed full of music, dance, laughter and audience participation.”
“The thing to remember” Brian continued, “is that a pantomime is a vehicle to hang as much comedy on as possible, it has to be comedy-driven. You can’t have any long, drawn-out songs – and if there is singing, something funny has got to be happening at the same time. I think we only do one serious song in Cinderella and it’s right up front. The other thing about panto is that a lot of it is visual – both in terms of the comedy and the set. It has to be spectacular, so that people are completely blown away. That’s a common mistake some people make: as soon as you say ‘panto’, they imagine a church hall production that’s been put together for eight quid! But panto is huge. We’ve got the London Palladium set, we have the coach that flies out and does a 180-degree turn, and animatronic horses that everyone thinks are real. And wait until you see the Portaloo!”
The Portaloo scene in the forest is one of the new additions to this Qdos production of Cinderella, and was first used in Bristol last year. It is, says Brian, an example of how constantly developing new ideas is keeping pantomime fresh for audiences. And there’s another reason why pantos are proving as popular as ever: “The secret is that from a three-year-old to a 90-year-old, everyone can all have a family experience,” said Brian.
“Last year, there was a dad in the audience with his two little kids, and he was crying because he just thought ‘what a wonderful moment that the kids will never forget’. That’s what it’s all about – when you’ve got to put your phone down and you can’t take a photo, you can live in the moment and experience what is happening here and now.
‘That’s what we can bring, and that’s what has kept pantomime so really there, because it’s something that the whole family can sit and enjoy and have a good laugh.
‘So, when people ask ‘what makes a successful panto’, that’s the answer – you’ve got to make them laugh, and lots. And after all my years of doing this, I know what makes a whole family laugh – it’s stupid, visual, dangerous Brian, doing stupid things. But the biggest thing for me is that it’s a family event – those four little kids at the end that come up – that’s one of the loveliest moments. I really do enjoy that.”
So will there be some Plymouth jokes thrown in there? “Oh yeah, there’ll be topical jokes in there and bits that relates to the city. And I’m looking forward to seeing the big statue outside the theatre, there’ll be some references to that, that’s for sure!”
In 1996 Brian married his wife Anne-Marie, in a ceremony at a Stoke Poges chapel, Buckinghamshire, after proposing eight months earlier, while wearing a suit of armour. The wedding day itself also had comic elements, causing celebrity guest Linda Lusardi to remark that it was “the funniest wedding I’ve been to”.
Brian made several memorable quips during the event, and the couple left the church in the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car. They have two daughters.
Brian and his family have visited Plymouth so many times over the years that they know all the best places to take in a walk and see the views: “We enjoy the Hoe and the Barbican, but with two shows a day, I won’t be getting much time off,” said Brian.
“In fact, one of the reasons I love doing pantomime is because over the Christmas period, I can eat as much as I want and not put on any weight because I’m doing two shows every day. I can eat the biggest Christmas dinner ever and all the desserts. So all in all, I’ll be having a great time in Plymouth – and I can’t wait.”
Cinderella is at Theatre Royal Plymouth from 20th December to
18th January. Contact the Theatre Royal box office on 01752 267222. www.theatreroyal.com/whats-on/cinderella/