The Last Ship star Richard Fleeshman: ‘Being in a soap can stereotype you, but it opens a lot of doors’
After a regular role on Coronation Street, Richard Fleeshman embarked on a stage career. He tells Mark Shenton why, after deciding to take a break from musicals, he couldn’t say no to the UK premiere of Sting’s The Last Ship
Richard Fleeshman may be only 28, but he could almost claim veteran status. He has been acting professionally, on television and stage, since he joined the cast of Coronation Street at the age of just 12.
He has combined this with a music career in which he once toured as a support act to Elton John (with whom he co-wrote a television theme song).
In the past few years Fleeshman has managed to combine his passions for theatre and music as a leading man in musicals. These include starring in the original cast of Ghost – which took him from Theatreland to Broadway – the West End runs of Legally Blonde and Urinetown, and a regional tour of the most recent West End production of Guys and Dolls.
But he’d decided to take a break. “I had a pretty frank conversation with my agent,” he says. “I’d been doing a lot of telly and straight stuff, and was really enjoying doing it. There were certain aspects of the eight-shows-a-week drill of musicals that I needed a rest from – it is so relentless.”
So he told his agent not to put him up for anything, but the proposed break didn’t even last 24 hours. “The same day, she called me back and said, ‘Look, it’s a musical and an eight-show week and a long contract, all the things you said you wanted to step away from.’ But then she said it was for The Last Ship, which had just been on Broadway.”
Fleeshman continues: “I said she could stop right there: I knew exactly what it was. I’m a huge fan of Sting, who wrote it, but Sally Ann Triplett is also a close friend of mine, and she’d been in it on Broadway. We’d had a drunken conversation about it one New Year’s Eve, and she told me the role of Gideon would be great for me.”
And so here we are in Islington at the culmination of London rehearsals for The Last Ship, shortly before the company heads to Newcastle to launch the show at Northern Stage before a national tour.
Sting has been at rehearsals every day. “When we all got together five weeks ago and he was first in the room, it was very surreal, but now he’s just one of the creatives,” Fleeshman says.
And if there has been illness in the cast during rehearsals, Sting jumps in. “One minute you’re playing opposite him, another he’s giving you notes, then playing the guitar and showing you a melody line – to have someone as hands-on with a production they’ve written is remarkable, but to have a global superstar who is this invested in the production is just wonderful.”
The show has also been substantially overhauled since its curtailed Broadway bow in 2015. “There are songs in this that weren’t in the show in New York, and songs in New York that aren’t in here, and songs that are now sung by completely different characters for completely different reasons.”
He adds: “I spoke to Sting the other day and asked him how it felt to see your baby put through this process and come out the other side. He said it was an evolution – things hopefully evolve in a positive way and not devolve.”
Fleeshman starred in the original production of Ghost – another musical by pop writers, this time Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard. “There’s nothing like doing a new show. It is massively rewarding and also far more scary,” he says.
“There’s a safety net with a show like Guys and Dolls – it’s been done by so many actors, and I’ve seen it be astonishingly brilliant, so if a scene doesn’t feel right, it is probably you, not the writing. Whereas with this, everything is possible.”
Things can change every day, he says. “There’s the butterfly effect – where something makes sense for a previous draft, but then you change one word on page three and then a meeting on page 98 doesn’t make sense. The positive side is that with Lorne Campbell [its writer and director] and Sting we have two people in the room who are in charge, so you can ask them if something’s not working.”
Working with established pop icons has been “massively surreal”, Fleeshman says. He has some form; 10 years ago, he found himself working on a song with Elton John.
Q&A: Richard Fleeshman
What was your first professional theatre job? I was paid £5 to be in The Demon Headmaster at Manchester Opera House when I was seven, and I framed the £5 note. I still have it.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? To be as kind to myself as I would be to other members of the cast. This is something I’m still actively trying to invest in because I’ve always been way too hard on myself, and I still am. I would love to be able to say to the 19-year-old me: “You’re doing all right.”
Who or what was your biggest influence? My mum – even to this day, whatever happens, I’ll call her first. She’s my best mate.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Know your stuff – know it so that if you were in the fast lane of the M25, trying to avoid traffic, you could still do it and say that monologue. Nothing makes you suffer amnesia like adrenaline.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? Probably what I’m doing now, just at a different level – like being a session player.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I gain a lot through a production – it’s often to do with toilet breaks. You become like Pavlov’s dog in a show. Everything is exactly the same from night to night, so if you go for a wee during a certain song that you’re not in, and you do that a number of nights, you’ll need to go during that song every night.
At 17, Universal gave him a record deal, and when it came out, John was among its admirers. “I went on the road, following him on a tour bus around Europe and going on private jets. It was mental.” At the same time, he was playing a boy on the autism spectrum in TV show All the Small Things. The TV show creatives asked him to write the soundtrack, so he asked John to help. “We wrote the song together,” Fleeshman says. They recorded it in the studio close to his then house in Chiswick. “I was in the studio with Elton for a day.”
By then, Fleeshman was accustomed to the trappings of celebrity, having joined the cast of Coronation Street when he was 12. His mother, actor Sue Jenkins, had extended runs on Corrie and Brookside and he had experience of her being recognised in the street. But, he says: “No one can quite prepare you for what it’s like to go from obscurity as an 11-year-old to suddenly having that glare of attention; it’s very overwhelming.”
He continues: “There’s nothing like it and nothing has been like it since. I’ve walked around Euston station with Sting, and he puts a hat on and people don’t bat an eyelid. He exists as a figure who is seen once in a while, but they don’t expect to see him there. But when you’re in people’s living rooms five nights a week, there’s an immediacy that means people feel they can just grab you.”
He remembers the time now with mixed feelings. “When you’re 12, you feel invincible. But then it doesn’t help with the neurosis of being a teenager, when you think everyone is looking at you and talking about you the whole time anyway – but when you’re on TV, they actually are. It was terrifying. You’re just not equipped to deal with those situations at that age.”
He never sought fame – “I don’t think I’d welcome that level of intrusion again” – and there were other problems too: “It stereotypes you in a way that you have to work hard to shake.”
Richard Fleeshman’s top tips for aspiring actors
1. Really, really want to do it. Do it because there’s nothing else you’d be happy doing. It’s tough, and most of the time it can really suck. The 20% of really good bits somehow make it worth doing. But it’s a hell of a commitment.
2. Get an education. There’s nothing more attractive to a director or other actors than being a smart actor – being well read and knowledgeable about the world around you allows you to have empathy and knowledge about other people. And if you have that, you can try to understand them and become them.
3. Read a lot and watch a lot
At the same time, he acknowledges that there were some positives, too: “It does open a lot of doors, and something I am massively grateful for it is that it was my training. You couldn’t show up and not know your stuff – you just couldn’t, you’d be made to look an idiot and everyone else wouldn’t stand for it, because it moves at such a rate.
“I remember Ian McKellen coming in and doing a month with us, and he said it was hardest thing he’d ever done – there’s no safety net, it’s just going to go.”
Fleeshman has since had to learn a new discipline: how to be a leading man in musicals. “I want to lead from the front, and be here on time and give 100%,” he says.
When people feel they have something to prove they can become a bit of an arse
Fleeshman cites Jenna Russell, his co-star in Urinetown, as a good example: “She’s just a force, and like most people in this industry who have nothing to prove, she just happens to be a gorgeous human being as well. Generally, it is when people feel they have something to prove that they become a bit of an arse.”
Sting is also a role model. “It is quite astonishing how humble he is. He stays with us in the trenches from start to finish every day.”
CV: Richard Fleeshman
Born: 1989, Manchester
Theatre: Legally Blonde, Savoy Theatre, London (2010), Ghost the Musical, West End and Broadway (2011-12), Urinetown, St James Theatre then Apollo Theatre, London (2013), A Damsel in Distress (Chichester, 2015)
TV: Coronation Street (2002-07), All the Small Things (2009)
Agent: Independent Talent Group
The Last Ship runs at Northern Stage until April 7, before touring venues in the UK and Ireland until July 7