In a career spanning three decades, John Partridge has been in countless West End musicals and the long-running BBC soap. But in his one-man Edinburgh show, he bares all about his troubled past, as he tells Tim Bano
For the second time this year, John Partridge is getting ready to strip in front of an audience. In March, the former EastEnders actor took part in ITV’s The Real Full Monty, a celebrity recreation of the classic film’s striptease, to raise awareness about cancer. Now, he is baring himself in a more figurative way with his one-man show Stripped at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
The show, which features songs threaded with the narrative of Partridge’s own life, had a tryout at the Other Palace in London in February. “When I did it there, I did it for me,” he says. “It started the ball rolling for me being honest with people about what I’ve been doing, and how I’ve been masking that.”
Stripped is a reckoning with himself, a way of facing up to a lot of horrible things life has thrown at him. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2004, his mother died last year after a long period suffering from Alzheimer’s, and, now more than 300 days sober, he has battled alcohol and drug addictions.
He says: “My mother had this phrase: ‘Paint a face on it, John.’ And that’s what I did for a very long time. I was a cat, a train, a tranny, a GI, a Mod, a Rocker, a toothpaste model. As actors we are many things. But my greatest performances, undoubtedly, were the offstage ones.”
Partridge was 16 when he landed his first professional role in the original UK tour of Cats – he went on to join the West End cast – developing a close relationship with its choreographer, the late Gillian Lynne, whom he called ‘Duchess’. “I remember starting rehearsals and someone said: ‘I’m a swing,’ and I thought: ‘Does this show have trapeze artists?’ I was that green.”
Living in Soho in the 1980s, with no family around, he found himself drawn into a world of drink, drugs and partying. That world had a profound impact on his life. Until last year, Partridge had hidden his addictions from friends and family, but he’s now determined to be as open as possible.
“I’d always thought, up until very recently, how easy it was for me to be the person I wanted to be,” Partridge says. “Looking back, which I’ve been doing a lot since my mother’s passing, I realise I’d learned to cover and hide. And I carried that learned behaviour into other aspects of my life.”
Despite the dissimulation and insecurities in his personal life – “I never felt funny enough, attractive enough, witty enough, cool enough” – Partridge’s working life has been non-stop.
I had about 15 auditions in a row and couldn’t get arrested. That was the one point in my career when I toyed with the idea of doing something else
There were roles in Tommy, Starlight Express, Rent, Grease and Miss Saigon – successes he puts down to being good at auditions, and his ability to “blag like no one else”. In fact, the only lull was a “hideous” six-month period in his early 30s. “I had about 15 auditions in a row and couldn’t get arrested. You’re not a daddio, you’re not an ingenue, you’re not a silver fox. That was the one point in my career when I toyed with the idea of doing something else.”
But the dry period passed and while co-starring with Elaine Paige in The Drowsy Chaperone he was spotted by casting directors from EastEnders. After the audition, which he nearly didn’t go to, his agent got a call. “They said: ‘He read the worst, he was terrible, but he is the character.’ So I got it.”
That character was Christian Clarke, known for his relationship with Syed Masood, for complex storylines around being gay and coming out, and for his tight vests.
“I’m proud of having done EastEnders. I know it gets knocked, but it’s difficult to tell a gay story at 7.30pm. Some of the greatest actors on British television are on that show. It is not for the faint-hearted, and I owe a lot to Christian.”
What was your first job?
Cats, UK tour, 1988.
What is your next job?
Stripped, Edinburgh Fringe.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Somebody once said to me: “It’s really easy to get your first job. And your second. It’s not so easy to get your ninth or tenth.” No one wants to be the oldest chorus boy in the West End. You have to make those shifts, dig deep. And good-quality training will stand you in good stead.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
Chrissie Cartwright, who manages all productions of Cats. When I was young and wasn’t doing another show she would always ask: “Do you want to come back to Cats?” It was like signing on. I did it for about eight years over a period of 22 years. She helped me grow up.
What is your best advice for auditions?
Present them with your final offer – if you don’t somebody else will. Energy is really important: I’m 47, I started this when I was 16 and I’m still going. Other than my marriage, it is probably the thing I’m most proud of. Be prepared. I’m the queen of rehearsal. I rehearse within an inch of my life. I know my lines, I know my good side and my bad side.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Partridge’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s while he was working on the show, and he has been vocal about the prohibitive cost of care in this country, as well as the lack of progress in medical research. “I’m still very angry about my mum’s passing. The drugs she took may as well have been sugar lumps.”
And although he had been starring in some of the world’s biggest musicals since he was 16, it was looking after his mother that showed how important music was. Specifically when, for her 80th birthday, Partridge and his sister hired a ceilidh band.
“At this point her motor skills were gone, she wasn’t really communicating. But when the band struck up – and they must have played 45 or 50 songs – she sang the words to every one. These were songs my sister and I had never heard before. She got up and did a little two-step. My mum wasn’t even walking.”
He continues: “If you could put that in a pill… that’s the research we need. But unfortunately Alzheimer’s is not sexy – kids don’t get it. But I guarantee you that if they did we would be further on. We don’t place any value on you if you’re old.”
Music features heavily in his show, as a way of providing an emotional core. But he stresses that Stripped is not about inviting pity. “I don’t want it to be ‘oh poor me’. I’ve had – am having – an amazing life and career. I’ve done more than I ever thought possible. I have an amazing husband, family I’m proud of and friends I could not live without. I’m just explaining. It’s me making sense of where I’ve been.”
Still, sobriety is forcing Partridge to think about the future, and what might be in store. “I’ve been clean for 300 days. Before that, I managed to achieve more than I ever thought possible. Who knows what I can do now I’m sober,” he says. “Whether you like what I’ve done with my career or whether you think I’m any good at it, I’m still doing it. That’s good enough for me.”
Born: 1971, Lancashire
Training: Royal Ballet School
• Cats, West End and UK tour
• EastEnders, BBC
• Entertainer of the year, Stonewall Awards (2010)
Agent: Jorg Betts Associates
John Partridge: Stripped runs at Assembly Checkpoint, Edinburgh, until August 26