Big name casting: time to Take That and party?

Former Coronation Street actor Keith Duffy, who will make his stage debut at Theatre503. Photo: Granada
Former Coronation Street actor Keith Duffy, who will make his stage debut at Theatre503. Photo: Granada
Honour Bayes is a freelance arts journalist who has written extensively for The Stage and had work published in the Guardian, Independent, Time Out, Exeunt Magazine and The Church Times. She is currently Associate Editor on Chinese arts magazine ArtZip and has worked as web editor for the Royal College of Art, managing its arts and design coverage.
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When I found out last week that Boyzone star Keith Duffy was making his stage debut at the intimate Theatre 503 I had mixed feelings.

I’d always been a Take That fan so there was the familiar feeling of tribalism at the thought of one of the Irish crooners. Then there was a slight – guiltily acknowledged –thrill at the thought of being so close to someone who definitely would have met Gary, Mark, Howard, Jason and Robbie. But when my adult brain finally took over I couldn’t shake the feeling that this might be the beginning of star casting on the fringe and that that would definitely be a bad thing.

Star casting has often been a bone of contention among actors. Understandably, the idea of someone getting a role because they once mimed singing lyrics they hadn’t written and were able to put a few moves together rankles. But so far - while there has been an epidemic of starry soliloquies on West End stages - the fringe has for the most part avoided big name casting.

Of course, we’ve seen TV actors on the fringe and Off West End before. The Thick of It’s Olivia Poulet was great in Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi at the Finborough , Doctor Who’s Arthur Darvill and The Royal Family’s Ralph Little are always popping up at the Bush. Sherlock’s Andrew Scott is going to be thrilling us all at the Royal Court in Birdland next month. At the same theatre His and Her’s Russell Tovey impressed in The Pass while Gemma Chan from Channel 4 hit Fresh Meat was a very regal goddess Athena in Southwark Playhouse’s Our Ajax. But for all that these are big names it’s arguable that they are international ones (with the exception I suppose of Scott because let’s face it who on this earth hasn’t seen Sherlock).

Moreover, despite their high profile there’s a feeling that these actors have been cast because they’re good enough. Coronation Street aside can we honestly say the same of Duffy?

Theatre 503 has a history of canny marketing. They were the first ones to jump onto the phone hacking scandal with Hacked. The idea to invite people to allow their answer phones to be hacked and used as source material for short plays was surely created more from a PR point of view than an artistic one.

Of course they do work which is artistically-led, and excellent, too. Land of Our Fathers was one of the best shows I saw last year.

But is this decision to cast a former pop star really artistically-led? And will it open the flood gates for other big names who want to gain credibility by appearing on stage? If so, there could be a danger that the fringe will begin to emulate the star-heavy West End. I welcome the attention Duffy’s casting will undoubtedly bring to Theatre 503 and the fringe generally, but I hope that the price of it won’t be too high.

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