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Mark Shenton: Who are our biggest theatre stars today?

Kit Harington and Ian McKellen. Photo: Oliver Rosser/Feast Creative Kit Harington and Ian McKellen. Photo: Oliver Rosser/Feast Creative
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Star casting, especially in the West End, is standard practice: putting a ‘name’ above the title is perceived to be good for box office, encouraging the undecided to invest in seeing a show because of the familiarity and/or perceived endorsement of that star. When this happens, you have to trust that the creative team have also agreed the star is up to the job.

Many will have earned their theatrical stripes in the past, and the theatre represents a homecoming: at the top of the acting tree of life, Ian McKellen will celebrate his 80th birthday in style and pomp, not by a prestigious West End run like his recent King Lear, but by touring a solo show to 80 London and regional theatres – a literal giving back to theatres that have given him so much.

But that kind of payback isn’t purely selfless (though in McKellen’s case, he’s donating profits from each stop to a different charity), but part of a journey that made them the actors they are today. It’s a return to their roots; and its always an inspiring fact that British screen “star” actors such as Ralph Fiennes (currently in Antony and Cleopatra at the National), Kit Harington (about to open in True West) and Tom Hiddleston (soon to appear in Betrayal as part of the Pinter at the Pinter season) keep coming back to the stage.

Then there are the American and Australian film stars who also have theatre in their blood, such as Gillian Anderson (soon in All About Eve), Cate Blanchett (coming to the National in When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other) and Sally Field (who will star in All My Sons at the Old Vic in April).

‘The waves of adoration from the fans in the audience was palpable, cheering her entrance and every subsequent move’

What we aren’t particularly good at any more, though, is creating ‘theatre stars’ in and of themselves. Even actors such as Judi Dench, Felicity Kendal and Penelope Keith had to earn their celebrity status via TV sitcoms, not principally for their stage work. One exception is Mark Rylance, whose stage celebrity led to him being properly embraced by the cinema, leading to an Oscar for Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies.

In the last week, I’ve seen two homegrown musical theatre stars who are forging big fan followings. Carrie Hope Fletcher has been around for a long time – she was a child actor in shows such as Les Miserables, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mary Poppins in the early noughties, before graduating to adult roles in the first two of those (she swapped Young Eponine for the older version in Les Mis and swapped Jemima Potts for Truly Scrumptious in Chitty), the tour of The Addams Family and most recently Heathers.

When I finally caught this cult musical on the last Saturday matinee of its run at the Haymarket, the waves of adoration from the fans in the audience was palpable, cheering her entrance and every subsequent move. There were times when it felt actively disruptive to the flow of the show, but, too much cheering of Carrie meant the character of Veronica, who she was playing, got lost in the mix. Her following has partly been cultivated via her extensive social media network, whether via YouTube or Twitter, but all credit to her for putting that work in and duly reaping the rewards.

Even more impressive has been the trajectory of Killian Donnelly, an Irish-born former amdram singer who came to London without a job, auditioned for and winning a role in the ensemble of Les Miserables. He served a substantial apprenticeship in that show before graduating to the role of Enjolras in his third year. He followed it with stints in The Phantom of the Opera (as Raoul) and Billy Elliot (as Tony, Billy’s older brother), before starting a run of leading roles in The Commitments, Memphis, Kinky Boots and a return to Les Miserables (this time as Valjean, first in the West End and now in the new national tour).

Last weekend he concluded the first touring date of Les Miserables in Leicester; next week, it goes on to Dublin. Instead of taking a week off, he came back to London last Sunday – and returned to Kinky Boots the next day. It is 18 months since he last did it on Broadway – but after a run-through during the day on Monday, he was back in the show that evening and on the next two nights, it was filmed live in front of the audience for subsequent cinema distribution and HBO broadcast.

I was at the Tuesday filming – and it was amazing once again to see both Donnelly and his Olivier-winning co-star Matt Henry reunited. Their reignited rapport was palpable; it may have been slightly strange to see Donnelly’s Charlie Price with a beard (a hold-over from his Valjean in Les Mis), but there was also a really moving new maturity to both actors. Henry has since become an MBE and a father. Donnelly has been to Broadway and back.

Musical stars including Matt Henry call for more diversity in West End shows

Donnelly is a proper, fully-fledged leading man now – a natural successor to Michael Ball in the richness and bearing of his voice (his rendition of The Soul of a Man brought shivers to my spine), but also a tremendous actor, with an everyman quality that makes him utterly relatable. He is, in my opinion, the best leading man in musicals we now have.

It’s the same spellbinding quality that marks out Simon Russell Beale, another of our finest contemporary actors, whose career has largely been forged in the theatre: an ordinary man made extraordinary by the intimacy and rapport he can establish onstage. And he’s our greatest leading stage actor as a result.

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