Midland entertainer Jonathan Wilkes tells Roz Laws about the challenges of his latest role in Birmingham.
It may be his eighth musical at the Birmingham Hippodrome, but We Will Rock You offers several new challenges for Jonathan Wilkes.
The major change involves leaving behind his usual cheesy grins and adopting a sneer – and a blond wig – to play his first villain.
He’s also not the main lead in the Queen musical, which is much more of an ensemble piece.
His other productions include Godspell, The Wedding Singer, Tommy and The Rocky Horror Show – but he reveals that one role eluded him... because of his height.
Jonathan, the Stoke-on-Trent lad who’s also famous for being the best friend of Robbie Williams, says: “There’s only ever been one role I wanted and didn’t get – Mickey in Blood Brothers.
“They said I was too tall at over six foot. You have to play Mickey as a boy for part of the musical and apparently I was too big.”
Lapsing into a convincing Liverpudlian accent to prove he could play a Scouser, he adds: “They offered me the role of narrator, but that’s not what I wanted.
“I have been very lucky, though, to play my dream roles like Frank ‘N’ Furter in The Rocky Horror Show and Sky Masterson in Guys And Dolls.”
Birmingham, and especially the Hippodrome, feels like a second home to Jonathan, who turns 31 next month. And he has plenty of time to explore the city, as We Will Rock You runs until September.
“I play Khashoggi, the second in command of the Killer Queen who does all her dirty work,” he says.
“Playing a baddie for the first time is a new challenge but one I’m absolutely loving. I don’t have to smile as much, which is nice! He’s a sinister and sarcastic person, a bit bitter.
“I’ve always been the out-and-out lead in musicals but this is more of an ensemble so there is less pressure on me to deliver.
“Auditioning for Brian May and Roger Taylor from Queen, plus Ben Elton who’s written and directs it, was the most daunting thing I’ve ever done. Imagine saying Ben’s words to him and singing A Kind of Magic to Queen.
“I’ve always loved their music and We Will Rock You is packed full of their hits. I especially love this version of Fat Bottomed Girls, with girls dancing in their underwear! This is such an awful gig,” he smiles.
But the show is also fraught with danger. He and his co-star Brenda Edwards, who plays the Killer Queen, almost came a cropper when a piece of machinery malfunctioned.
They stand on a platform which rises eight feet off the ground and spins round while they sing A Kind Of Magic. But during one show in Manchester, it failed to slow down.
“It was moving back into the band so we had to do an emergency stop. It jolted and Brenda rocked backwards – we’re not clipped on. I grabbed her arm and caught her. I’m not saying I’m a hero, but I saved her life!” he jokes. “If anyone wants to give me a medal, that would be great.
“Brenda is terrified of heights and was in tears afterwards.”
Now Jonathan can add lifesaver to his other talents. As well as singing, dancing and acting, he’s also tried his hand at TV presenting – he worked on You’ve Been Framed and Love On A Saturday Night – and at one stage wanted to become a professional footballer.
As a teenager he was on Everton’s books. Later he captained the England side of celebrities in Sky 1’s The Match, as well as organising Soccer Aid with his old mate Robbie Williams to raise money for UNICEF.
In the 2006 event he won the man of the match award, scoring the goal which saw England, including Les Ferdinand, Jamie Redknapp and Angus Deayton, beat the Rest of the World squad, which included Gordon Ramsay, Eddie Irvine and David Ginola. The second event in 2008 again saw Jonathan score the winning goal for England.
Jonathan will continue in We Will Rock You until Christmas, when he finishes will star in his fifth pantomime at Stoke’s Regent Theatre.
“If I said no to that, they’d lynch me!” he laughs. “Actually they’ve asked me for years to do the panto in Birmingham. Much as I’d like to, as it’s the biggest in the country, I would feel like I was betraying Stoke.
“I’m directing Dick Whittington this year and writing the script. Panto has become a passion of mine.”
Jonathan, who’s married to dancer Nikki, is used to standing ovations – though last year he had one panto audience member in tears.
He upset his son, three-year-old Mickey. “He didn’t like it when I went off stage and started crying, saying ‘where’s daddy?’.”
* We Will Rock You runs at the Birmingham Hippodrome until September 12. Tickets from 0844 338 5000.