Lorne Jackson meets a man who makes sure actors are always made up for the part.
When theatregoers and movie buffs recall a performance they particularly enjoyed, they probably think about the affability of the actors.
The dazzle of the dialogue.
But what about the sizzle of the scalp? The hirsuteability of the hairline?
Wigs are the unsung heroes of the drama game.
Rarely is a wig rewarded with a rapturous standing ovation. Even the most flamboyant comb-over is unlikely to enjoy a brush with celebrity.
The humble wig is never ‘papped’ stumbling drunkenly out of Stringfellows at four in the morning. Or allowed to perform Hamlet’s famous “toupee or not toupee” speech at the RSC.
Yet what would Sean Connery be without his AstroTurf topping? Not a lot of Scot, is the answer.
And picture William Shatner bare of bonce. Captain James T. Kirk would be forced to baldly go where no man has gone before...
Andrew Whiteoak is one man who knows the importance of a stunning stage wig.
He’s the Birmingham Rep’s head of wigs and make-up. Adept at both his specialist disciplines, though it’s the hairy stuff he’s most passionate about.
We meet at the Crescent Theatre, where the Rep’s Christmas show, Sleeping Beauty, is being performed. Which means lots of wacky wigs and madcap make-up for Andrew to get his teeth into.
In a 17-year career he’s made wigs, devised make-up and fashioned hair for hundreds of productions, including Cabaret, The Wizard of Oz, A Christmas Carol, The Witches and Peter Pan.
He’s worked with the best foreheads in the business. Maureen Lipman, Dame Eileen Atkins, Jason Donovan, Gary Barlow, Stephanie Beacham and Charles Dance have been topped off by his talents.
Even Andrew’s spare time is hair time. He regularly lectures on wigs and make-up.
So how did this passion begin?
“I went to Bournville School of Art,” he says. “Fine Art and sculpture were my main focus. At that time it was all the Damien Hirst stuff. I knew that wasn’t me. I wanted realism. I just wanted to paint what I saw.
“I’d always been interested in horror films. And I thought: ‘That’s quite like painting and sculpture. So if I can get into that, maybe I can make a career out of it.’ I guess you could say I was a Dr Frankenstein looking to make my own monster.”
So before hair, there was hair-raising horror. But first there was a tight training schedule to follow.
Andrew had to learn hairdressing, beauty therapy and, of course, wig making.
“Wig making was the one that I was strongest at,” he says. “But I didn’t like it at first. I just couldn’t understand why someone would sit for hours hand-knotting hair into nets. I just wanted to make monsters. Then I got work experience at the Rep, and I realised how powerful wigs and hair are in the theatre.
"A lot of the time you can’t see the make-up because of distance and light. So hair is really important for expressing characterisation.
“The audience sees the frock first, then the hair and then the make-up.”
Andrew was 20 when he started with the Rep. For his first four years other wig makers would be brought in to work on shows. Andrew picked up the skills involved, and has now been making his own wigs for 12 years. It’s a demanding process.
“Everything is tailored, even to the millimetre,” he says. “In naturalistic shows you can’t have anything that acts as a distraction. The audience has to believe from the very first minute that the hair on the actors belongs to the characters. That’s the key goal.”
Does Andrew believe Connery, and the rest of the shiny-dome crew, should be more grateful to their wig makers? When Sean won an Academy Award, should he have thanked his follicle flunky for services rendered?
“Probably. There are a lot of stars who regularly wear wigs. I think Nicole Kidman wears one for every film she does. Once those Hollywood stars find a wig maker who can nail their style, they’ll use the same one every time.”
Andrew has worked on many amazing shows during his almost two decades with the Rep. Even after all these years, the work still gives him a thrill.
He’s particularly excited to be working on Sleeping Beauty as it involves monsters.
The horror, the horror – at last.
“It’s been so lovely, because this is going back to where I started, making monsters. It really is a stunning show with nicely finished visual characters, like the Prince of Nerds.
“We’re trying to create movie-style make-up that has to go on and off really fast. There are two ogres who will hopefully scare lots of the audience.
“We’ve looked at the Orcs from The Lord Of The Rings. And since I’ve a five-year-old son I’ve also watched a lot of Shrek. But I don’t think his friends know what’s going on. They can’t figure out why Ben’s daddy has all this creepy stuff around.”
* Birmingham Rep’s Sleeping Beauty is at the Crescent Theatre from now until January 14. More information at www.birmingham-rep.co.uk