Oliver begins a five-week run at the Birmingham Hippodrome on Tuesday. Marion McMullen talks backstage with the show's star.
“SHUT up and drink your gin” is emblazoned on the T-shirts of the backstage crew of musical hit Oliver!
“It’s a line Fagin says in the show,” explains Neil Morrissey. The popular Midlander is almost unrecognizable as the criminal mastermind of a fearless gang of pick-pocketing child thieves.
He’s all singing, all dancing and the ultimate lovable rogue as he doses his young charges with their nightly slug of Mother’s Ruin.
Neil brings the Dickens-inspired show to Birmingham next week as part of a sell-out UK tour, but he will be handing over the reins of Fagin to Brian Conley from April 3 while The Bill’s Cat Simmons replaces Samantha Barks as Nancy while she heads off to film Les Miserables.
Neil jokingly wails that he’s suffering from “Fagin’s Tourettes” and the hand-over will be timely.
“I can’t get the songs out of my head. They’re so catchy. It’s not even my own songs I keep singing, it’s other characters.”
And he promptly breaks out into a few lines of Nancy’s torch song As Long As He Needs Me.
Oliver! is a massive production to take on the road. The 108-strong company includes a 31-strong adult cast, teams of children, seven chaperones per show, five wig people and one dog handler.
Backstage is a mass of hats, bustles, bodices and costumes as well as a giant cauldron of highly smelly lumpy gruel waiting for the poor hungry orphans.
“It’s quick change city backstage,” laughs company manager Neil White. “We’ve got 19 stage sets, 17 double wardrobes of clothes plus rails and it’s all opera-size.
“There are so many props it looks like Antiques Roadshow backstage.
“It really is like the circus is in town. It takes 11 45ft lorries to move everything from theatre to theatre.”
It used to take Men Behaving Badly star Neil more than an hour in the make-up chair to transform into Fagin, but now he and the make-up artists have the whole process down to 40 minutes.
“I look 20 years older at the end,” he admits. “Then I have to put on the shirt, waistcoat, frock coat, the shoes. I never imagined playing Fagin – my agent was the first to suggest it. The first time I tried the make-up I looked like something out of Fiddler On The Roof. ”
Fagin sings about his future retirement plans in the Lionel Bart musical but Neil, who turns 50 on July 4, is busier than ever.
“The missus has something planned for my birthday,” says the Stafford-born actor. “I’ve just been too busy. It’s a bit secret but I don’t feel like I’m turning 50. I still feel I’m 21... I just can’t run as fast.”
Luckily, he didn’t have to do any running filming new BBC2 thriller Line Of Duty in Birmingham last year. “My character had a limp,” he grins. “I was the only one who didn’t have to run anywhere.”
There’s also talk of a new sitcom on the cards and Neil, whose career includes Rocky in Boon, the voice of Bob The Builder and Waterloo Road, says he has one piece of advice for Brian Conley when he takes over as Fagin – get fit.
“I was huffing and puffing the first few shows and you need to drink plenty of water. You’ve got to be in top shape to be Fagin.”
* Oliver! opens at Birmingham Hippodrome on Tuesday and runs until April 21. Box office 0844 338 5000.
1. Glue back hair and pull back everything from the face with eight or nine hairgrips and then cover. “Every single day is geared to getting the job done,” says Neil.
2. Put on Fagin wig and paint out forehead so the hairline blends in. “I just sit here and watch,” grins Neil. “I slowly get the thieves’ pale pallor and the wrinkles are painted on. The wig is made of real hair.”
3. Apply black waterproof mascara to eyebrows and glue on the three pieces that make up the moustache and beard. Neil says: “It goes rock hard on the eyebrows. I’ve never worn so much make-up in my life before for a part, but Fagin is such a specific look. I take down the razor a peg as well and the bristles act like Velcro for the beard.”
4. Fix on microphone. “I takes a bit of getting used to and goes down the back. It can get very, very itchy – but you can’t scratch it. Luckily, I don’t think about it once I’m on stage. I have TF – Team Fagin – pit-stops during the show for water, glue and spirit gum to make sure everything is in place.”
5. The costume is the final part of the transformation. “The coat is very heavy and I sweat buckets. I also have blue braces and red braces. I love them even though no-one ever sees them.”