There are many “firsts” about David Fleeshman’s role in War Horse.
It’s the first time he has played a theatre in his home city of Birmingham in 40 years, since his very first, non-speaking, role at the Rep.
It’s also the first time he has signed up for such a long tour, which could take him up to February 2015.
It’s the first time he has played so many characters – five – in a single play.
And it’s only recently that David actually saw War Horse for the first time, despite several previous attempts.
“I queued up twice for returns in the West End but was unsuccessful,” he remembers.
“Then I nearly saw it on Broadway, when my wife and I flew over to see our son Richard perform in Ghost. But Sue said: ‘We can’t possibly see any other show except the one our son is in’.
“So when they announced the tour of War Horse, we got tickets to see it at the Lowry in Manchester, which is closest to our home in Cheshire.
“Then I got cast in the production. I told the director: ‘I’m going to need that night off, as I’m booked in to see the show!’.
“I have actually seen it now in the West End. It’s a fabulous play.”
The Fleeshmans are a talented family. For 35 years David has been married to actress Sue Jenkins, who played barmaid Gloria Todd in Coronation Street and Jackie Corkhill in Brookside.
They have three children – Emily and Rosie are actresses, while their 24-year-old son Richard played Craig Harris in Coronation Street and has gone on to great musical success, starring in Ghost in the West End and Broadway and touring with Elton John.
The War Horse tour officially opens at the Birmingham Hippodrome after previews in Plymouth. The cast enjoyed eight weeks of rehearsals, which seems a luxury in theatreland, but as David explains it is very necessary for War Horse.
“A show like this requires a phenomenal amount of rehearsal,” he says. “You roll up on Day One with 12 puppeteers who have never operated a horse before.
“There are four teams of them, as no one team can do eight shows a week, that would be far too hard. They rotate, which means everything we do has to be learned four times.”
But it works. Audiences will be amazed how quickly they forget there are people inside the horses, which come to life in front of them.
The play is an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel, later made into a film by Steven Spielberg. It follows teenager Albert who signs up to fight in the First World War when his beloved horse Joey is called up for service.
The story has certainly affected David.
“Even in rehearsals, I am choked up when I look at Joey,” he confides.
“I know it’s a puppet, just some cloth and wood, but it really gets to me, it’s so realistic.”
David’s main character is Arthur, the brother of Ted and uncle of our hero Albert. The two brothers don’t get on and end up competing to buy Joey at auction.
But while Arthur features heavily in the first act, in the second David is running on and off stage to play a variety of roles including a burnt British soldier, a wounded German soldier and a British infantryman.
“It’s the ultimate ensemble piece. Apart from Albert, everyone plays several people.
“It’s the first time in my 35-year career that I’ve played so many characters on stage. But that’s fine, it keeps it interesting on such a long tour. It’s better than hanging around in the dressing room, doing crosswords and waiting to go on. In this show, very few of the cast ever get back to their dressing rooms.”
Mind you, 61-year-old David is used to variety. He is one of those actors with a recognisable face, though you may not remember quite where you saw him last.
It may have been as a crooked councillor or a Detective Inspector in Emmerdale, or one of three characters in Coronation Street. Or perhaps you spotted him in Silent Witness, The Mill, All The Small Things or Trial and Retribution.
It all started for him in Birmingham, where he grew up in Kings Heath and became interested in acting while at Moseley Grammar School.
“I joined amateur groups and progressed to appearing at the Crescent Theatre.
Then I trained at Birmingham Theatre School.
“My very first professional role was the Rep in 1973. It was still the New Rep then, as it had only just moved to Broad Street.
“It was in Twelfth Night. When Orsino says at the start ‘If music be the food of love, play on’, I was one of the court musicians who played on.
“I played a lot of other small parts, carrying spears. But I actually have never been back to work in a Birmingham theatre since, until now.
“I used to come back regularly when my parents were still alive, and my sister still lives in Solihull. I’ve also done BBC plays at Pebble Mill and the Mailbox, and I’ve been in Doctors four times.
“I’m hoping that some old school friends will come and see me in War Horse.”
* War Horse comes to Birmingham Hippodrome from October 16 to November 9. For tickets ring 0844 338 5000 or go to www.birminghamhippodrome.com.