Sunday, 21 September 2014

Big Interview: Simon Lipkin

Simon Lipkin is currently playing Touchstone in Derek Bond’s production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the Southwark Playhouse. 

From November he will be starring as The Proprietor in Jamie Lloyd’s production of Assassins by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Simon recently finished playing Barlow the Dog in I Can’t Sing at the London Palladium. His other West End credits include: Lonny in Rock Of Ages, Nicky and Trekkie Monster in Avenue Q, A Christmas Carol and Pharaoh in Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Simon’s theatre credits also include: Galahad in Spamalot (UK/International Tour), The Wedding Singer (original UK cast), Willard in Footloose (UK Tour).

I recently spoke to Simon about taking on his first Shakespeare play, why he’s so excited to be working with Jamie Lloyd on Assassins, the closure of I Can’t Sing and what it was like to recently return to Rock Of Ages as a last minute emergency cover for two nights only…

Obviously it was extremely sad when I Can’t Sing closed, but all of a sudden things have gone crazy for you! You’re busy working on As You Like It and Assassins, it must all be a bit mad?!
[laughs] Yes it’s all a little bit crazy. We finished I Can’t Sing in May and it was really sad. We had been workshopping the show for about a year and a half and I had been with it from the start. It was such an amazing show to be a part of, the cast were incredible and there were so many creative people. Harry Hill, Steve Brown and Sean Foley were all really brilliant people to work with, but I guess that’s the struggle of a new musical – you can never guess what is going to happen. We did it and we had an amazing time! It was actually nice to have a little break afterwards; I had a couple of months off. I deliberately thought, ‘Do you know what? It’s been a long time since I’ve had time off’ because I was in Rock Of Ages for a couple of years before I Can’t Sing and Spamalot directly before that. I decided to have a little rest because my brain needed to sleep [laughs]. 

How did As You Like It come about?
Well, the opportunity to work with Derek Bond (director) came up. We had worked together years and years ago on the workshop of a show called Desperately Seeking Susan. I’ve never done any Shakespeare before. I was still going for a comedy part so I thought, ‘A comedy part is in my comfort zone, but instead of doing a comedy part I’m used to, I’ll do one where I just have no idea what I’m saying!’ [laughs] I guess I just thought it would be a great opportunity to do something different and to give myself a little bit of a stretch. I’ve still got a puppet in this show, so it’s not that far removed. They went, “We’ve got an idea for one of the characters, how about you have a puppet?” So there’s still a little bit of puppeteering in there somewhere. 

Have you enjoyed working on the show so far?
It’s so amazing! As an actor, I think it’s a good thing to do because it really makes you use your brain and you have to be switched on all the time. I’m very lucky to be with some people who have done some great Shakespeare work before, I’m learning so much from them. I do this for a little while and then it’s straight on to Assassins! I literally have one day off and then it is down the road from the Southwark Playhouse to the Chocolate Factory to get cracking there. I think it will be amazing, it’s such an exciting project to be a part of!

Simon rehearsing for As You Like It

How would you sum up As You Like It? Theatreland has been taken over by sheep!
It’s one of these great comedies that kind of goes in reverse. It starts really intense with two brothers wrestling, people being banished from the kingdom and people going to find their long lost fathers. Then it progressively gets sillier and sillier and sillier and ends up in a quadruple wedding. It’s a very silly farce in a forest, with girls dressing up as guys – so it’s kind of the reverse of a normal play. Usually you start laughing and then end up with the serious stuff, but with this one we get the serious stuff out the way and then we just try and give you a good old entertaining night. I think one of the good things about As You Like It is that it is for people who aren’t necessarily Shakespeare lovers. It’s a really good one to get your teeth sunk into because it makes a lot of sense and there’s nothing too confusing. You don’t need to know your history, it is purely one of those ones where you just see a lovely situational comedy set in a forest with love and a little bit of fighting… and sheep… and me trying to have a relationship with a sheep [laughs]. It’s a very, very silly play that’s a lot of fun with some great performances. 

Is it nice to be working at the Southwark Playhouse?
It’s amazing! What a venue! I’ve seen a couple of things here now, I saw In The Heights and Dogfight. It’s just such a brilliant space! I think it’s actually going to be quite nice going from here to the Chocolate Factory because the Chocolate Factory is obviously a few years down the line and has had so many incredible West End transfers now. There’s so much good work there and I feel like the Southwark Playhouse is really hot on its heels and is becoming the next venue to produce this incredible calibre of work. There are some brilliant actors and directors working here.

What has it been like going from one of the biggest theatres in London to one of the smallest? The London Palladium and Southwark Playhouse are both very prestigious venues, but couldn’t be more different! 
I love it! Going from the Palladium – which is two and a half thousand seats – to the Southwark Playhouse – which is two hundred and something seats – is a big old switch! I personally think you really have to be on your toes. When there are two and a half thousand seats you play things slightly differently, but here people are literally next to you. I have been lucky to do a lot of comedy and that’s what I love to do – I love making people laugh – but having them so close means you can play things subtly and you can treat it in a very different way. It’s very intimate and very exciting to be in a venue like this. I have always enjoyed it and I think a lot of actors, especially comedians, like to play the big theatres but sometimes it is even more fun to play the smaller ones. 

Simon in I Can't Sing

You must be very excited about Assassins, particularly working with Jamie Lloyd. Everybody I interview who has worked with Jamie speaks so highly of him!
I can’t wait! I’ve known Jamie a little while now, just sort of personally, but I’ve never worked with him and I’m so excited! People may have seen Assassins, but I’m guessing they haven’t seen Jamie Lloyd’s Assassins. I’m guessing he’s going to do something pretty exciting with it and having Catherine (Tate) on board is going to be wonderful because she is absolutely hilarious. The cast they have got - Andy Nyman, Mike McShane, David Roberts – is incredible. There are some very talented people in there! I think we’re going to do a lot of laughing and have a great time doing it. 

Have you recovered from Rock Of Ages?!
[laughs] Well I have less eyeliner on these days! Less eyeliner and a lot less mullet! That show was so much fun to do. What a ride! To be able to be a Rockstar every night and to unashamedly lunge at women in the front row [laughs] and not be judged for it was quite something. When you grow up and decide you want to go into musical theatre you think, ‘well there probably aren’t going to be many opportunities to run around with girls in their underwear, shamelessly flirt with the audience and get paid for it’. Everyone was winning and everyone was having a lovely time. 

It was great because so many people who don’t usually like going to the theatre loved Rock Of Ages!
It was a weird one, it was either a show people adored or didn’t like. Not everyone is into jukebox musicals but Rock Of Ages pitched itself right and didn’t take itself too seriously. It was like, ‘here’s some music, here’s some jokes – if want to get on board and have a great time… awesome, if not… no worries’ and I think that was the beauty of it. It was a little rough around the edges and I think that was what I personally loved about it. But yes… I did need some recovery time afterwards [laughs].

And what was it like to recently return as an emergency cover for two nights on the tour? It was during the final week of I Can’t Sing!
That was weird! The poor guys who play and understudy Lonny on the tour both got injured and couldn’t perform. I was walking to the stage door of the Palladium for I Can’t Sing and got a phone call saying, “Get on a train to Manchester!” I was like, “Alright… sure.” Literally on the train up I was like, ‘It’s been six months since I’ve done this show, do I remember it?’ and the answer was no [laughs]! It was the weirdest thing, as soon as I slipped back into those ridiculously tight jeans and put the mullet on and ran back onstage it was like I had never left. It was so lovely to just go back and do it another couple of times. It was great and made me remember how much I loved it and how much fun it was. That cast which are on tour at the moment are absolutely fantastic! The audiences are amazing and are so up for having a great time. It was cool and good fun to do, but it was definitely a shock to the system to play Lonny and then to come back to I Can’t Sing and play a puppet dog. I was in Manchester for a couple of days and then came back to I Can’t Sing for the final two days of the show. I got on stage and kind of thought, ‘I might just do Miss Saigon tonight… I might just do a different show altogether!’ I was hopping between them which was [laughs] quite an experience. 

Simon in Rock Of Ages

Slightly horrible question… but which three musical theatre songs would you take with you to a desert island?
Ok… I’m going to take my favourite song which is ‘What Kind of Fool Am I?’ by Anthony Newley from Stop The World - I Want To Get Off. I’m taking the Sammy Davis, Jr version because that’s my favourite. I need a big old happy song… I would take ‘For Now’ from Avenue Q because everything in life is only For Now so being stuck on a desert island is only for now [laughs]. What do I need for my third one? Hold on… I need to think of something clever… There are so many good songs! How do you choose one? Maybe I’ll take… hmmm…

Do you need a female belter?
No I don’t need a female belter in my life! That’s fine – I’m surrounded by too many of them [laughs]. I want a lovely upbeat one, something I can maybe have a dance to. I would throw a beach party so maybe something like ‘You Can’t Stop The Beat’ from Hairspray? Is that a boring one? Oh I don’t know! Literally I have no idea. As long as there is food and music I’m happy! 

You’ve built up so much support from theatregoers throughout your career. After seeing you in Avenue Q or Rock of Ages, people will come down to the Southwark Playhouse or Chocolate Factory to see what you do next and so on. It must be lovely having that behind you?
Yes it is! It’s wonderful and very flattering. I guess it’s always a bit strange because I just think, ‘Well I’m only a bloke who tells jokes for a living’ – that’s essentially all I do. Well, plus running around on stage in costumes and makeup. I would never say I’m the greatest actor in the world, I’m certainly not the greatest singer and my dancing is questionable… maybe about once a month I can pull out a big dance move. All I ever got into this for was to try and entertain people, I just liked making people laugh. So to know that maybe I’ve done that and because of that people want to come and see me in other stuff so I can make them laugh again is awesome. I will always be grateful to them because without those people supporting you, why would we do it? It would be boring if we performed to an empty audience. It’s amazing to have the support of people and if they’re having a laugh and being entertained then my job is done!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

As You Like It runs at the Southwark Playhouse until Saturday 18th September 2014. Please visit for further information and tickets.

Assassins runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory between 21st November 2014 and 7th March 2015. Please visit for further information and tickets.

Photo Credit 3-4: Tristram Kenton

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