John McLarnon is currently starring in Jamie Lloyd’s West End production of The Commitments which celebrates its first birthday at the Palace Theatre today!
John understudied five roles in the original cast before taking over as Outspan full-time last month. The Commitments has been adapted for the stage by Roddy Doyle from his original novel.
Originally from Glasgow, John made his West End debut as Rebel Leader and first cover Pop in We Will Rock You (Dominion). His theatre credits also include: Spider in Jekyll & Hyde (Union), Josh in Elegies For Angels Punks & Raging Queens (Tron Theatre, Glasgow) and Hamish/Superfly in Jack & The Beanstalk (Perth Theatre). He also created the role of John in the award winning Wasted Love (Edinburgh Fringe & Actors Church, London). As a singer-songwriter he released his debut EP last year.
I recently spoke to John backstage at the Palace Theatre about his new West End leading role, why The Commitments is his dream job, his Irish accent and only knowing one musical theatre song when he joined drama school…
In 2012 I reviewed you in The Improvised Musical at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival… and just over two years later here we are in your West End dressing room!
It’s been a mad couple of years actually! When I did the fringe that year I knew I was going into We Will Rock You. I literally started the next month which was an amazing feeling – I could really enjoy it. When I found out The Commitments was coming in I spoke to my agent but it was going to be really, really close dates-wise. Because I was desperate to do this we decided I should just go for it anyway and then the dates changed so it was going to be a month overlap. It was up in the air for a while, but then We Will Rock You were so supportive of me and Mark Dugdale (who also went from We Will Rock You to The Commitments at the same time). They managed to get someone else to return to the show so it all worked out.
Weren’t you rehearsing for The Commitments during the day and performing We Will Rock You in the evenings?
Weren’t you rehearsing for The Commitments during the day and performing We Will Rock You in the evenings?
Yes, I had to double up for six week which was… horrible [laughs]. Everyone says it’s really hard to double up but I just thought it would be fine. After two weeks I was knackered, I had to take a week off in November. I went back up to Scotland and just slept for three days. It has been amazing, I’ve been really lucky.
What has it been like to take over as Outspan after a year in the ensemble?
I was second cover to the role last year and only ended up on seven or eight times over the course of the year, it was very sporadic. So it was very cool taking over because when you do go on, especially as a second cover, because the performances are so far apart – I was covering five roles last year – you can’t really relax into it or make it your own. It was so nice to take over a part I covered because I was going into rehearsals knowing the geography of the show. It’s really tricky for leads and wires and things. It meant I could really focus on the character during the rehearsal period and try to make it my own and put my stamp on it.
Do you have the freedom to do that?
They’re so good with that here. Sometimes in long-running shows people take over and there’s a predetermined notion of what it should be which I guess is fair enough. It’s been so nice because all of us who have taken over, and the new guys, have been given the opportunity to try what we wanted to do.
It must be nice working alongside Mark (Dugdale) again!
He understudied me in We Will Rock You and then I understudied him last year in this! We were a double act in We Will Rock You and we’re a double act again now which is really easy because we already have that chemistry offstage anyway.
What’s the atmosphere like backstage here at the Palace Theatre?
It’s like nothing I’ve ever done. Because we were the original cast last year we went through quite a long rehearsal process and opened the show together not knowing what was going to happen – whether it was going to be a success of whether people were going to hate it. It’s the first time I’ve been in the original cast of a big musical and last year everyone was so close, it’s a real family feel amongst the cast, crew and band. It was really sad at cast change to say goodbye to people who we’d been with for so long, but all the guys in the new cast are so lovely. It’s kind of weird; we’re all waiting for the problems to happen because it’s been so easy [laughs]!
What is Jamie Lloyd like to work with?
He’s one of these directors who has a great eye for stuff, he has a vision that nine people out of ten would never have dreamt of. From an actor’s point of view he’s great to work with because he’ll let you play with stuff and will ask for your opinion, even for the slightest details that the audience might not pick up on when they first see it. He guides you on your way and allows you to discover, which is really refreshing, especially in such a big scale West End production. He was in our rehearsals the other week – he’s running from Urinetown to here – but always comes back with fresh takes on things. It’s been a really good experience to work with him, especially with the range of stuff he does. I think The Commitments has a real place in his heart.
Why were you so keen to do the show? Did you watch the film growing up?
It’s really cliché but yes, I kind of grew up with it. My dad was a big fan of the film, book and the soundtrack which was played a lot in my house. I played in a wedding band for eight years growing up and when I was at Uni. The Commitments stuff is like staple, you know? I don’t really come from a musical theatre background; I did bands and plays and then sort of got into musical theatre. When I went to drama school at twenty-five I had one musical theatre song and all these other kids had these big books.
What was yours?!
It was umm… what was it? ‘I Want To Make Magic’ from Fame [laughs] because I had just done it a year before. I didn’t realise that you had to know all these things. There was one score in the library which was The Commitments movie and I took solace in that and held it very close [laughs]. I thought ‘I’m going to get found out here’ but then I just took things like ‘Mustang Sally’ into the class and it would be fine. So when I found out it was coming into town I just… there are roles and shows that come along every now and again that, as an actor, you go ‘you know what, this is what I want to do’. I think you have to be very honest with yourself about where you fit and what you’re good at. When something comes along that you think you fit into you have to go for it, so I kind of did. It was a surreal experience when I got it. We had Roddy Doyle in rehearsals all the way through; it’s really surreal talking to the person who came up with these characters I’ve known for years and years. Now taking over as Outspan is even more surreal because I’ve been a fan of Glen Hansard - who played the part in the film and wrote Once – for years, way before I got into musicals. He’s one of my idols, I’ve actually got one of his songs tattooed onto me [laughs]. So it’s really weird that I’m now playing the part he played in the movie. It’s special. People would always request The Commitments songs when I was playing at weddings, and now to play them to 1,400 people each night is mad.
What are the audiences like? They go wild for this show!
We get a lot of fans of the film and book. There are lots of young people who have maybe grown up listening to it because their parents were into it, people who were the right age when the film came out and then older people who love the music, there’s a real mix. At the end they’re all up on their feet every single night without fail. As soon as we hit the first chord of ‘Mustang Sally’ everyone is up! It becomes like a gig at the end, it’s the big payoff. Deco goes off into the audience which is what we used to do at weddings! It’s amazing, I really thought it would be hard to beat ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ at the end of We Will Rock You, but I think this tops that to be honest. I think it’s because we’re playing instruments too, you feel like a bit of a Rockstar.
I love that in your bio you apologise to your friends, family and neighbours for your “newly discovered brash Irish accent.” How easy was it for you to discover it?
I think I’ve got a good ear for learning accents, but what happens is that when I’m learning one every other accent gets pushed out. At the point when I was auditioning for this I had done something recently for which I had to be northern Irish so that was my Irish accent. It had to be real and had to be really authentic north side Dublin which is a really specific accent. I actually got the audiobook of The Commitments, which is read by Aidan Gillen, and listened to it constantly on the train to work and at night before I went to bed… I can probably recite the novel [laughs]. It’s kind of mad. I really worked hard at it and now every accent I do has a Dublin tinge to it. Plus it’s coming through in my own accent now! I keep saying “grand” all the time!
What can someone who knows nothing about The Commitments expect from the show?
I think it’s a really uplifting show. It’s sort of the old famous rags to riches story, although in this show they never quite get the riches. It’s set in 1986 when unemployment was rife. For a fleeting moment in these young kids’ lives they get to be amazing at something. I think we can see a bit of ourselves in it - anyone who has ever dreamed of playing an instrument. It’s a great story! It’s a simple story and Roddy says that. It’s simply about these kids who decide they want to do something with their lives.
I was taken aback by how slick and cinematic the production is – the design looks incredible and is extremely detailed!
It’s the way Roddy wrote it. When I first read the script I found it really hard to imagine how these scene changes would happen, but the design by Soutra Gilmour just does it! It’s seamless! What’s incredible about it is that even though they are reaching these heights, even at the end it’s still enclosed by the tower block which is really clever and interesting. No matter how hard they try they never quite get out of that. Like you say, it is very detailed and we’ve had a lot of comments about people coming to see the show again and noticing things they didn’t notice before. There’s stuff going on everywhere on the block of flats. Last year there was a point every night where I was at one of the windows and had to just stand in my pants and I’m convinced nobody ever saw it [laughs]. I did it every night but nobody ever noticed! I don’t know if anyone’s doing it this year, but it was a choice I made and Jamie liked it and err… yep… every night I just stood up there in my pants alone in my flat. But yes, it is a really beautiful piece! It’s really authentic of the time and place.
We’re about to get stagey so I hope you know more than one musical theatre song now?
[laughs] Yes I know more than one!
Which three musical theatre songs would you take to a desert island?
Oh no! Ok… musical theatre songs… I would say ‘Sunday’ from Sunday in the Park with George. That was my final show at drama school and it was quite thrilling to sing and even when I hear it now it’s quite thrilling to listen to as well. This is difficult! This is the thing… I want to pick good ones. I’ll take ‘Gethsemane’ from Jesus Christ Superstar because I did it just before I went to drama school and it was my mum and dad’s favourite musical. It was quite nice to be able to sing it in front of them at the biggest theatre in Glasgow, it was special. It’s quite depressing though isn’t it to take to a desert island [laughs]?! Then maybe… oh I don’t know! I don’t want to cheat and take something from Once, I’ll be stagey for once. I’ll take ‘What is it About Her?’ from The Wild Party! When I only knew one musical theatre song at drama school I buried myself in the library for a few weeks and I remember hearing that and thinking even to listen to it’s quite exciting. Those are my three!
Finally, it must be so nice having such dedicated support behind you and the show?
It’s incredible! There have a been quite a few people who followed Mark and me over from We Will Rock You and are constantly so supportive of what we do, even if it’s outside of theatre as well – like gigs – and I released a song last year too. It’s really nice and special, I always make sure I stay and chat to them at the stage door and try my best to speak to people on Twitter because at the end of the day they are the reason we are all in a job! They come back and support us, it’s so humbling. It’s an important part of some people’s lives, it’s their passion. You have to step back and realise you’re doing something a lot of people would kill to do. The fans of this show are particularly amazing… and they make a lot of cake as well! There are a lot of keen bakers who follow this show. Everyone in the cast loves it because there’s always cake at the weekend! As I said they’re the reason we’re here so long may it continue!
Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)
The Commitments is currently booking at the Palace Theatre until Sunday 19th April 2015.
Please visit www.thecommitmentslondon.com for info and tickets.