Thursday, 12 May 2016

Big Interview: Matthew Croke

Matthew Croke is currently starring as Don Lockwood in Elizabeth Newman's new actor–musician production of Singin’ in the Rain. 

The show recently opened at the Salisbury Playhouse ahead of runs at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton and the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Matthew appeared in the 2012 West End revival of Singin’ in the Rain at the Palace Theatre, understudying the role of Don.

Matthew most recently appeared in Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory. His credits also include: understudy Fiyero in Wicked (Apollo Victoria), Diesel/standby Tony in West Side Story (UK & Ireland tour), understudy Amos Hart & Mary Sunshine in Chicago (Cambridge) and understudy Eugene in Grease (Piccadilly). 

I recently spoke to Matthew about how it feels to be taking on his first major leading role, why Singin’ in the Rain meant so much to him growing up and how the piece works as an actor–musician production. We also discussed dream roles, the high expectations of Funny Girl, returning to Wicked and having 200 of his friends and family watching him play Tony in West Side Story…

Has Don Lockwood always been one of those roles you’ve wanted to play?
When I was a kid watching Singin’ in the Rain I knew that a role like Don Lockwood was something I would always want to do. When I was able to understudy the role before I jumped at the chance, but then to be given this opportunity to make the role my own… there was no question. It’s so rare for someone like me to be given a role like this. I came to a stage in my career where I really wanted to start playing some roles of my own. In my mind I had to take a step back from dancing because you get pigeonholed. If you can dance then maybe you’re a good understudy, but what’s amazing about this role is that all three disciplines are needed.

What are your memories of doing the show first time round in the West End? What was it like going on as Don?
Going on as Don was probably one of the best moments of my career. I’ve been on for roles in other productions and they’ve been equally as amazing, but this role is so rare. I remember the first time I went on at the Palace, after the finale when the whole company have been soaked through, the final bow is taken from Don – everyone follows him. I was just so overwhelmed and couldn’t believe what I’d just done… so I forgot to bow [laughs]. The whole company were just stood there for what felt about ten minutes. The lady playing Kathy was like, “Matt, bow!” A almost got from A to B… but not quite.

Sarah Vezmar & Matthew in Singin' in the Rain

Did it feel strange to rehearse a completely different version of a show you’ve done before?
I’m really excited to now be making it my own, it’s a completely different show. It’s an actor-musician production – I’m so in awe of all these musicians who are performing and then just pick up different instruments. It’s like a different language to me! At first when I opened the script, without realising my mind would refer back to what I did before. I worked hard on making it something brand new. After a few days of rehearsals it felt like I had never done the show before. Obviously I’m very proud and honoured to have been in the show and gone on as Don twice in the West End, but it was also important to approach this as a fresh new challenge.

What can audiences familiar with Singin’ in the Rain expect from this production?
In the best way possible, it is a very intimate production. There are only twelve people in the cast. When I did Funny Girl that was a small cast and the audiences loved the fact they felt part of it and I think this is the same. People will feel involved which I think is very important.

Matthew in Singin' in the Rain
Do you play any instruments?
Well the MD has managed to get some percussion out of me. When I accepted the contract I did say that I had never picked up an instrument in any professional way shape or form – I wanted to make sure they were aware of that [laughs]. 

The chemistry between Don, Cosmo and Kathy is so important, what have Christian Edwards and Eleanor Brown been like to work with?
They have been absolutely incredible – we’ve been having such a laugh and getting on really well. To be honest, in this industry it’s rare to go into a new cast and not know anybody. In an ideal world it’s nice to know a couple of people already so you know you’ll have a best mate, but actually I didn’t know anybody and couldn’t have asked for a better Cosmo or Kathy. We’re seriously having such a good time. I’m having a ball – it’s honestly the best experience of my career so far, creatively.

And how have you found working alongside your director, Elizabeth Newman?
She has brought stuff out of me I didn’t realise was even inside me – she’s so inspiring. I know that sounds really kind of like ‘actory-y’ [laughs], but it’s the first time I’ve experienced it. I think she’s an absolute legend, and the loveliest person as well. She cares so much about you and is so interested in absolutely everyone. She has an equal amount of love for everyone and knows how to get the best actor out from inside of you.

Do you have any favourite parts of the show?
When I started working on the solo ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ with our amazing choreographer Siân (Williams), I couldn’t believe my luck. I felt that overwhelming feeling of ‘is this really me? Oh my god.’ It’s a massive highlight! Also ‘Moses Supposes’ is a massive highlight too.

Christian Edwards & Matthew in rehearsals

You’ve just finished appearing in Funny Girl at the Chocolate Factory. It must have been crazy going into a show that was sold out before rehearsals had even begun?
I definitely felt the pressure because everybody had such a high expectation! I kept thinking ‘if I feel this pressure as part of the ensemble, I dread to think what Sheridan (Smith, Fanny Brice) is feeling’ because – let’s face it – she’s the reason the show did so well and then obviously an amazing show got put on top of that. I just felt for Sheridan! It was great to be a part of the creative process because before I had done lots of cast changes which, don’t get me wrong, I also enjoy. I had just gone back into Wicked which is already up and running, whereas with Funny Girl and Singin’ in the Rain you get to be really creative. I’ve realised that getting to make it your own is where the love lies. 

Funny Girl has obviously extended into the West End; at this point in my career it felt right to be brave and say “no” to something and try my damn hardest to get out there and get a role of my own. I couldn’t feel any happier right now to have achieved that. A lot of people thought maybe they hadn’t asked me to do the transfer [laughs], I didn’t get sacked! 

Sheridan Smith & Matthew 
You mentioned Wicked there too – what was it like to return to the show after all these years and to have lots of opportunities to go on as Fiyero?
Wicked was one of my first jobs out of college – the first time I did it I was a flying monkey, nineteen years old, loving life in Wicked. I was very fond of the part of Fiyero back then. I thought, 'maybe I could do that one day’. When I was available to go up for the show again I thought maybe it was the right time to be seen as a possible Fiyero. 

It was amazing to go back! It felt like a completely different show. In Wicked they have what they call dancer tracks and vocal tracks; first time round I was on a dancer track running around doing backflips being a crazy monkey, and this time round the vocals were more important than my dancing which is something I’ve worked really hard for. I’ve worked on my voice and acting to make it as strong as my dancing. Going on as Fiyero was a dream come true, I couldn’t have had a better time in that role. It meant so, so much to me to give it my all and make the part my own. I grew so fond of it.

I’m sending you to a desert island and you can only take three musical theatre songs. What are you going to take and why?
Wow [laughs]. Erm… well… one of my favourites is ‘Maria’ from West Side Story. Doing that show was another time of my life when I couldn’t believe what I’d just done, especially when I got to do a performance as Tony in my hometown Sheffield. That was something I’ll never forget.

Did all your friends and family come?
…about 200 people! The Lyceum was filled with all my friends and family. I think I even shed a tear during the finale like some stagey, overwhelmed actor on stage [laughs]. Luckily my agent managed to get me a planned date in Sheffield, the 200 people weren’t just sat at home doing nothing [laughs] – it was all planned.

Matthew with Sheridan Smith & Luke Fetherston in Funny Girl

I’m a massive fan of ‘This Is Not Over Yet’ from Parade. A singing teacher of mine at college gave the song to me and I loved it – it has stayed in my folder as one of those songs I’m ready to get out at any audition it’s suitable for. I’ve done it at a couple of concert things before – it’s just one of those songs I really enjoy singing.

And finally… obviously I would take ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ [laughs]. Regardless of me being in the show, it genuinely does mean so much to me. I grew up watching Gene Kelly and being so inspired by him and wanting to be him, so I feel so lucky to be taking on one of his roles. ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ the song makes me feel happy and brings back memories of growing up. I’m 28 now, so 15/16 years ago being a young lad at school wanting to go down the route of acting singing and dancing I had to put up with some idiots who don’t understand why you don’t want to do it… I would go home, whack on a bit of Gene Kelly and I wouldn’t care [laughs]. 

Looking ahead, what’s on your dream list?
Good question… I’ve been so focused on just playing a role no matter what it was [laughs, jokingly], I just wanted to go onstage and say my own lines – anything would have been ok with me! This is a rubbish answer because it’s something I’ve already done, but what comes to mind straightaway is Wicked – I would love to take Fiyero on full time. 

I would love to do something like a Tulsa in Gypsy or a Jimmy in Thoroughly Modern Millie. I want to play those kinds of roles whilst I still can! Don’t get me wrong, I still do enjoy dancing… I just want to be able to perform dance within a role, not being in the ensemble. Even though I would absolutely consider doing ensemble again if it was the right show. I just feel like I’ve done my fair share and I’m really passionate about taking on roles of my own – whether it’s two lines or two hundred lines.

Finally, what’s it like to have so much support behind you from theatre fans?
It makes you realise just how small this industry is, because sometimes you can feel quite lost and on your own. When you make a call to your agent about a certain something, you know a lot of other people are also making that call. So when you do get support and messages on social media or whatever it may be, you feel so lucky to be in an industry that has so much love and support. I imagine it’s not really like that in any other industry.

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins

Singin' in the Rain runs at the Salisbury Playhouse until 28th May. The production then plays the Octagon Theatre in Bolton (3rd-25th June) and New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme (30th June-16th July).

Photo Credit 2&3: Richard Davenport
Photo Credit 4: Ray Jefferson
Photo Credit 5&6: Marc Brenner
Photo Credit 7: Simon Ward

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