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Interview: Killian Donnelly Chats THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA at Her Majesty's Theatre

The actor on what makes this long-running West End musical so special

The Phantom of the Opera

Before COVID-19 hit, Killian Donnelly was due to tour the UK playing the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera. But less than three weeks into the run, the pandemic shut it down. After a long wait to return to stage, Killian is donning the iconic mask once more, but this time in the West End.

We chat to him about how it felt when Covid-19 temporarily took away his dream role, what makes Phantom so special, and how he's finding fatherhood.

How did re-opening night go?

It went really well. There's always extra pressure on nights like that, because all the bosses are in and you just want to give your best and greatest performance that you've ever given, ever. But then Cameron Mackintosh came down and said, "Just do what you've been doing the last few shows."

It went really, really well, and the audience was really responsive. There was a lovely energy coming off the audience that fuelled us, and they stood up at the end which is always good!

As well the bosses, your parents were also in for opening night?

They were, and they absolutely loved it! The last time they saw me in Phantom of the Opera, I was playing Raoul.

It was hilarious though, as the new posters weren't at the front of house yet, so they took a picture of themselves with a poster of Josh Piterman as Phantom. It was hysterical because they showed me this picture and said "There you are, that's you!", and I had to tell them it wasn't me, it was Josh Piterman, who's got the most incredible, chiselled bone structure ever.

It must be amazing to be back on stage in front of a live audience again?

The actor answer is yes, it's incredible, but here's the real answer: it's petrifying and very nerve-wracking.

Cameron Mackintosh asked how I was before opening night, and I told him that I was really nervous and so tired. And he said, "It's because you haven't been doing it for 18 months, give yourself a break, you just have to slowly progress into it as you're not match fit."

I've been addicted to the Olympics and every single athlete has been saying, "I've been doing the long jump in my attic", and it's the same. For the last 18 months I've been singing in the house, or while cutting the grass, because you're just trying to keep the muscle active. So as soon as you're doing five shows in a row, you're absolutely knackered. You've just got to slowly try to build the muscle up.

It was only after doing two weeks of shows that I actually felt like I was getting back into the swing of things, and that took its toll. Also, to see an audience for the first time in 18 months was nerve-wracking. But finally now the creases are being ironed out and I'm really enjoying it.

The Phantom of the Opera

The first day back in rehearsals must have been overwhelming too?

Yeah, it was. It wasn't like any usual rehearsal process, where we run up to each other and hug, and have a cup of tea and hug each other again, and then we sing "Masquerade" and we hug again. It wasn't anything like that.

It was, let's all get tested, let's all two-metre distance, everyone singing "Masquerade" go into this room, Killian and Lucy [Lucy St Louis who plays Christine] go into this room. So, it was all separate, and it was only towards the end of the five weeks' rehearsal process that we slowly started to combine the rooms for ensemble work. So, it was bizarre.

The Phantom is such a unique role offstage as well as onstage, because everyone goes to a warm-up, but I don't because I'm in a make-up chair. So, a lot of people don't see me until they're on stage, which I guess adds to the nervousness and the fear you're meant to have. I think I've got a lot of FOMO [fear of missing out], because I'm spending so much time in the make-up chair and away from the ensemble.

Have you got a favourite song to perform in the show?

I love the end of Act One. After "All I Ask Of You" there's this enormous Pegasus structure that I'm on top of, and I nearly get a head rush because of the height. It's such an intimate moment, yet what you sing is so vast and extreme, and that is all down to Andy Bridge who lights it, and our sound designer, Mick Potter.

It's my favourite bit, because you see his heart actually breaking, and that's the first time the audience sees that the Phantom is actually a very sensitive man. He's got emotions as opposed to being the ghost, the monster, the mythical being.

What's the hardest part of the show for you?

"The Final Lair" is a workout in itself.

People always ask me, what's harder: playing Phantom in Phantom of the Opera or Valjean in Les Misérables? And it's Phantom, because doing Valjean you do a big soliloquy at the top of the show when your voice is in the best nick it's ever going to be, and you're able to sing that out. The Phantom's soliloquy, if you will, is at the end of the show when you're screaming, on your knees, and it's so physical that you kind of have to learn the piece whilst running on a treadmill. The end is so rewarding, but it's also a workout.

Going into it you need to psych yourself up, because you're on for a 13-minute ferocious scene which just charges through. I love it but I feel like I've lost a stone every night from that scene alone.

Before Covid-19 hit, you were three weeks into The Phantom of the Opera tour, which then sadly got shut down because of the pandemic. That must have been devastating.

It was genuinely heartbreaking to only get three weeks of it, as I've wanted to play the Phantom since I was 11. I did say immediately, "Put it on my CV that I have played The Phantom of the Opera" despite it being three weeks.

There was so much devastation because of Covid-19, but I felt cheated out of a role that I always wanted. You work hard for something, and you can't believe it's there, and then the last thing you think of destroying it is a global pandemic.

In March, I kind of said goodbye to it, and thought, "Right, I've done it." When I got the phonecall in December offering Phantom on the West End, that was just surreal because you never feel you've gotten into the character in three weeks. It's more like three months before you've completely got a hold on what you're going to do, and comfortable doing it. Three weeks you're actually just asking yourself, "Are they liking my interpretation of the character?".

I felt really cheated missing out on the role, and now feel incredibly grateful just to get to step on stage every night in the West End.

What's the best thing about playing the Phantom?

After 35 years, you can still do different interpretations of one part. As opposed to stand here, cry now, be angry to her and then bow; there's none of that. It's genuinely down to the actor to decide what the Phantom is feeling, and that's been the most incredible process of the whole thing.

The Phantom of the OperaFor those who haven't seen the show before, what can they expect?

It sounds so clichéd, but it's a great night out at the theatre. It's escapism, and it's the best kind of escapism.

It's a cultural icon - everyone knows The Phantom of the Opera the same way that everyone knows there is a ballet called Swan Lake. I've never seen Swan Lake, but you know of it, and it's referenced in so many TV shows and everything. In the same way, there is something called The Phantom of the Opera that's in the world.

When you see it for the first time, you're able to connect all the songs to a story. I think that's the best kind of escapism that we all need at the moment.

I think theatre is therapy in a way for so many people - to just unleash emotions collectively with a bunch of people - and it's something we've been missing for the last 18 months.

So, get a good dose of therapy down you with The Phantom of the Opera. There's the line for the new poster!

Do you have a show or a role that you'd love to revisit?

I would love to be a swing in Les Misérables again, I'd love it. It was the best training I ever got, going into Les Misérables and just being told, "rRght, tonight you're on for Feuilly", and then you'd read the book, be Feuilly, and then the next night you're on for Courfeyrac, and then Combeferre, and then Valjean, all in the space of a week or two. It was just the greatest training you needed for your brain to perform. It's definitely one of the best jobs I've ever been given.

Still to this day, of all the roles I've been lucky enough to play, a swing in Les Misérables was the best role I ever did, and I'd happily go back. If they turned around to me and said, "We'll give you a swing in Les Mis for life", I say, "Cool, done." Every day, going in and something is different - how wonderful.

Over lockdown you did virtual masterclasses and teaching. That must have been very rewarding to see and coach upcoming talent?

Hundred percent, and it kept me creative. I was searching for anything to do, like the grass never got cut more, because I was just like, "Nothing to do, better cut the grass again!". I was just trying to fill my day; you'd walk to the park, you'd go home, you watch that show on TV and then you go for another walk. In Ireland, we were only allowed two kilometres from our house at one point, so it was really restrictive and you're just looking for something.

It was my partner that suggested I do online teaching. It picked up so much, and what I loved more than anything was seeing 16-year-olds talk about Les Mis and Kinky Boots because they have grown up with musical theatre. When I was at school, I kept it quiet that I loved musical theatre because it wasn't the thing to shout about, so it was really touching to hear them say they absolutely loved it.

Hearing passion for performing coming from a young person's voice when they're just connecting with a piece of text is wonderful. And how much they're influenced by social media, and performers like Carrie Hope Fletcher, so many young girls wanted to sing Carrie's songs. It's absolutely incredible that they have people to be influenced by and look up to.

It was my introduction into that sort of world, because I'm a bit naive. I'll put up a tweet or an Instagram post, but I won't know who's looking at it. But an Instagram post or tweet can inspire the next generation, and that's what I need to understand more, rather than just be flippant with it. So that was as much of an education to me as it was for them. I was incredibly grateful to do it, and I hope to get back into it very soon.

Since you were last in Phantom, you've welcomed a new addition to the family. How are you finding fatherhood?

Well, perfect example, opening night of The Phantom of the Opera in the West End. I bowed in the curtain call, and was on the train home around ten minutes later because my 15-month-old son wasn't feeling well.

It's an amazing thing to go into work and know that you're not the most important thing. If I miss a prop or can't get the mask on properly, there's a lot of other people out there who have real problems in life, because I'm looking after a little boy now. So, it's put everything in perspective of what's important in life. At the end of the day, when we get to work, we're just putting on a show for people, and not to let it get to you.

The Phantom Of The Opera is on at Her Majesty's Theatre. Tickets are available now.

Photo credit: Jonah Persson

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