BWW Interview: Oliver Tompsett, Simon-Anthony Rhoden and Natalie McQueen Talk KINKY BOOTS
On 4 June, Kinky Boots will gain several new cast members, including Oliver Tompsett and Natalie McQueen. The show, about shoe factory owner Charlie Price and drag queen Lola, has been running at the Adelphi Theatre since 2015.
Simon-Anthony Rhoden, who made his West End debut in the show and worked his way up to a lead role, continues as Lola.
Oliver Tompsett, who will be playing Charlie Price, is known for roles in Guys and Dolls, We Will Rock You, Rock of Ages and Wicked, amongst others. He is also a regular concert performer. Natalie McQueen, soon to be Lauren, has been seen in shows such as Wonderland, Murder Ballad, Les Misérables and Wicked. She is also in the band Strangewaves.
How did you first become interested in theatre?
Oliver Tompsett: I used to play a lot of team sports, but then alongside that, it's kind of in my family. My mother was an actress. When I was born, she'd already moved on from that and ran a theatre school. My father used to sing around the house a lot.
Taking part in a show when I was a teenager, I realised there was a quite close connection between the thrill I got from working in team sports and theatre. There's the same team morale going on. I discovered that I was actually quite good at it, and when you're quite good at something, you tend to pursue it. I'm not like some of my friends who have done it all their lives.
There was a point when I saw Adam Garcia in Saturday Night Fever in the West End. I saw all the adoration he was getting from the audience and being a teenage boy, I remember thinking that could be fun. Luckily, I ended up working with Adam; I understudied him in the beginning of my career.
Simon-Anthony Rhoden: I've always been interested in theatre. From a young child, I used to perform for friends and family. Then I thought about taking it seriously, so I just took the right steps to fall into my career essentially. From the age of nine, my mum took me to acting classes at the Italia Conti. I continued to progress with that, as well as doing school plays at secondary school.
Natalie McQueen: I was really young actually. My dad and my mum, as a birthday thing, we'd always go and see a show. I was very lucky to have parents who let me start dancing and singing so early. I just really liked it. I was probably a bit of a show-off! My parents were like, "This is a way of expressing yourself and it's never hurting anybody", and it's fun and I was enjoying it.
I remember seeing Les Mis and crying when I was really little. I probably didn't understand it, but I was really moved by it. I also remember singing karaoke when I was a kid. We were on holiday in Spain and this woman was like, "I think you should really get her into it". I should probably thank that woman! I ended up sort of stumbling into it. I didn't like school - I wanted to perform and be creative.
I did my first job when I was about ten and the more I did it, the more I loved it. It's the idea of being able to go on stage and no matter what your mood is, you can change it.
Kinky Boots is largely about parents and their expectations. Were your parents always supportive of you pursuing a career as an actor?
Oliver Tompsett: My parents were very supportive; I was lucky like that. I remember my school teachers not being very supportive. At school, I wasn't very interested in theatre or drama club because it was run by my English teacher and I didn't like English.
I never was really involved with it at school; it was mostly outside with my mum. I think, being a parent myself now, I see why the temptation may be to say "Don't do it", because of the lack of security you have as an actor. At the same time, the amount of joy and happiness it's brought to my life, I can't imagine doing anything else.
Simon-Anthony Rhoden: My father wasn't, but he was more practical. He always just wanted me to do a regular job. It was my mum who always sort of pioneered my career in acting, taking me to classes, spending money on things for me, buying clothes and other expenses. It's been mostly my mother's support and my dad has pretty much jumped onboard.
Natalie McQueen: My mum and dad were always really supportive of me doing this - if they hadn't, I probably wouldn't have thought of it as a career. But it was never an option for me to do anything else. I always thought, "I want to do this, I don't care, I'll pay you". Then they saw that I could do it and I was enjoying it.
In the show, you see young Charlie and his dad wanting him to pursue a career like them, and on the other side, you've got young Lola and another dad who wants him to be like him. My mum and dad were so open and just wanted me to find my own way. That's really refreshing. Not many parents are like that.
How would you describe your character?
Oliver Tompsett: When you meet Charlie in the show, he's still soul-searching and trying to find his passion - what makes him tick and where he can make his mark in the world.
I think up until the point where we meet him in the show, he hasn't really had to make many strong decisions, because his father runs a very successful shoe factory. You get the impression that maybe he's had it all handed to him on a plate a little bit. Hence why a lot of the factory workers have an attitude towards him.
But there's much more to him than just being a pretty boy prince. He's a very lovable guy, he just needed that rocket to help him find some sort of purpose.
What he discovers when he's thrusted into being in charge of the factory and responsible for everyone's livelihoods, the responsibility and the will for him to do good by everybody else gives him the drive and ambition to make something of his life and do something daring and exciting with the boots they start to make, rather than the boring brown shoes he was brought up with.
He's got a bit of a hot temper as well, but it's tricky to know whether that's something he has all the time or if it's a repercussion of what he goes throughout the show - being left alone, with his father dying, and being thrust into this responsibility and his girlfriend giving him a hard time. That's enough to make anyone break.
Simon-Anthony Rhoden: Lola is a very strong-willed person who takes life by the horns. She's somebody who's seen a lot and therefore acts on experience and tries to help where possible and basically put a middle finger up to the way society has been structured around her, in particular. I think she's a very sassy, a bit of fighter, a no-nonsense character.
Natalie McQueen: Lauren's a free spirit. Kind of a sarcastic, quite dry, very unique character. She keeps herself to herself, and she thinks a bit differently from everyone else. I think she's a bit of a weirdo, in the best way.
Luckily, it's not too far away from who I am as a person. She says things how they are and when she starts the show, she just wants to get on with things. She has her mind changed a little bit along with everybody else. She's not close-minded, but at the end, I think she learns actually, you can be even more open-minded. She's such a fun character to play.
What's it like stepping into such a popular West End show?
Oliver Tompsett: It's very daunting. This show has a huge fan base. I've stepped into a few shows and taken over parts in Guys and Dolls and We Will Rock You, even stepping up from understudy Fiyero to principal Fiyero.
The fans get very attached to people they've seen do it 10, even 15 times - or more in some cases. I'm quite experienced with that, but I hope I can fill the boots of the really fantastic actors who have played this part before all over the world, in the West End and on Broadway and everywhere else.
You have to remove yourself from that pressure of comparing yourself to those other actors and just do you. The lovely thing about the show is that the whole message is about being you. You get that constant reminder that you have to get on and do the best you can. It's a lot of fun; you can't not enjoy it. Because you're enjoying it so much, there's less time to stop and analyse and compare yourself to other people.
Natalie McQueen: It's exciting because it's always nerve-wracking, but we've got a group of creatives and a group of existing cast members who are staying, who are so excited and ready for this new group of people to come in. The show is about being open-minded and positive, so in the rehearsal space and the theatre, everybody's so happy and enjoying their job.
Even though the show is huge and the role of Lauren is a pretty big one, because people know it, it's exciting. I like to think that, like other Laurens before me, I'm going to try to put my own spin on it and try and find some new stuff. I've seen it a couple of times, before I was even auditioning for the role, and what an amazing show to be a part of and what a great message.
What do you think it is that makes Kinky Boots so special?
Oliver Tompsett: It is the message really. It's the way that people will come in to see the show each night, with maybe some prejudices or opinions of people who might choose to dress differently or to be different, and they leave with the realisation that we actually should accept everyone for who they are.
When I saw the show for the first time, I was quite overpowered by the six Angels who strutted out onto the stage in drag. These fantastic, glamorous, confident men dressed in female attire and 6in-heel boots, dancing better than most of the women I know that can dance - I was really quite blown away and intimidated by it!
I remember a couple of weeks after that seeing some gentlemen dressed as women in the street and thinking "Oh my god, how brave are they to do that and just to be who they are?". Whereas before seeing the show, I would have been like "What are they doing?". And that's not me saying that's how I feel now, but it highlighted the prejudice that we are brought up with that's still alive in society.
It's the way that it brings in an audience and entertains and blows your socks off with the music and the dancing and the sets and the costumes and just everything about it. But also you leave that theatre feeling enlightened and awakened to the fact that there is room for us to accept everybody for who they want to be.
Simon-Anthony Rhoden: I think what's most amazing is that it's the story that really gets to the audiences, and it's the story that really drives me to do my job to the best of my ability. The story of just acceptance and difference and love is something anybody from any walk of life can take away with them. And this show articulates that perfectly.
Whether it's a cross-dressing person, a homosexual person, or just a person who just doesn't exactly fit into what is considered to be the norms of this particular society, I think it hopefully encourages people to have an open mind about what differences there are within our society.
As great as the society in 2018 that we're living in is, I think there are a lot of systemic issues that are still yet to be thoroughly thought about and addressed. There's a long way for us to go, and a show like this highlights some of those problems we still face today. It's a pleasure to be able to pioneer such a fantastic story.
Natalie McQueen: This is quite cheesy to say, but there's a line in the show - "You can change the world when you change your mind". I think having been in theatre my whole life and having the parents and friends I have, I'm pretty open-minded. But some people aren't.
It is a show about acceptance, whether you're a drag queen or someone who works in a shoe factory. It's all about accepting everybody and being equal.
I think that line is so important, because you really can. I doubt anybody leaves this show feeling bad. Everybody's up on their feet, having an amazing time.
Any memorable reactions from the audience in the past?
Simon-Anthony Rhoden: One thing that happens is you'll have audience members - normally a middle-aged white male - who'll be dragged along with his wife to come and see the show. You can automatically see in his face that he's really uncomfortable amongst the audience and not sure what he's about to witness.
And through the show I see his face slowly warm to the fact that there's a story here, but also it's not as bad as he initially thought. And by the time we get to the finale, he's on his feet, clapping and dancing to the music, and really embracing what the show is.
I also have fans at the stage door who come and tell me that their son or daughter has just come out to them and watching this show has helped them really understand what they're going through and helped them be a better parent to their child through this difficult period.
And that, to me, is the reason why I am an actor. When I tell a story, I want people to listen to the story and take it on board - that's what makes me want to go to work every day.
Has it surprised you that a mainstream West End audience has so embraced a show that features drag queens etc.? Does that demonstrate how far we've come?
Oliver Tompsett: Oh yeah, completely. We've come so far. If this show was put on 15-20 years ago, maybe it wouldn't have done as well. I think the timing of it is integral. The cities where it's sitting are very important.
You start off in cities like London that are very liberal, make a success of it here, and then you sort of branch out - hence why there is a touring production of it going around regional theatres in the UK. I think that's going to be really exciting for those cities that it hits. It's a total testament of how far we've come today, but we can keep going and there's more work to be done.
Simon-Anthony Rhoden: With a show like Kinky Boots and the title of the show and the impression that people have about the show, I think it surprised me in the beginning that we were just getting people through the doors. Because of the state that the world is in, I don't think people are so readily willing to come and see the show that essentially, in their eyes, would be a camp, colourful musical.
Word of mouth has helped spread what the heart of the show truly is. Of course, on a superfluous level, this is a big, colourful, camp musical, but there's a heart to it that everyone can learn from. Because the story really transcends through different scenarios in people's lives, once people come to see the show, they understand it and try to involve that within their own lives.
Natalie McQueen: For people like me who are in the show, it's not that surprising. It should be happening. But I always think it's great when I see an older couple and they're up on their feet dancing. And maybe it's a generation thing - they may not have been so open-minded before. But it changes the minds of people and I think it does show and should show how far we've come. And we need to go further!
But it's such a great place to start. When you see people in the audience who maybe don't know what they're expecting, maybe haven't seen the film, it will hit home to them and that's so vital. There's characters in the show that aren't that accepting straightaway, and I think people watching it might see that in themselves and go "Oh wow, that is kind of me".
You mentioned you've seen the show before. So are there parts you're particularly looking forward to doing?
Oliver Tompsett: From the moment I saw the show, I thought I'd like to have a go at this part. The closing number of Act I, "Everybody Say Yeah", is spectacular. It kind of comes out of nowhere for the factory workers. The Angels get to have a lot of fun, but the factory workers are sort of stuck in our rigid Northampton ways. When that number kicks up with people walking on travellators and boots coming out, it's just one of the only times where everybody's onstage at the same time.
The range of people you see, from the bearded burly factory workers to the dainty Angels in big heels and stuff, from an audience point of view you think, "Oh there's someone everybody can associate themselves with". Not only is it a good message, it's a lot of fun.
We staged it the other day and the travellators, I thought they looked easy. But they're quicker than they look! Thank goodness I'm not doing it in heels. The guys who are doing it in heels, my hat goes off to them.
Natalie McQueen: "The History of Wrong Guys", Lauren's solo, is so much fun. It's a turning point for her. You have this character who puts on this 'too cool for school' act, and that's the moment you finally see her be quite vulnerable.
And also the Angels. I just wanted to work with a fabulous group of guys who can rock a pair of heels better than I can and do their make-up way better than I can! I was excited to do the whole show.
How is it going from one amazing cast to another?
Simon-Anthony Rhoden: It's difficult. I've been with the show for two years now, so I've made some fantastic friendships and unfortunately a few of those people are going to be leaving. It's a really sad time to say goodbye to those people that you've grown to love. Every day, I feel like I'm exploring something new with this character and we're doing that together.
But equally, on the other hand, being in rehearsals with the new cast, who have this rejuvenated excitement about the show and about telling the story, is also quite exciting and helpful. It allows me to discover new things that I may have forgotten or stuff I didn't have the same perspective on at the beginning of my time with the show. So it's a bittersweet moment.
Lauren is such a funny character. Is it difficult to make the role your own?
Natalie McQueen: Weirdly, she's an extreme version, but she is similar to me. I think that makes it harder because it's not a complete stretch. Sometimes it's easier to find the character if it's really far away from you as a person. We're at the point in rehearsals now where we're going to start running the whole thing.
I can't wait to find the moments where you just need to relax and maybe think, "I just need to chill out here and not try so hard and just be myself". It's nerve-wracking, but I cannot wait to get in the costume and get the wig on and find it aesthetically and just go from there.
Do you think that your Lola will change a bit now that you'll be doing the show with a different Charlie?
Simon-Anthony Rhoden: Because Lola is such a powerhouse and a huge personality, I enjoy having a new Charlie, because that first time you get to play with Charlie, you learn their boundaries, how to shock them, and just how to play with a new actor as well.
I always enjoy having a new partner to do the show with, and Olly has been fantastic. He's pretty much a veteran in the world of West End and a good addition to the show.
So about those boots...
Oliver Tompsett: I only have to wear mine for a couple of minutes at the end of the show and they're remarkable pieces of engineering. They are amazing boots. The costume lady was telling us how much they cost, but you can see the quality is there. They don't feel like they're going to snap.
The actual boots we have in the show are very much what the show is about: making stiletto heels that are strong enough to bear the weight of a fully grown man. So if a fully grown man wants to wear a stiletto heel he can.
And, as much as I've maybe lost a little bit of weight throughout rehearsals, I'm a fully grown man and they're supporting me fine. I can't say I'm 100% comfortable in them, but I luckily don't have to wear them much.
Simon-Anthony Rhoden: It's a lot of fun to watch a new set of people learn to walk in them. I've been with the show for two years now, so it's my third time watching people look like Bambi in their heels.
It's never not funny - it's always quite hilarious to see people learning how to strut their stuff in their heels. The achievement of when they finally do is also amazing as well and I can't wait for them to get to that point. It's a great experience.
Natalie McQueen: I don't get to wear them and neither does Mr. Price or Simon Sr. It's us three, and obviously the smaller Charlie and Lola. I get a really nice pair of little red pumps. I am a bit gutted about it, but I'm happy to let it go to be in the show.
Do you have a favourite number or costume maybe?
Simon-Anthony Rhoden: I've got a few. They kind of change on different days. From the beginning of my process with Kinky Boots, "Land of Lola" has always been my favourite number to sing. It's one of the best opening numbers to a character you could ever have, as well as it being a really groovy tune.
Equally, I think "Hold Me in Your Heart" is a moment that, for any performer given the opportunity to sing a song like that, it's just a dream come true. It's an amazing story to tell while singing the song, but also a great song to sing. The costume in that is fantastic and the reaction you get from the audience is fantastic, as well.
My favourite costume in the show has to be the blue "The Sex is in the Heel" costume. It's a bit sassy, a bit edgy. That encompasses my version of Lola very well.
Why should people come see Kinky Boots?
Oliver Tompsett: It's one of the best feel-good musicals in London - and the world. It looks spectacular. It's funny and fast-paced. It's got a great book; there's big chunks in each act where there's just book, but you don't get bored at any point. It's full of information and revelations about the differences between Northampton and this London drag scene.
The music of Cyndi Lauper is hugely catchy and the band is sensational. You can go from feeling like you're in a nightclub to watching a really intimate acoustic gig with someone. The sound design is amazing. It's a feast for your eyes and ears.
Simon-Anthony Rhoden: People should come and see Kinky Boots fundamentally because of the times that we're living in. Whatever political opinion you have on anything - because it's always good to have discussions on differences of opinion - people of all walks of life should come see the show.
It opens up a dialogue about how we feel about difference and change and living with discrimination and how to overcome it. I believe no one is a bad person, but we do get stuck in normalcy when there is inequality.
I would love for people to come see Kinky Boots purely for the message we preach of acceptance and kindness, as well as a fantastic celebration of love and life. Whether you need to be educated or not, it's a fantastic show that you'll leave beaming.
Natalie McQueen: I think you should come and see Kinky Boots because you are guaranteed without a doubt an amazing night. I would really be shocked if anybody said they didn't enjoy it.
Sometimes it's hard if you're a family of four and theatre can be expensive, but you will never regret going to see this show. Everybody on that stage works their butt off, it's such a positive message, and you will leave that theatre dancing and having the best time.
Plus you get Olly Thompsett in a pair of red heels - I think his fans will definitely want to see that, so that's another reason as well!
Any future dream roles?
Oliver Tompsett: I've always wanted to play Bobby in Company, which is about to hit the West End again, but fantastically it's being played by a woman. And I like the musical The Full Monty. I remember seeing it in college and thinking how much fun it was. If there ever came back, that'd be fun. Not just because I want to strip off...
Simon-Anthony Rhoden: This is probably one of the best roles I could have ever hoped for, to be honest. I didn't know it existed until I started the show. That's what's so spectacular about the show actually: I never thought I'd be given an opportunity to play a role like this.
However, there are so many stories that I'd love to be able to tell - other stories that matter. With the whole Windrush debacle that happened with our Government, maybe there's a story to tell there. Maybe more to do with my heritage as a black Caribbean person in the UK. Just roles that hopefully help change opinion and open minds and help society discover how to best get on with each other.
Natalie McQueen: I was very lucky to be in Wicked in the West End for a really long time, but I would love to go back and play Elphaba. It was a dream to get to do that every now and again, but I'd love to play the role and make it mine.
I'd love to be Charity in Sweet Charity as well. I'd say yes to most things; I'm not really fussy! Oh and Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie. Pretty much anything that Sutton Foster has played, I think!
And also there's all these new contemporary shows with strong women. I know Legally Blonde isn't that new, but I would love to play Elle Woods.
Any advice for aspiring actors?
Oliver Tompsett: Be a sponge. Keep learning. You can learn from everything around you, from sitting on a train and people-watching to sitting in the theatre, listening to music, watching TV and films. I don't switch off when I'm being entertained. I can still be entertained and not feel like I'm at work, but I'm constantly learning and challenging myself to work out what makes good storytelling and what doesn't.
Sometimes being that sponge is about noticing what doesn't work for you. You just have to make strong decisions on the information you gather and stuff you experience and decide to apply it to yourself as an actor and a storyteller or not.
A lot of people aren't sponges and you're missing an opportunity if you don't learn from something like that. Our finest actors, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, the older generation, are people who have experienced so much. Lift your head up out of technology and just experience life.
Simon-Anthony Rhoden: Definitely learn your craft and be really good at it. Never stop learning. Because the world is an ever-changing place, we should never stop trying to be better than we are and never think we've reached our goal. You need to be absolutely resourceful and you have to be patient.
As a young person who wants to go into the business of acting, you have to be in it for the long game, because rejection is going to happen more than success. If you are a lucky 1% who has that success, there is still a far way down to go if you're at the top. Embrace the rejection and if you can't embrace it, it's probably not the business for you.
I think that young people trying to get into this industry shouldn't stop living. I remember when I was a young actor, I didn't live for a long time because I was always waiting for the phone to ring. It wasn't until I stopped waiting for the phone to ring that it rang and with the right opportunity for me.
Live, experience life and love, and hopefully things will slot into place naturally rather than you trying to force your way into something.
Natalie McQueen: If you ever can, go hard and go somewhere where you can train, but never ever kick yourself if you need to take a break. Sometimes it's good to step away from the thing that you love and that you're passionate about to realise that you love it. Don't be afraid to go, "I need to take some me time". I think that's really important.
I took a little break, but I still sung. I saw theatre again and it made me love it again. Just keep going and work your hardest and never stop learning. But if you want to have a moment for yourself, have a moment for yourself.
Photo Credit: Helen Maybanks and Matt Crockett