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BWW Interview: Tom Lister Talks West End Revival of 42ND STREET

Clare Halse and Tim Lister
in rehearsal for 42nd Street

Actor Tom Lister is best known for playing Carl King on Emmerdale, but he's also amassed a number of stage credits, including Legally Blonde, Calamity Jane and Water Babies. He's currently starring in the West End revival of 42nd Street, alongside Sheena Easton, Clare Halse and Stuart Neal, beginning previews on 20 March.

Do you remember the first play or film you saw?

I've always loved movies - I grew up watching loads on television. All those Eighties films like The Goonies. Me and my friends used to do skits together, but it was never something I thought about doing as a job.

I was quite a sporty boy, and then when I was doing A-levels, they asked the football team to audition for the school show. It was the 50th anniversary of VE Day, and the teachers had written this powerful piece of theatre about our town in North Yorkshire and how the kids from the local football team had signed up to fight and got obliterated. I was cast as the lead and got the acting bug from there.

How did you family react?

When I told my dad I wasn't going to university, and instead wanted to go to a private drama college, he said "No, you're not - what the heck do you think you're doing?". But with grants and bursaries I was able to do it. It was obviously the right decision, and I've been very fortunate to have a great career so far. Doing a musical in a wonderful theatre like this is another one of those things to tick off the bucket list.

What attracted you to 42nd Street?

It's quite a commitment, so I knew if I was going to come down south it would have to be the right part and something really special, which this is. I'm glad I waited - the patience definitely paid off. I've really tried to immerse myself in the style of the period, watching movies from the Thirties and Forties, researching that Depression era and getting a sense of the pressures that are in the background of the show. That's not in the main story a lot, but it colours the characters' need to succeed.

The 42nd Street cast in rehearsal

Tell us about your character

Julian's a director who's been in the wilderness and he needs this show to work - it could be his last chance to get back on top, be the respected guy. He's had a real crisis of confidence the past few years.

Did you draw on any particular inspirations?

I watched a lot of Cary Grant, James Stewart, films like The Philadelphia Story. They'd speak so fast and the emotions would change on the flip of a coin, but yet it was so truthful. Ours is such a fast-paced show, and Julian goes through all these emotions in quick succession - joyful, angry, frustrated - so you can't hang around! The comedy dialogue works best when you keep things moving too, but we also want to feel the truth of it as performers, so that's been an interesting challenge.

Do you think the show feels timely?

It does in the fact we're living in a time of austerity and uncertainty, with lots of strange things going on in the world, and also there's that same sense of a musical transporting people to a place of pure joy - all these great songs and dances that we love. We're really hoping to capture that. I've had loads of messages from friends of mine saying they can't wait to see it and it brings back such happy memories.

We're very lucky to have Mark Bramble, who originally conceived the show, in the room with us - he knows it backwards. Coming back to Drury Lane 30-odd years later, he really wants to take it up to 11 - we're going bigger than ever, more colour, more everything.

The 42nd Street cast in rehearsal

When did you become interested in doing musicals?

I went into telly early in my career and did a long stint on Emmerdale, which was a great experience, but when I left a few years ago I started looking for musicals. I've always wanted to do one - I remember watching them growing up, thinking "I want that to be me some day".

Since then I've done Legally Blonde in South Korea, I toured with Calamity Jane, I've done new musicals like Water Babies at Leicester Curve. It's been hard at times - I've always been able to sing, dancing not so much! 42nd Street is easier, because as Julian I get to shout at everyone and make them tap for me...

Do you think your Emmerdale profile might encourage people to come along who wouldn't normally try a musical?

I hope so. Lots of people came to see Calamity Jane off the back of it, and I've got loads of friends from the show who are desperate to come down and watch it. Once you've been on television for 10 years, it does give you that familiarity, and it would be great if all those people come along and are as excited about the show as we are.

What's it like working with this cast?

It's a really special bunch. The tone is set from the top, and Sheena's such a cracking person. We're having a lot of fun - she's all about us coming together and making this the best it can be. Clare is amazing, and when she starts dancing in the second act, it's just fab. Even from the opening number - all those dancers performing is such a feast for the eyes.

Then you see all the elements coming together, with the orchestra arriving - that sends shivers down my spine. We've got a huge orchestra, the size of which you don't see all that much in the West End anymore. I just can't wait to hear those guys rock out some of these songs.

The 42nd Street cast in rehearsal

Do you have a favourite?

"With Plenty of Money and You" in Act II is such a cool song - that's my current favourite. And obviously the classics like "Lullaby of Broadway" and "Forty-Second Street". There are lots of songs people will recognise, and some that are new since the show began in the Eighties, like "I Only Have Eyes for You" and "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" written specially for Sheena. I found when I did Calamity that I didn't know the songs until we started doing it, and then you realise you've grown up hearing this music - it's all there somewhere.

What do you enjoy about theatre?

I love the instant reaction - you can feel whether the audience is with you or if you have to work a bit harder. It's magical. TV's fabulous but you don't get to see the response and you're playing out of sequence, so it's up to the editors to put it all together. There's this history too - I have to pinch myself when I'm walking into Theatre Royal Drury Lane, thinking of all the amazing people who've stood on that stage.

What would you like to do in future?

I'd love to do more screen work, more drama, but where we're at right now is very special. I'm going to really enjoy every minute of this.

Any advice for young actors?

So much is being in the right place in the right time, so when you get an opportunity, seize it with both hands. Be nice, work your socks off, and that pays dividends - you build up a good reputation and people want to work with you. There's nothing like this industry for rumours; if you misbehave, it spreads like wildfire.

My first agent said to me "Give it your all, but when you come out of an audition, assume you haven't got it". That was really sage advice, as you get no more than yes, so you protect your heart a little bit.

Finally, how do you think audiences will respond to 42nd Street?

Mark has said to me "You'll soon see how people react - they go bonkers". It's a really uplifting experience, so I think they'll come out feet tapping and feeling like they've been transported to a very happy place for a couple of hours.

42nd Street at Theatre Royal Drury Lane 20 March-22 July

Watch a trailer below

Picture credit: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

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