Lights, action, whistle as athletes tread the boards
Laurence Olivier’s one-time central London pad has not heard as many sports yarns, nor Australian accents, as it did earlier this week just before the Phantom of the Opera’s 31st birthday celebrations.
Nor have the stage boards of the show at Her Majesty’s Theatre carried the charismatic sounds and the athletic grace of a couple of Australian would-be athletes who have become operatic actors.
Ben Lewis, as the Phantom and Amy Manford, as the alternate Christine, are the current leads in the Phantom of the Opera’s recordbreaking West End theatre production. No wonder audiences are coming away thinking it would be nice if Christine had got together with the Phantom: such is the pair’s relaxed onstage chemistry.
In the theatre’s dressing room Lewis and Manford chat Wimbledon, Australian football and rugby before getting on to the quite extraordinary thrill of playing the two lead roles of one of the most famous international productions.
Lewis, the 38-year-old classically trained baritone and actor originally from Sydney — and the son of two of Australia’s most accomplished opera singers, Michael Lewis and Patricia Price — could have easily been playing rugby. He captained Hertfordshire while living just outside London in his teens and abandoned his Wallaby dreams only in his final year of study at Newington College in Sydney.
He says he was corralled back into the family fold (his younger brother Alex is a renowned opera singer) after wanting a sports career in rugby or cricket, and was seduced by the theatre only when he joined the Sydney University Dramatic Society and then earned a position at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts.
He arrived in London five years ago with his Australian wife Melle Stewart, who stars in By Jeeves, which opened in Cumbria in northwest England this week.
“I am a bit torn; it’s the Phantom’s birthday, but also Melle’s opening night,” Lewis said, adding he was privileged to have found a production that combines his singing training with acting, and with so much history and family feel.
“This makeup room used to be Laurence Olivier’s studio apartment — he lived in this room; all that sort of stuff, it is just a thrill to be around and soak that in for a minute and be a small part of that history.”
Lewis sweats bucketloads under the stifling head mask of the Phantom and the fitness demands are similar to peak sport.
Manford, 24, from Perth, uses her sporting background to good effect in the tough role of Christine, where she is on stage for more than 80 per cent of the 2½-hour show. Her heart was set on an Olympic rhythmic gymnastics career until she damaged a knee. She switched to pole vaulting — competing in both sports at national level and training with Olympic champion Steve Hooker — before another knee injury directed her to an opera-singing career when she was 15. But her extraordinary athletic flexibility has helped Manford conquer the dance moves of the character’s ballet background, with the Phantom storyline set in the Paris Opera.
Manford performs Christine twice a week, alternating with another actor because of the extreme demands, which include 11 dress changes, all with corsets, elaborate dance moves, including climbing ladders, and wearing a skirt that weighs more than 8kg for her opening number.
Because of their Perth connection, the two Australians had heard of each other, but only met during auditions for the Phantom roles in the middle of the year.
Manford says she hasn’t had time to pinch herself. “It feels like it was meant to be because Phantom of The Opera was the first thing I saw on my first day in London two years ago just as I was beginning a Masters of Performance studies and I got the role just as I was finishing my course. It's a dream come true but I have barely had time to think about it, finishing the course and getting things done, having fittings for the gorgeous costumes. Its been amazing.’’
Australians Ben Lewis and Amy Manford have lead roles in The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre
Manford in character as Christine Daae in the West End’s Phantom of the Opera