Lights, ac­tion, whis­tle as ath­letes tread the boards

The Weekend Australian - - THE NATION - JAC­QUELIN MAGNAY

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.’’

CHRISTO­PHER CHAN

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

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