Why proud Meath lad Kil­lian is at home in theatre of dreams

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - MUSICALS -

Hav­ing grad­u­ated from the lo­cal am-dram scene, Kil­lian Don­nelly is now an in-de­mand West End per­former, writes Emily Houri­can

THE day I meet Kil­lian Don­nelly, he is due on The Late Late Show that evening. The last time he was on, in, he thinks, 2006, he was part of a line-up per­form­ing a scene from the Full Monty. What scene I won­der, rather stupidly. The scene, of course, the full monty scene. Did he ac­tu­ally take all his clothes off ? Yes, it turns out. All of them. Clever things were done with lights to en­sure no one ac­tu­ally saw any­thing, but still, there he was, naked, on RTE1, with Pat Kenny. “Jimmy Carr was in­ter­viewed just be­fore we got the willies out,” Kil­lian says, re­mem­ber­ing with a laugh.

To do that, I fig­ure, you need to have a sense of hu­mour. To not be pre­cious, or dif­fi­cult, or any of the things we as­so­ciate with suc­cess­ful ac­tors. And in­deed, Kil­lian, who will shortly be ap­pear­ing as Val­jean in Les Mis­er­ables at the Bord Gais En­ergy Theatre, part of a year-long tour, is the first to push back against all that.

Kil­lian (34) is now one of the most in-de­mand West End per­form­ers, hav­ing been twice nom­i­nated for an Olivier award, and ap­peared in Phan­tom of the Opera, The Com­mit­ments, Kinky Boots and Billy El­liot, among oth­ers, as well as the 2012 film of Les Mis­er­ables, as Combe­ferre, along­side Hugh Jack­man, Rus­sell Crowe and Anne Hath­away. And yes, he is still, to some ex­tent, pinch­ing him­self. Un­usu­ally for one in his po­si­tion, he has never for­mally trained as a singer or ac­tor — “three years of do­ing Les Mis­er­ables was my pro­fes­sional train­ing,” he says.

“I grew up do­ing am-dram, in Kilmes­san, Co Meath. Mostly, you start do­ing am-dram for the so­cial end of things — it builds your con­fi­dence, gets you out of your shell — and then, jump for­ward 17 or 18 years, and you’re in this ho­tel, with the theatre across the road that’s go­ing to be your new of­fice, and you think, ‘this is un­be­liev­able, this is in­cred­i­ble…’”

It’s a stretch, and he gets that. More, he’s will­ing to ad­mit it.

“I hide be­hind the char­ac­ter,” he cheer­fully ad­mits. “I love per­form­ing, be­ing a char­ac­ter. But the mo­ment some­one says ‘ here’s Kil­lian Don­nelly singing Bring Him Home’,” the hand goes” — he mimes a tremor — “and I’m ner­vous. Be­cause I’m me; I’m ex­posed. I think too much and I get so ner­vous.”

As a child grow­ing up in Meath, per­form­ing was what gave Kil­lian con­fi­dence in his daily life. “I’m from Kilmes­san, and you have to come out of the womb hold­ing a hur­ley,” he jokes. “I re­mem­ber the first time I hit a slio­tar, go­ing home af­ter­wards to my mam and say­ing ‘my fin­gers are in bits, I’m never do­ing that again…’ So I wasn’t sporty. When it was time for PE at school — I’d rather have a leg off! Whereas I’d see a piano at lunch break and I’d go and sit, play­ing, eyes closed, lov­ing it. That’s what I loved do­ing.”

Luck­ily for Kil­lian, the mid­dle of three chil­dren, “Mam and dad al­ways en­cour­aged what­ever you wanted to do. And in our fam­ily, that was mu­sic. There was a slightly out-of­tune piano in the front room, and dad had a gui­tar, so we called it ‘the mu­sic room’, and we felt amaz­ing say­ing it,” he laughs.

“My Mam started the lo­cal church choir, and I joined. Dad, when I was eight or nine, said ‘right, do you want to hear a voice?’ and he gave me a record­ing of Colm Wilkin­son, the tenor, and track seven was Bring Him Home, and I re­mem­ber hear­ing that, and go­ing, ‘what is this?’ That changed ev­ery­thing.”

When he was 15, Kil­lian started drama, on Sat­ur­day morn­ings, and “that’s when I came out of my shell. There, I had a club, a gang. You meet girls! The most beau­ti­ful, danc­ing girls ever. That built my con­fi­dence too, know­ing these girls. And these bearded, beer-drink­ing lads who loved foot­ball, sud­denly ask­ing me ‘did you ever hear the 1976 record­ing of Je­sus Christ Su­per­star?’ and me go­ing ‘Yes!’”

And then, he con­tin­ues, fast-for­ward a few years: “And you’re in the film, and there’s Hugh Jack­man be­side you and he’s go­ing ‘did you ever hear the 1976 record­ing of Je­sus Christ Su­per­star…?’”

Through the am-dram scene, which in this coun­try crosses over fre­quently with the pro­fes­sional scene, Kil­lian got to know the ac­claimed and much-missed mu­si­cal di­rec­tor Brian Flynn, who be­gan cast­ing him for roles in shows “he’d say ‘I’m do­ing Fid­dler On The Roof in Leixlip, I need a Tevye, I’ll give you petrol money’, of­ten out of his own pocket.” He did back­ing “oohs and ahhs” on record­ings; “lit­tle nix­ers” for about two years. “Then, when I was 18, and just about to do the Leav­ing Cert, all the teach­ers at school were say­ing ‘you’ve got to give up the shows just for this year, and con- cen­trate on get­ting your Leav­ing.’” He was, he says, “fail­ing mis­er­ably at al­ge­bra,” and they wanted him to knuckle down, get se­ri­ous.

But, he says, “My Mam would al­ways en­cour­age me to keep go­ing, and one teacher — my ge­og­ra­phy teacher, who did the drama at school as well, he grabbed me by the arm in the hall­way and said ‘I know ev­ery one is say­ing con­cen­trate on the Leav­ing — and I didn’t tell you this — but don’t give up the shows!”

Kil­lian did not give up the shows. He did Into The Woods, in Dublin, while also do­ing his ex­ams and, when the show trans­ferred to the Water­ford In­ter­na­tional Fes­ti­val, Kil­lian won the award for Best Ir­ish Singer. “From that, the mu­si­cal di­rec- tor of the Gai­ety Panto saw me and I got of­fered the part of the Prince that year. That was my first pro­fes­sional job — with Ron­nie Drew and Su­san Mcfad­den. I was 19, play­ing Prince Charm­ing, and I was aw­ful, but it was pro­fes­sional!”

Again en­cour­aged by Brian Flynn, Kil­lian de­cided to try his luck in Lon­don when he was 23. “In Ire­land, by then, I was ‘Kil­lian Don­nelly’ when I walked into au­di­tions be­cause it’s a small pot. Over in Lon­don, I was ‘Num­ber 6752’ and it was bizarre. But,” he says, “even though ev­ery­one was dressed in these amaz­ing clothes and I was in a track­suit, I could sing, and I had en­ergy.”

He got a list of “maybe 20” agents from a friend, and sent CVS to them all. “I got one re­ply. I met with this agent, and he said ‘ Les Mis is com­ing up for au­di­tions. I’ll get you an au­di­tion, and we’ll go from there’. And af­ter three re­calls, I got the show.” And when he heard the news, Kil­lian says: “I rang that ge­og­ra­phy teacher. I hadn’t spo­ken to him in six years, but I rang and said ‘I just got Les Mis­er­ables. Since then, he and his wife have come to so many shows.”

The down­side of suc­cess is that, from com­ing home four or five times a year, Kil­lian now makes it back maybe once. “I miss it so much,” he says. “I miss it ev­ery day. The sec­ond I see the Ir­ish trans­la­tion of the road signs, I’m like ‘ahh!’ I love it. The best thing is when you’re in Dublin air­port and go­ing through pass­port con­trol and they see you have an Ir­ish pass­port and they go ‘wel­come home Kil­lian’. That’s just beau­ti­ful! This is al­ways go­ing to be home — as Dad said, ‘if it doesn’t work in Lon­don you can al­ways come home, we’re not go­ing any­where’.”

Ro­mance, too, can be hard. “I was in New York for a few months and I went out with a girl there, we tried to keep it go­ing long-dis­tance for a few months, but the dis­tance killed it. We still loved each other and we still keep in touch, but it just wouldn’t work.” And so, he says, “This tour couldn’t have come at a bet­ter time. All I have is a lit­tle dog, who can come with me. We’re just go­ing to cruise around for a year, see­ing the sights.”

From a prac­ti­cal point of view, Kil­lian’s fate is tied up in one very tiny part of his body. “The mus­cle I’m deal­ing with is smaller than my baby fin­ger­nail. That mus­cle — that’s my mort­gage, my car, that’s ev­ery­thing, so I need to look af­ter it.” How does he do that? “Singing a song is like run­ning the 100 me­ters,” he says — mean­ing a lot of warm-up for even the short­est dash. “I won’t drink dur­ing the week when I have a show. Al­co­hol dries the throat and mouth. I’ll have one on a Sat­ur­day night be­cause I know I can re­cover on the Sun­day. Also, in a bar or club, you’re talk­ing at a level that strains the voice.”

Is that kind of self-dis­ci­pline hard? “I grew up in am-dram,” he laughs, “it was all about go­ing out on the raz. When I first got Les Mis at 24, it was like, ‘re­hearsal then pub?’ ‘First show, pub?’ ‘Sec­ond show, pub?’ By the fourth show, you re­alise you gotta take it easy. That’s when I re­alised I had to grow up, stop drink­ing, start go­ing to the gym.”

In 2016, Kil­lian ap­peared in Done­gal by Frank Mcguin­ness at the Abbey Theatre. So which does he pre­fer, theatre or mu­si­cal theatre? “They’re both amaz­ing,” he says, “but I do love singing. As Vic­tor Hugo said, ‘Mu­sic ex­presses that which can­not be put into words’.”

‘I’m from Kilmes­san, and you have to come out of the womb hold­ing a hur­ley. But I wasn’t sporty’

‘Les Mis­er­ables’ is at the Bord Gais En­ergy Theatre, De­cem­ber 5-Jan­uary 12 2019. www.bor­dgaisen­er­gythe­atre.ie

Kil­lian Don­nelly is tak­ing the West End by storm. Photo: David Conachy

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