AT 13, Jack Edwards knew he wanted to perform for a living. But he had to realise his dream the hard way.
Jack Edwards is fizzing – bouncing around like a child who has overdosed on a suitcase full of sweets at the biggest party in town.
As he leads me through the maze of new corridors backstage at Chichester Festival Theatre to the gleamingly-fresh green room, he is effervescing. ‘Just look at the facilities they’ve given us,’ he coos. ‘Isn’t it amazing? I can’t quite believe I’m here.’
Jack uses the word ‘amazing’ a lot.
It’s hardly surprising, for this is the lad who grew up in one of Portsmouth’s toughest areas and is now appearing daily at Britain’s leading regional theatre with one of our most in-demand actors, Rupert Everett.
‘It’s what I always dreamed of,’ he adds, ‘when I was singing into a little tape recorder in my bedroom at our house in Wymering when I was 13, trying to teach myself to sing, I never, ever, thought I’d appear at Chichester. Apart from the West End, it’s what every actor aspires to.’
The builders are still in, putting the finishing touches to the £22m rebuild of the hexagonal theatre in the park. Everywhere there is busy-ness and Jack weaves a path through the stepladders to lead us into the new garden attached to that green room.
It was in April that, out of the blue, he got the call to audition for Amadeus, a revival of the 1979 Peter Shaffer play about jealousy, genius and God. The dark Viennese tale is told in flashback by tormented court composer Salieri (Everett) about his hate-love relationship with the potty-mouthed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Joshua McGuire).
The Jonathan Church-produced show opened a week ago to rave reviews – the launch production for the new-look, new-feel CFT.
Jack recalls his bewilderment at that call three months ago from his agent. ‘I didn’t think much of it to be honest. I was warned it wasn’t a major part. I didn’t think I’d get it. And anyway, what would they want with someone who specialises in musical theatre?
‘But I thought, actually, if it comes off I could live at home and spend the summer catching the train just down the road to Chichester each day. What could be nicer?’
It was only when he was told he’d got the part as the frizzy-haired cook to the sweet-toothed Salieri (those E numbers again) that it dawned on him just how important it could be to his career.
‘I suddenly realised that not only would I be appearing in the first show at the new theatre, but I’d also get the chance to appear with some of the biggest names around. How totally amazing is that!’
Jack, 37, now finds himself on that train to Chichester every day from his Portchester home, living his theatrical dream.
But it is a far cry from that Wymering childhood and his school days at King Richard School in Allaway Avenue, Paulsgrove, as the drama-loving Eddie Willis.
‘For as far back as I can remember I’ve loved performing, was always in drama classes and adored musicals. It was all I ever wanted to do.
‘My parents were hugely supportive and would have paid for me to have singing lessons.
‘But I taught myself to sing using two little tape recorders in my bedroom. I’d play the soundtrack from musicals on one and sing into the other, realise it was rubbish and do it over and over again.’
Was he bullied at school because of his ambition? ‘I always thought I was going to get picked on, but it never happened. You hear stories about boys who do ballet getting bullied – like Billy Elliot – but I was in the main gang at school, the one that everybody wanted to be in and I’m sure that was because I was a clown, always trying to make people laugh and taking the mickey out of myself. Everyone loves a comic.’
At 13 he joined Portsmouth Players and appeared in his first musical, Annie, with that company’s youth group.
When he left King Richard he went to South Downs College, Waterlooville, for a two-year Performing Arts B-Tech. When he finished he wasn’t sure what would come next.
‘John Bartlett, one of the tutors, asked me what I was going to do. I hadn’t a clue, but told him I was going to take a year out to find a job and get some money behind me.
‘But he persuaded me to audition for a drama school and said that even if I didn’t get in, the audition would be a great experience. I knew it would be expensive, but I went for it anyway.’
He applied to the Guildford School of Acting and got through a ‘gruelling’ two-day audition.
‘I remember waiting for the letter to come and when it did, I ripped it open and the first word said ‘‘congratulations...’’. Then I read on and it said it would cost £30,000 for the three-year course.
‘Mum and dad were fantastic. They said they would re-mortgage the house, but I didn’t want that pressure. What if I finished the course and decided it wasn’t the life for me after all? I couldn’t do that to them and thought there must be another way.’
There was. A grant application to Hampshire Country Council. ‘It was the last year they gave out full grants. There were 15 up for grabs so I went along to the Ashcroft Theatre at Fareham and performed in front of a panel.
‘I thought it went well but when the letter came it said I’d come 16th and if anyone dropped out I’d get a grant.
‘Nobody did, so I decided if I was going to go on the stage I’d have to do it myself.’
In those days there were open auditions for West End musicals. ‘You queued up outside like it was a cattle market. ‘Eventually it paid off and I got a part in Mother Goose at the Electric Theatre in Guildford. Two sisters from Leatherhead were in the audience.
‘They were agents and they signed me, but I don’t think they ever got me any work, not even an audition. But I’d got somewhere and was determined to carry on.
‘Look at me now.’
From panto to pigs
He might be performing nightly on one of the world’s great stages with Britain’s finest actors, but Jack Edwards will never forget his humble roots.
‘I’m a Portsmouth boy through and through,’ he says. ‘But more importantly I’m a Portsmouth Players boy. If it hadn’t been for them I’d never have made it.’
He joined the group’s youth section at 13 and at 16 appeared in his first show at the Kings Theatre, Southsea – Hello Dolly.
‘I remember thinking that first time ‘‘oh, my God I’m on the Kings stage’’.
‘Of course I was taken there as a kid to see the panto and thought how much I’d love to walk across that stage, never dreaming one day I’d perform on it.’
Today he’s a veteran of the Albert Road playhouse and will return there this Christmas as Abanazar in Aladdin. And it was in panto he got his big break back in his 20s, appearing with comedian Duggie Brown as a pirate in Peter Pan. That got him noticed and there followed the plum part of an Ugly Sister in Cinderella alongside Corrie and Law and Order star Bradley Walsh.
‘We sparked off each other. He asked me to go back the next year with him as King Rat. We’re great friends to this day.’
That was at Stevenage and from there the West End beckoned at the Piccadilly Theatre and the role of Nicely Nicely Johnson – the one who sings the show-stopper Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat in Guys and Dolls.
Jack finally got a decent agent out of it and then appeared with EastEnders’ star Tamzin Outhwaite in Sweet Charity at the Haymarket.
That brought him to the attention of Sir Cameron Mackintosh who grabbed him for a role in Betty Blue Eyes, the comedy musical based on the pig film A Private Function, when it launched at the Novello Theatre.
Jack says: ‘I haven’t looked back. Been lucky haven’t I?’