Musical brings Lewis back to the stage

Kevin Whatley stars in Gypsy
Kevin Whatley stars in Gypsy
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Familiar to millions as Lewis in TV’s Morse, Kevin Whately will be showing a different side to his talents when he makes his Chichester debut in the Stephen Sondheim musical Gypsy.

Kevin confesses it’s a side that doesn’t often get seen.

‘This is a blast back to the past for me,’ he admits. ‘It came about because (director) Jonathan Kent asked if I would be interested. Sondheim had suggested Imelda (Staunton to play Mama Rose in Gypsy) when she did Sweeney Todd in Chichester a couple of years ago, and my name came up. Imelda and I knew each other because we used to do musicals when we were in rep together 30-40 years ago.’

Based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee Gypsy tells the tale of the infamous Mama Rose who will stop at nothing to ensure that her daughters achieve success on the vaudeville stage. However the era of Vaudeville is drawing to a close, being replaced by the seedier styles of burlesque, but still Mama Rose’s blind ambition drives her on.

Playing Herbie, a showbusiness agent who falls hopelessly for Rose, Kevin confesses that despite all his popular screen credits from Auf Wiedersehen, Pet through to Lewis and Morse, the theatre was all that he ever wanted to do.

‘It was all about doing theatre when I left drama school in the 1970s,’ says Kevin. ‘I had no intention of getting on the screen, TV had no draw for me.

‘I wanted to be Laurence Olivier for about seven years going around the reps playing dozens and dozens of plays including working with Imelda. It was great – the best way to learn stage acting.’

A big part of Gypsy’s attraction for Kevin is, of course, that it is Sondheim: ‘I have never done and never expected to do a Sondheim show, but his words are so sophisticated that everybody loves it from opera singers to show singers. And the people are real characters. They are not just cyphers. They are not just two-dimensional. The music is more complex that most show tunes, and the words more sophisticated.’

Gypsy appears at Chichester Festival Theatre from October 6-November 8. Tickets:£15-£46. Visit cft.org.uk or call 01243 781312 for details.

PHIL HEWITT