Celebrity Love Island and Hollyoaks star Paul Danan leads the way into Wonderland at The Groundlings

‘This is really the part I was born to play...’ says Paul Danan as we’re talking about him taking the role of the Mad Hatter in The Groundlings’ new comedic play, Wonderland.

Paul Danan is the Mad Hatter in 'Wonderland', Groundlings Theatre, Portsea. Picture: Chris Moorhouse (110621-11)
Paul Danan is the Mad Hatter in 'Wonderland', Groundlings Theatre, Portsea. Picture: Chris Moorhouse (110621-11)

That's what everyone's telling me, anyway!’ laughs the actor over a Zoom call from his home in Bristol.

‘The truth is, I've never even seen a version of Alice in Wonderland – I've heard a lot about it though.’

Billed as ‘an almost sequel' to Lewis Carroll’s classic, the new play is the first show to appear at The Groundlings since their run of A Christmas Carol was cut short in December by the worsening pandemic.

In the play, Alice, now at university, returns to Wonderland to save a place that is, she realises, very special to her.

Joining Paul in the cast are Abigail Hancock as Alice, Daniel McCrohon as the Rabbit, Stephanie Dickson as the Caterpillar and the March Hare and Suzanne Ball as the Queen of Hearts. Members of Groundlings Theatre drama school fill the ensemble roles.

Paul made his name with a four year stint in Hollyoaks as bad boy Sol Patrick from 1997 to 2001. He went on to appear on the original Celebrity Love Island, and Celebrity Big Brother, as well as in his own ITV2 shows like Test Drive My Girlfriend and Calum, Fran and Dangerous Danan.

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Paul Danan, front, in rehearsal for his part as the Mad Hatter in Wonderland, Groundlings Theatre, Portsea. Also pictured, from left, director Amy Harrison, and cast members, John McLaverty, Stephanie Dickson, Abby Hancock and Daniel McCrohon. Picture: Chris Moorhouse (110621-14)

But in recent years he’s been working hard on getting back to his theatrical roots – he went to the renowned Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, and he's looking forward to joining the Groundlings' company for its first show in six months.

‘It is a big deal and that's what makes me feel privileged to be part of that first lot to be back on stage.

‘I think looking back in years to come, I'm going to be really proud of that, part of that group of first actors after everything's been closed for so long.

‘It's been written by an amazing writer who's part of their company. It's very interesting.’

In rehearsal for Wonderland. Picture: Chris Moorhouse (110621-24)

Paul says that coming to Portsmouth is part of a conscious effort to work in new places.

‘I'm looking to do more work around the country rather than just in London all the time.

‘I used to live in Liverpool when I worked in Hollyoaks, I've worked a lot in Manchester, and I've worked in Scotland for the BBC a lot, but I miss that, working in other places around Great Britain.

‘Since being in Bristol, I've been seeing things getting filmed here – I did Casualty here a long time ago –and it made me realise, there's work everywhere.

In rehearsal for Wonderland. Picture: Chris Moorhouse (110621-23)

‘I heard about Wonderland and auditioned for it – I originally auditioned for The Caterpillar, and they went: “No, you're the Mad Hatter!”

‘Maybe it's something to do with my ADHD, I don't know...’

Paul admits he’s never seen any of the film versions in full, and he will probably steer clear so as not to be influenced by the 1951 cartoon or Johnny Depp's interpretation in Tim Burton’s 2010 film.

‘I love Tim Burton and I love his stuff, but I just didn't go for Alice in Wonderland, maybe I thought it was a bit too trippy, a bit far out. I've seen clips, but I don't really want to get any ideas from it or copy any portrayal or character that Johnny plays.

‘I want to make him my own.’

Over the past year Paul has kept himself busy with various projects.

In rehearsal for Wonderland. Picture: Chris Moorhouse (110621-16)

Just before lockdown he was in a play called Time, starring alongside Daniel O’Reilly (better known as Dapper Laughs) and David Schaal (Jay’s dad in Inbetweeners).

‘I'd finished a play called Time in Covent Garden – we were getting five star reviews, it’s by award-winning writer Michael Head, who I'd worked with before on Worth a Flutter in Islington.’

He had been due to work with Daniel and Michael on another project – Dying To Be Funny – with Danan playing O’Reilly in a play about the latter's dark days after his father died and he considered suicide.

‘It was all signed up to play somewhere in south London and then obviously with Covid, that wasn't going to happen.’

Instead he threw himself into making his podcast, The Morning After With Paul Danan The first episodes actually appeared in March 2019, but then there was a lengthy gap before things went into overdrive last March. He has now done nearly 100 episodes.

‘It's about mental health and the arts – that was incredible, over lockdown I interviewed some really big people.

‘We went to number one in the iTunes charts and we were in the press every week – we had Tamer Hassan, Sean Williamson – Barry from EastEnders, Will Mellor, James Redmond, Megaman from So Solid Crew, Dean Gaffney, Shane Lynch – it was crazy.

‘We had so many great people, just telling their stories, about their own mental health, their addictions, their own lives, their own stories, their own struggles with anxiety, depressions, relationships, and it was brilliant, so that kept me going.’

He also starred as Wishy Washy in The Gift, a panto-style film loaded with celebrities, directed by award-winning stage director Adam Morley and made by Amazon to help fundraise for the NHS.

And he made his second short film for Channel4’s online satirical strand – The [email protected] For Christmas 2019 he played the director of a fist-bitingly inappropriate panto version of the Handmaid’s Tale.

This time around he had supposedly written a book lambasting Santa Claus as misogynistic and calling for a boycott of Christmas.

‘That was big online – they're huge for their comedy.’

There was also the release of Are We Dead Yet? A British comedy-horror film, shot pre-Covid.

‘I've really not stopped working. I've always got the podcast, and now I'm doing this. I'm blessed really.’

Now in his early-40s there is still a Tiggerish charm to Paul and his enthusiasm for everything he’s involved in is clear.

But he has also had his demons – he’s spoken before about his drink and drug addictions and numerous visits to rehab.

Now clean, he is campaigning for more support for young people entering the entertainment industry – and it’s a subject he's passionate about.

‘I'm not blaming anyone – I was a youngster, famous, with money and women and drugs and all that craziness.

‘No-one ever said to me at 19: "Are you alright mate? Do you want to talk?” No-one was ever there guiding me and telling me how to handle it, or gave me any counselling, or self-help stuff, or wellbeing.

‘I think there needs to be more health and wellbeing departments when actually people need some support and direction and help around handling fame and money and all that stuff.’

It was his erratic appearance on Love Island that first earned him the nickname ‘Dangerous Danan’. Infamously in 2007 he got carried away at a Christmas lights switching on event in Preston, swearing in front of a 3,000 strong crowd packed with families. He lost his job in the panto as a result.

The tabloids lapped it all up.

In hindsight, Paul was clearly not well.

‘Little did I know I was going to end up going off the rails a bit, and really after watching the documentary about Caroline Flack's recently, sometimes it's too hard to ask for help because you're worried about losing your job, you've got to much pride, too much ego.

‘You don't want to tell people about what happens behind closed doors, but actually behind closed doors it was really hard for me.

‘I'm a real advocate for mental health recovery and sobriety.’

Paul is currently making a documentary on the subject.

‘I want to interview people like (Hollyoaks creator) Phil Redmond, I want to interview people that were there with me to see whether they felt they needed a bit more help as well.

‘Fame is a tough thing – it's very addictive, so's money, so are women, and then drugs come in the mix with alcohol and we do silly things.

‘Thank god back then there weren't as many phones with cameras and social media, but the fact is, that was when the papers could go hard on you – they had the exclusives all the time and they would exaggerate.

'No-one was there for me when I made a mistake and got ridiculed for it. I got a very tough time after I swore at the Christmas lights thing. But I own all of that, and I own everything I did – but no-one asked me if I was alright afterwards, and you know what? I wasn't alright. I was really bad. People have died, and thank god I didn't and I got the help.

‘The fact is, I'm not blaming them, but I am saying there needs to be that now, otherwise more people are going to end up like Caroline.

‘I'm lucky I got that support and went to rehab – I still have therapy.

‘We weren't bad people – we were just young!

‘We've got to stop the young artists, the up-and-coming talented people going down the wrong road, and the only to stop that happening is to support them, direct them and guide them.

‘A lot of corporate companies are doing this now, so why isn't the arts industry?’

Wonderland is at Groundlings Theatre, Portsea, from June 24-July 4. All audiences are seated cabaret-style and socially distanced.

Children £13, adults £17, family tickets £52. Go to groundlings.co.uk or call the box office on (023) 9273 7370.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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