Paul Wilkins’ first ever lead role on stage was at The Kings – he played Nanki Poo in Portsmouth Players’ production of Hot Mikado back in 2010.
Since then it’s been a busy few years for the young performer from Gosport. And now he’s returning to the venerable Southsea theatre for the first time as a professional, playing Claude in Hair, ‘the hippy musical’.
The controversial musical opened off-Broadway back in 1967 as America was a nation in turmoil – there was The Summer of Love in San Francisco, but there were also riots as the civil rights movement came to a climax, and this was all against the backdrop of the Vietnam War raging overseas.
The show was revived for an off-West End 50th anniversary production in 2017, and Paul is now starring in that production’s UK tour.
He's joined by former X Factor stars Marcus Collins and Jake Quickenden – the latter appeared at The Kings in a rather different role as Prince Charming in last year’s panto, Cinderella.
Paul took up the role of Claude, a key member of ‘the tribe’, back in March.
‘Different people have different views of what they take from it and what it means to them,’ Paul tells The Guide. ‘Because it has an unusual structure, I think it’s hard for someone to find a conventional plot, your usual scene-song-dance show – Hair just doesn’t do that.
‘Claude is a leader of sorts, but he’s kind of forcing himself into a role that he’s probably not ready for.
‘He’s caught between fighting against what he’s expected to do by his family and society. He’s born in to a very American Dream-esque family, so he’s expected to be a certain way, and finds himself attached to a hippy tribe, led by Berger, played by Jake, and Sheila, by Daisy Wood Davies.
‘We show the audience what it’s like to have free love and to be equal and show kindness to each other and seflessness, and what happens when you can do that.
‘And Claude is so caught up in this he doesn’t know whether to go to Vietnam or to stay with this tribe.’
Without giving too much away, when it comes to Claude’s key decision, Paul still finds it affecting.
‘To be playing that night after night feels quite extreme. I don’t have to do much preparation to feel emotional for that bit, it’s just so heightened and joyful and then there’s silence. The contrast in that moment, for me, as Paul, I instantly feel vulnerable and incredibly different – it’s a hard-hitting moment.’
Does Paul think the story’s still relevant to a modern audience?
‘I don’t think it resonates as much as it did way back when. It’s a piece people can come and watch and think: “What the heck? Am I actually high?”
‘It’s a very Marmite show – even back during the ’60s when it came out, people didn’t know how to take it, but you find that part of the show that resonates with you and you can learn something from it.’
If people know anything at all about the show nowadays, it tends to be about the infamous nude scene. How has that been?
‘I was a bit apprehensive when the audition came through. I knew what Hair involved having seen the Broadway version, and to be honest, I didn’t have that great a sense of body confidence, I’ve lost a lot of weight over the years, so this was a moment to face up to this insecurity of mine.
‘When we did the first tech show when we were getting naked I was very anxious, but now I just whip it all off and we’re all walking around naked in the wings, it’s a really liberating feeling, and because that’s all real for us, that should mean something for the audience too.’
The former Bay House School pupil admits it’s going to be strange coming back to The Kings – but he is looking forward to staying with his parents – and seeing their dog – while the show’s here.
‘I’m quite proud of myself – it’s not the easiest of careers, it’s really not, it’s tough, and I’m in a position where I’m bringing a show like this back to Portsmouth and I’m able to play the lead in it. That’s what makes all of the hard effort worth it.
‘It’s an awesome show, I just really hope that anyone who knows me and has seen me in anything previously comes to see it and will be like: “Oh my god, this is so barmy!”
Paul got his big break straight out of graduating from The Arts Educational Schools, London, in the summer of 2015 when he joined Sir Cameron Mackintosh’s 30th anniversary West End production of Les Miserables as part of the ensemble and cover for Marius. He then took the role of Marius for an Asian tour and resumed the part in the West End until 2018. What was that experience like?
‘It had its challenges,’ he admits. ‘You can train and train and train, but the real training is in the practical side of it and understanding how you work with doing eight shows a week. Do you have the stamina? Do you have the mental capacity? It’s hard.
‘Anyone who’s heard of Les Mis, would think: “Wow, that’s an incredible show, it must be great to be a part of”, and it was. But I never understood what it took to put a show like that on.
‘It was absolutely amazing and it taught me a hell of a lot. It was like a three year intensive bootcamp into how to get your body in shape and vocally how to have the stamina to do eight shows a week to the best of your ability. And also to see the world – I saw beautiful things and was getting paid to do something I love to do.
‘That’s what makes me so passionate about what I do, that actually, if you put in the hard work and effort into your training and performance, sometimes the benefits can be huge.
‘I absolutely love acting and telling a story. Les Mis was my first springboard into understanding what it takes to put a story across to an audience.’
Hair is at The Kings Theatre in Southsea from June 10-15. Tickets from £22.50 to £39.50. Go to kingsportsmouth.co.uk.