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Centre Stage: Oliver Tompsett

Published 17 April 2008

It is the magical story of the green girl and her popular college roomie and how they grow up to become the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good, characters from the famous film The Wizard Of Oz; Wicked has been a pretty popular show in the West End since it flew in from Broadway last year, and on 7 September it celebrated its first birthday.

Happily munching on the cake was Oliver Tompsett, for whom the last year has been, excuse the pun, wicked. As part of the original ensemble cast and understudy to Adam Garcia’s Fiyero, the 26-year-old actor proved his worth so much that in July this year he was promoted to the role of Fiyero full time. Caroline Bishop spoke to him about swinging on ropes, making music and giggling with the girls.

You have been in Wicked since the beginning – are you still enjoying it?

OT: Yeah it’s great fun. A lot of musicals can be quite serious and very much about getting across some kind of tragic story, but being in a musical comedy with great pop songs in it is so much fun. It’s a complete fantasy land, falling in love with a girl who has a green face, and getting to do all sorts of fun things – jumping around on statues and swinging on ropes. It’s very hard not to have fun in Wicked.

Did the cast do anything special to celebrate the show’s first birthday?

OT: Yeah we had some drinks and nibbles front of house and there was a big cake. The icing was about two inches thick, but I didn’t mind that too much!

How did it feel to take over the role of Fiyero after being in the ensemble?

OT: Last year was good fun because I was understudying Adam Garcia who is a guy who I looked up to; when I was a teenager I remember seeing him in a show. I had an opportunity when I was on for about eight weeks when Adam went off to do a film, and over that period they asked me if I would take over from Adam. So I had a nice long run at it before I officially had the pressure of filling Adam’s boots. It couldn’t have gone better for me.

It’s lovely to be playing it this year. It’s my first lead role as an actor in a major West End show and it’s a different experience. You don’t see the rest of the company as much, whereas when I was in the ensemble you have such a blast sub-stage and in the wings. But the Fiyero character, whenever he seems to run on stage everyone seems to run off stage! I miss that quite a lot. But at the same time I wouldn’t change anything, because playing the part is great fun. You have to think a lot more and make sure you’re getting the story across, but at the same time you’re keeping it fresh in your own mind. And of course the feedback you get from the audience is much more personal than when you’re in the ensemble. The ensemble are the unsung heroes really – the ones who work the hardest but probably get the least praise and feedback. I know what that’s like.

What is your favourite moment in the show?

OT: For me personally, I think it has to be either swinging in on the ropes, when Fiyero swings in to save the day – because it’s just like being a little kid again, playing pirates – or the duet that I get to sing with Kerry Ellis [who plays Elphaba] in the second act; it’s a fantastic piece of music and singing opposite such great singers such as Kerry and Dianne [Pilkington, who plays Glinda] is a great gift.

How do you keep yourself in good shape to be able to perform daily?

OT: The stage is on what we call a rake, which is slightly tilted so the audience can see a bit more of the action. It takes its toll on your back at first and obviously as soon as your back starts going out of alignment your knees can start hurting a little bit. But I haven’t really suffered that much because I had all last year to prepare for it. Vocally, as long as you’re sensible, you drink a lot of water, and you’ve had the correct training in your voice, it shouldn’t go too drastically wrong.

A lot of people who leave college, if they get thrown into a lead role straight away, may find that the eight shows a week is a tough thing to do. Working your way up, there’s a lot to be said for that, because you’re learning your trade, seeing all different aspects of it and you’re constantly progressing. As long as you’ve got that experience then the stamina thing is easy. Personally my voice gets stronger and stronger every year. I feel like I could do more shows, more singing.

The best thing you can do though, if ever it’s not coming out, just never push it. Especially when you’re young, do not push your voice if it’s tired. I know from my experience when I was at college, when you’re trying to get agents in to come and see you, you want to practise more and more, but in actual fact you burn yourself out and when it comes to crunch time and you’ve got to show it off, you’ve tired your voice out.

Has anything embarrassing ever happened to you on stage?

OT: Yes! I think when you have a company that gets on so well – me, Kerry and Dianne have such fun, we really get on well off stage – that all it takes is for someone to have forgotten a line or something and it just throws you a little bit and you can find yourself slightly snapping out of it. It’s very hard not to [burst out laughing] at each other. The girls are worse that I am. They giggle at every little mistake. I think I’m always more worried that people are going to think I’m being an idiot, because the character I play is a bit more of a buffoon.

Kerry, once, in the opening of the duet, forgot to sing her first line, she forgot her words. I tried to help her; I sang her first line for her, but I sang in her key which is really high and so I sounded like a big girl! But we managed to get it up and running after that.

Were you a fan of The Wizard Of Oz growing up?

OT: I do remember seeing it quite a lot when I was a kid. When I was very young, about seven, I remember, you know, the school nativities where your parents come and watch it and no one knows their lines and it’s very slow moving. I played the scarecrow in that! Little did I know.

How old were you when you decided you wanted to become a musical theatre actor?

OT: I don’t remember. Me and my mother disagree on this, I don’t remember thinking about it until I was 16 or 17. I think my mum thought that she knew I was going to do something when I was very young. I needed to be the centre of attention. But I’m making myself sound like a really annoying brat!

I was into a lot of sport when I was a kid. I didn’t go to stage school or anything, I didn’t do any school productions when I was at secondary school.

So why did you swap sport for acting?

OT: I think it was because I was kind of a jack of all trades, master of none, in the sporting world. I was good at all sports but not good enough at any of them to pursue it professionally. I remember thinking I’d quite like my own leisure centre. And then I think I remember singing and people saying you’ve got a really good voice. I fundamentally wanted to go into music and the recording side of it, and started doing bits… I went for some auditions for colleges, and I think if you ever get told you’re good at something it makes you want to do it more…

It’s important to encourage kids to pursue what they’re good at, but at the same time I think it’s just as important to tell children that maybe it’s not what they were built to do. Because it’s a very, very tough business coming into performing. I say, chase your dream at whatever cost but be completely aware of your weaknesses and your strengths.

Was it always musical theatre or did drama/television/film interest you too?

OT: When I went to college I thought I wanted to do it all. I think you soon learn in this country that you get pigeon-holed. Being in musical theatre can be hard if you want to go and do more television or straight plays.

Music is a big part of what I want to do, and I’ll pursue that at the moment, I’m recording my own album [with saxophonist-songwriter brother Ben]. It’s just a little adventure for us, we are doing it for ourselves. I like to think that someday I’ll start pursuing more television and straight acting, which I know I can do, it’s just a matter of putting your energy into it. If it doesn’t go that way and I don’t get the breaks in the music or the straight acting, then I’m very lucky to be in theatre. It’s a lot of hard work but I have no complaints. I’m very grateful for where I am.

I have to keep doing things – so for me to be recording an album and working on music and writing in the day time and doing a show in the evening, is my ideal.

If you were a wizard, what would you use your magic powers to do?

OT: Clean all the waters in the world. Or, turn myself into an international footballer! If I’d been brilliant at football, I would much rather be a football star and get paid a lot of money to play a fantastic sport. So, either clean all the waters in the world, or, selfishly, be the next big football star!

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