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Claire Moore and Barry James

Published April 17, 2008

It is always worrying for an interviewer when the first thing that happens when you meet your interviewees is that they sing into your Dictaphone. Not only is it disconcertingly not the answer to your question, it also signifies that the couple in question is what we might term ‘rowdy’. But then, you would expect nothing less from the actors playing the hideously hilarious Monsieur and Madame Thenardier in Les Misérables. Matthew Amer caught up with the terrible twosome over a cup of coffee

Claire Moore: We did Little Shop Of Horrors together 22 years ago!
Barry James: My goodness, 1983!
CM: We were child stars, of course. Well, I was only just out of school. Barry is considerably older than me! Hahaha!

All this before a question has even been asked or a drop of caffeine has passed through any of the three pairs of lips seated around a table at a café opposite the stage door of the Queen’s theatre; the home of West End long-runner Les Misérables since April 2004. It is due to the length of the musical behemoth’s run that we meet. The revolutionary story has been moving audiences to tears now for nearly 20 years and there will be a special performance on Saturday 8 October, the show’s actual birthday, to celebrate that fact.

Across the street behind us, lurking amid the actors and workers at the stage door, one of the Les Mis groupies chats away. This particular fan is known to both Moore and James, as she has possibly seen the show over 600 times and takes up her seat at every Saturday matinee, much like a season ticket holder at a football match but with a much greater chance of actually being entertained for her money. “It’s wonderful though, isn’t it?” observes Moore. “I think it’s amazing that it’s so much of people’s lives”, she says, before, with a cheeky glint in her eye, she adds “I don’t think that I’d be here quite as often as that if I weren’t being paid for it! Hahaha!”

Moore and James both rejoined Les Mis this June, when the cast was given a major face lift, replacing many of the performers in the main roles. London’s longest running Phantom, John Owen-Jones returned to the role of Jean Valjean, a role he had previously played at the age of 26 to become the youngest performer ever to have played the part. Cornell John (The Lion King, The Full Monty) took the part of Javert, while Fantine is now played by We Will Rock You’s Kerry Ellis. Moore and James joined the cast to play the Thenardiers, with Andrew Lloyd Webber ‘discovery’ Shonagh Daly playing their daughter Eponine.

Shonagh Daly's Eponine
is more feminine than
Barry James's version!BJ:
But you’ve done Fantine as well, haven’t you? Is it your second time around?
CM: Yes.
BJ: It’s Claire’s second and it’s my third; except, I did it in Denmark which would make it my fourth.
CM: You were Eponine!
BJ: I was initially Eponine.
CM: Stop waffling and let him ask a question!

It was looking less and less likely that questions would be allowed or, quite frankly, necessary. As Moore so succinctly put it, “We are Mr and Mrs Thenardier off stage now as well as on. We’re finding that we’re turning into this mental, bonkers couple”. It’s hard to argue against this as the two actors have a natural chemistry both on and off stage. Their actions and phrases compliment each other as those of a real married couple might. 

“He’s just been away for two weeks”, explains Moore, “and I’ve had a lovely time without him, but it’s nice to have him back. He keeps me in the manner to which I have become accustomed; chocolates, champagne, that kind of thing. We have a Wednesday wine club and a Saturday celebration, where we’ll treat ourselves to a little drinky at the end of the show.” James elaborates: “We don’t really drink during the show – it’s not a good idea! – but just before the end, just before we come down the stairs to do our curtain call, we dash up the stairs and have a quick slosh of either a Chardonnay or a Suave, and on Saturdays a little glass of champagne.” “Very Mr and Mrs Thenardier, isn’t it”, observes Moore.

For those unacquainted with the Les Mis phenomenon – for rumour has it there are some who have not had a chance to see the show over the last two decades – the Thenardiers provide comic relief, but in the most repulsive of ways. Crooks, thieves, child abusers, looters; they are all this and more, yet… “We’re the most despicable people, probably in the world. Avaricious, horrible people… And they laugh at us!” explains Moore. “Twenty minutes into the show we pop up being horrible, but it’s funny. The darker we play the characters, the funnier they seem to become.”

Les MisérablesThis is not the first time that Moore and James have worked together. Over two decades ago, as the duo informed me without any need for prompting, they starred as Seymour and Audrey in Cameron Mackintosh’s original London production of Little Shop Of Horrors. More recently, they spent a jaunt in Budapest, filming a musical version of A Christmas Carol with Kelsey Grammer as cold-hearted Christmas-hater Ebeneezer Scrooge. The Emmy-nominated American production, which was, in Moore’s words, “very cheesy and very schmaltzy, but fab”, featured a host of British musical actors. Moore explains: “It was like a musical who’s who of the West End, [other performers included Julie Alannagh-Brighten, Linzi Hately and Ruthie Henshall] and the Americans had no idea that we all knew each other. It was just like a party!” James continues “The filming got in the way of the social life!”

BJ: I’ve been in the West End for… how long have I been in the West End for?
CM: I daren’t… you’ll hit me for giving your age away!
BJ: No, don’t do that. That’s cruel.
CM: At least 125 years. And you thought the dinosaur was extinct!
BJ: It’s not, you see. It’s here and alive and sitting outside the café drinking lemonade.

There is also a strange parallel between Moore and James’s careers, as both spent time working with a National theatre company littered with legendary thespians. For Moore, it was the Ian McKellen company that included Roy Kinnear, Greg Hicks, Edward Petherbridge, Eleanor Bron and Sheila Hancock. Before joining this company, Moore had been an opera singer. “That was my drama school” Moore says earnestly. “I was suddenly in with this elite bunch of actors and there were no concessions made for me. I was in there and I had to do my stuff; so I learned very quickly. I’ve never taken it for granted.” James was part of Laurence Olivier’s original National theatre company, acting alongside the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Sir John Gielgud and Dame Joan Plowright.

Barry JamesBJ: I was there for nearly seven years with the National theatre company. I started walking on and I played my first principal part, I suppose, in The Merchant Of Venice.
CM: He’s awfully good at walking on; awfully good at walking off as well!
BJ: I do good make up too. As long as I have nice makeup and a pretty costume, I don’t mind what I do in theatre.

In the future the pair would quite like to work together again, though I feel a certain amount of mock pity for any company lucky/unlucky enough to have them. Moore, in her tongue-in-cheek, endearingly cheeky way, points out that: “We rather like being married to each other in pretend life”. But if they were to work together, what would they do? Moore again jumps in with a response: “I would love to do some Sondheim in this country, in the Sondheim theatre [soon to be built on top of the Queen’s]. That would be the ultimate for me and then I could die happy… or at least retire! Stephen Sondheim needs to write us a show!” The suggestion that maybe the two of them could be suited for a new production of Sweeney Todd is met with “I look great in bunches!” by Moore, and “That’s on my CD! You know I’ve got an album out, don’t you?” by James, who wouldn’t look as good in bunches, so went for the plugging his merchandise option instead! (Centre Stage is available from the Queen’s theatre foyer and via www.barryjames.biz)

Before any Sondheim shenanigans can take place, though, there is the small matter of the Les Mis 20th anniversary celebrations happening this weekend; celebrations that promise to be something to behold. The finale of the show is, on any normal performance, emotional; on Saturday it will feature as many of the original cast as are available to join their current counterparts, and 45 school children, as a past, present, and possible future of the show. And then? “And then”, says Moore, the wicked smile returning to her face “we’re all going to get horribly drunk at a party later and recover on the Sunday.” James, ever the master of understatement, adds “I think it will be a lot of fun”.

Claire MooreA new look works it’s way over Moore’s face at this point; a look not of impishness, naughtiness or even drunkenness, but of ponderation. All this talk of celebration has drawn the sheer weight of Les Mis’s accomplishment to her mind: seen by 53 million people worldwide in 38 countries and 21 languages; 31 different cast recordings; 1,000 school productions; a gala performance for Jacques Chirac and Her Majesty the Queen at Windsor Castle; and becoming the first full scale English language musical to play China. The cheeky look returns, along with a broad smile, as she announces “I think it’s a hit, you know!”

Les Misérables celebrates its 20th anniversary on Saturday 8 October, and is currently booking until 6 January 2007. To buy tickets for Les Misérables online, please click here.

MA

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