The Phantom Of The Opera is somewhat of a menacing figure. He has single-handedly haunted the Paris Opera House – neatly transported to Her Majesty’s Theatre – for over 17 years and 7,000 performances. During this reign of terror in which he has consistently worn black (never a symbolic sign of happiness) and insisted on covering part of his face with a disturbing mask, he has committed around 14,000 murders, which is no mean feat. So, it was with some trepidation that Matthew Amer entered the Phantom’s Lair to talk with current Phantom, John Owen-Jones.
John Owen-Jones is not wrapped in a Dracula-esque black cloak, nor is he shielding his face from view. In fact he is wearing faded jeans and a T-shirt advertising new kings of glam-rock, The Darkness. He doesn’t talk with the eerie voice of one slightly unhinged and likely to kill at any moment, but instead has a soft and lyrical Welsh accent. Surely this is not the man who has been terrifying West End audiences for the last 2 years; he doesn’t seem to resemble one of theatre’s greatest villains in the slightest. But Owen-Jones does not entirely agree: “I’d like to think that since The Phantom is an insane, sociopathic murderer I don’t carry that on into my real life, but you can’t help but take a little bit of it. The Phantom is supposed to be so damn sexy and I can’t help but take that into my real life!”
The 11 month contract extension that Owen-Jones has recently signed will soon make him London’s longest running Phantom, an accolade of which he is rightly proud. But compared to the length of time the show itself has been going Owen-Jones is but a trainee mass murderer, still dishing out Chinese burns rather than brutal disembowellings. He has his own particular, meat-based, ideas about why the show has achieved such longevity. “It’s just the ingredients. They’ve got a good script, a great score, spectacular sets and fantastic costumes. It’s just because the blend of ingredients is absolutely right. You can cook a steak in many different ways, but they cooked it right 17 years ago.”
"The blend of ingredients is absolutely right."
Although The Phantom Of The Opera has been playing its Music Of The Night in the West End for nearly two decades not a great deal about the production has changed. It has survived without being revamped, rejigged or having a facelift (which may have proved painful for The Phantom). Although normally fine, the 17 year old machinery can go wrong. Owen-Jones’ favourite technological tale of woe involves the Masquerade scene: “When I appear at the top of the stairs, I’m actually hoisted up on a forklift because I’ve such a massive costume on and can’t go up a ladder. However, they have a ladder just in case. Every time the forklift breaks down, for no apparent reason, I have to climb up this ladder in high heels and a massive cloak and tights. It’s quite ungraceful.”
“One of the best kept secrets of Phantom is the makeup I wear.” Although unable to compete with Lord Of The Rings on the prosthetics front, Owen-Jones has to spend more time in makeup than most stage actors, not to make himself more beautiful but as part of the uglifying process. In days gone by it would have taken hours to apply the bald cap, head and face latex before even considering makeup. It took so long that the Phantom would stay made up between a matinee and evening performance as there was not time for reapplication. These days the process has become faster and more efficient, meaning Owen-Jones can conduct the interview in all his facial glory. The foam latex used in the show is modelled to Owen-Jones’ own head by movie makeup maestro Chris Tucker (The Elephant Man) who, in a macabre twist fitting of The Phantom, has his own collection of heads, including John Hurt and Peter O’Toole, lying around his workshop. “My head, apparently, is only just a little bit smaller than Benny Hill! If I ever write a book that might be chapter 1, ‘A smaller head than Benny Hill’!”
However small his head may be, it is the mask that will always be the defining feature of the Phantom. It is an icon that can be seen wherever you look on London’s public transport; buses, tube stations and even particularly fanatical rickshaw drivers. But the iconic apparel comes with built-in pitfalls. Owen-Jones’ acting style had to be rethought and rebuilt when he took the role, using exaggerated body movements to convey the emotions normally expressed by his face. But even with this problem overcome, Owen-Jones has his own, more personal, problem with the mask. “I hate having to break in a new mask. You get so used to the shape of the old one, even though they’re almost identical because they’re made to fit your face. You just get used to it. It’s like wearing a new pair of shoes.”
"My head is only just a little bit smaller than Benny Hill!"
Theatreland is full of stories about ghosts in the galleries, spirits in the stalls and apparitions in the auditorium. Although Her Majesty’s is not famed for its otherworldly presences, performing in a show about a theatre ‘haunted’ by a murderous fiend must stir up a little apprehensive superstition. “The 6,666th performance was quite interesting. Loads of things went wrong. Everybody was saying ‘oooooo… 666… oooooo’.” The ominous ‘ooooo’ brings the Phantom to mind again and for a second Owen-Jones appears deranged, but not in a particularly threatening way, just slightly odd.
Owen-Jones’ acting career, like many, had humble beginnings in childhood. He first acted in his school play before moving on to a role in the chorus of his local youth theatre’s production of West Side Story. It was only when the company’s director stumbled upon him singing to himself one day that he started taking solos and lead roles. But it was always the acting more than the singing that interested him. “What really appeals to me more than anything else is actually becoming a character. That’s what attracted me to theatre. You can do that in musicals, but there are not many people who see that; they just see it as song and dance, tits and teeth. It’s not about that to me, not the musicals I’ve done anyway, or the musicals I want to do.” He explains his love of character acting with another of what are quickly becoming trademark bizarre analogies. “It’s like playing golf; the more you do it, the more you understand why you enjoy it.”
Since leaving drama school ten years ago Owen-Jones has spent less than a year out of work and has starred in two of the most popular musicals of all time, Phantom and Les Misérables. Although he has done ‘straight’ acting, the bulk of his work has been in musical theatre, a career path on which his views are typically down to earth. “I went to drama school with some very talented people; incredibly talented people. I’d look around and think ‘Jesus Christ, how the hell am I here?’ But very, very talented actors left drama school and haven’t got any work, and they’re better than me. But because I can sing I’ve got another string to my bow. It would be foolish of me to ignore that.” This business-like approach disguises just how much Owen-Jones loves his art. “Obviously when I wanted to do it for a living it wasn’t a job, it was a dream. But I’m doing it. It’s a dream job, but it’s still a job. I always wanted to play Phantom and I always wanted to play Valjean, but I never expected to. Other people have asked me ‘How do you do eight shows a week?’ It’s because I bloody love it. And I’ve seen actors who are more talented do less.”
"Bloody Gilbert and Sullivan are insane!"
Owen-Jones’ love of music is certainly comparable with his love of acting. An eclectic CD collection that starts with Abba and AC/DC, moves through Company, The Magic Flute and The Three Tenors and finishes with White Zombie [though there is no mention of Whigfield] speaks volumes about his mixed musical tastes. “I love music. I can’t spend a day without it. After doing Les Mis I thought ‘I can’t sing again. I need to do a job where I don’t sing.’ I went and did Shakespeare and then The Pirates Of Penzance. That was singing and a half. I was doing high kicks and top Cs at the same time because bloody Gilbert and Sullivan are insane!”
Fans of The Phantom Of The Opera are noted as some of the most dedicated around. Many return to see the show time after time, but most happily stop short of emulating their hero by harassing theatre owners or disfiguring themselves. The stage door is often rife with Phantom phanatics waiting to catch a glimpse or a chat with their favourite performer. Unfortunately Owen-Jones does not actually look like the Phantom and in real life theme music does not play whenever he walks through a doorway. “I can walk through a crowd when I walk out and they don’t know who I am. I give them a little chance, but I can’t go up to them and say ‘Would you like my autograph? It’s me, the Phantom, look!’ It’s a bit cocky, isn’t it?”
When he’s not being a mentally deranged murderous maniac Owen-Jones is a family man with a wife and two young children. He doesn’t seem to be a man with many regrets but he does berate himself for not renewing his membership to the Rollercoaster Club Of Great Britain; “I’m addicted to rollercoasters but I haven’t had time to keep it up. That must say something about me, mustn’t it?” Thrillseeker? Enjoys being out of control? Likes being around people who are scared witless? Maybe he is more like The Phantom than he would care to admit. Then again, he might just be a fine musical actor who also happens to be a normal, everyday guy. “Saturday morning, before a matinee, I go down to the bottom of the garden and pick up all the dog poo. That’s my job. I mean, I’m like anybody. I go to the toilet and everything!”