The first time I saw Oliver Tompsett he was in a wheelbarrow. Wearing a red waistcoat and a pair of the West End’s tightest trousers, his swaggering entrance as Fiyero in hit Wizard of Oz prequel Wicked was that of an actor performing the part he was seemingly born to play. Tompsett was everything the role required; irrepressibly charming, even when playing shallow, and endowed of an effortless, caramel voice. When I reviewed the UK touring production of Wicked in Leeds this summer, my one major reservation was about that production’s casting of Fiyero. Tompsett had set the bar high.
His career since then has consisted of a number of similarly cocky yet endearing leading roles: Drew in Rock of Ages; Galileo in We Will Rock You; and now Phil Davis in the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s production of White Christmas. So it’s a surprise to hear him express concern about “how to get the charm without Jack the Lad arrogance,” in the role of Phil, because doing just that has been his particular brand of charisma from the word go. Off-duty, he’s as just as charming, all dimpled grins and enthusiasm. “People are gonna watch me and think, ‘he’s not Gene Kelly,’” he jokes. But if any current West End star can pull off that old-school showmanship, it’s Tompsett. While the new generation of up-and-coming male musical theatre actors have a suspiciously One Direction vibe, Tompsett represents the survival of a sort of grown up star quality worryingly under siege on today’s London stages.
“People are gonna watch me and think, ‘he’s not Gene Kelly”
“You encounter a lot less red tape when working in a theatre like this,” he says of the playhouse. “London theatres are all about getting bums on seats – appealing to the mass market.” It’s to this that Tompsett, 31, attributes the rise and rise of the so-called Jukebox Musical – shows crafted by working pre-existing pop songs into an original narrative. Tompsett has been involved in a good deal of them himself, with roles in Mamma Mia and Our House (a musical featuring the songs of Madness) to his name as well as his more recent outings in Rock of Ages and We Will Rock You. So what keeps performing in that kind of show from becoming a cynical commercial job? “You approach it the same way as an actor; look into the text of the songs. You have to create a world that’s truthful and which the audience will recognise. The audience never gets all of a character’s backstory, so it’s your job to provide that somehow. Sometimes there might be a conflict with the producer or the director when you interpret a song a certain way and they say ‘but the audience is going to expect it to sound like this…’ But I’ll always challenge it if I feel the text suggests a certain reading of a song. The best jukebox musicals have the best directors.”
“You approach it the same way as an actor; look into the text of the songs. You have to create a world that’s truthful and which the audience will recognise.”
It’s clear from his repeated gushing that Tompsett counts White Christmas director Nikolai Foster as one such boss. He’s described this production as the sort of show that made him want to start doing musicals in the first place. Based on the 1954 Michael Curtiz film, White Christmas is the story of performing duo Bob Wallace and Phil Davis who start out entertaining the troops before making it big in Hollywood. “We had to decide whether to be true to the movie – that MGM Broadway sort of vocal sound – or whether to play it how they would have really sounded. There are so many wonderful songs in the show. They really don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”
West End veteran Darren Day plays opposite Tompsett as Bob Wallace. “Darren is lovely” says Tompsett emphatically. “It’s the perfect double-act dynamic. He’s my captain and I’m private Davis. On the battlefield he would be my superior. It’s that older brother thing. It’s like that off-stage as well.” How important is it to have that kind of rapport with someone on stage? “To be honest, I think all chemistry really comes down to is two good actors. If you get on with them, it’s a bonus.”
So what next for this West End golden boy? Another classic, perhaps? Something darker, say, Jean Valjean, or Chris in the new production of Miss Saigon? He gives it some thought. “Well,” he says eventually, “there’s this show called The Full Monty…”
Images: Manuel Harlan/ West Yorkshire Playhouse