Cameron Smith catches up with Welsh singer, dancer and stage actor Ian ‘H’ Watkins, well-known for being a member of pop group Steps, but also now a musical theatre regular. He is currently playing the lead role in the touring production of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Ian ‘H’ Watkins, best-known as a member of the pop band Steps, is currently touring in Bill Kenwright’s version of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Watkins first appeared as Joseph eight years ago in the West End, following in a lengthy line of boyish pop stars, from Jason Donovan to Donny Osmond, who have played the eponymous dreamer. He understands the difficulties in making the leap into musical theatre.
“People think they can leave a pop band and jump into a musical and you just can’t do that. There’s a huge discipline that’s involved with your craft and your body and your voice. If you’re playing a lead role, you live like a vicar.”
That commitment has been evident in his post-Steps career. He trained in musical theatre at the Royal Academy of Music and, since graduating, has appeared in Fame and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. In 2011 Steps reunited for the documentary series Steps: The Reunion which resulted in the group’s greatest hits album reaching number one and a sold-out arena tour, but now he’s been drawn back to musicals. He’s under no illusions about the opportunities his pop celebrity has given him.
“In this day and age when you have to use named performers and celebrity casting to put bums on seats, there’s no choice but for these two worlds [of pop and musical theatre] to collide. That’s why I went back to college. I wanted to gain respect from my peers, directors and casting directors and luckily, after that, they took me seriously.”
So he’s returned to the role of Joseph who, despite becoming familiar to so many, is actually a very unconventional hero. In truth, he’s not even that likeable.
“He’s a spoilt brat. He’s quite obnoxious and cocky. For him to be beaten down and have everything he owns taken away from him, that’s when he learns his lessons and realises his worth.”
The musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice started out in the sixties as an end-of-term concert piece for a primary school. Since then it has grown into a true family favourite. Beautifully simple songs such as ‘Close Every Door’ and ‘Any Dream Will Do’ sit alongside over-the-top parodies and plenty of good old Carry On-style silliness.
“You can’t take yourself too seriously. We’ve got talking camels, an Elvis impersonator and me in a loin cloth. It’s a very fun show.”
Ah, yes. The loin cloth. It’s become something of a Joseph trademark, as Watkins explains: “I don’t know why the show’s not called ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Loin Cloth’ because I spend most of the show in it. Somebody told me that one review said: ‘Joseph looks mighty fine after all those years in the jail.’ That was kind of nice. Those months of working out paid off!”
But costume-wise it’s the coat that really steals the show or, in this case, coats.
“I have a plethora of coats, it keeps getting bigger and better each time. It’s like a Christmas present at the end, it feels amazing. It feels like you’re in a movie.”
For the grand finale the ‘parachute’ coat is deployed. Members of the cast pull out colourful cloths from inside Joseph’s coat and fan them out across the whole stage. It’s quite a technical challenge.
“I have to anchor my feet into the stage and cling on for dear life as I’ve got ten other cast members pulling it. Otherwise I’m going to fall over doing a big top A.”
Aside from the spectacle, another appealing aspect of the production is the use of children’s choirs. These choirs are made up of children from local drama groups based in whichever city the show is playing. As a nine year-old growing up in Wales, a local amateur production of the show proved to be Watkins’ own inspiration. So he knows what a great opportunity this is for the kids involved.
“At the top of the show I always come down a minute early and give them a big thumbs up. I used to watch Joseph in the wings and dream that was me. Maybe one of those kids will look up to me and be playing this role in 20 years, who knows?”
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat is currently on a national tour. Ian ‘H’ Watkins will appear in the show until 9 November. http://www.kenwright.com/index.php?id=638
The show will play the New Wimbledon Theatre from 29 October–2 November.