INTERVIEW: John Partridge chats Cabaret, The View Upstairs & why his flourishing cookery career is so important to his health & happiness

John Partridge – Emcee in Cabaret

John Partridge is a multi-talented and versatile actor, singer, dancer and television presenter. He is probably best known for his critically acclaimed portrayal as Christian Clarke in EastEnders, a role he played from 2008 until 2012. John is also a successful recording artist and an accomplished stage actor whose illustrious career has spanned 32 years. He joined the cast of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats aged 16 and has taken on an incredibly diverse range of iconic characters over the course of his career. John is currently starring in Bill Kenwright’s revival of the Kander and Ebb classic musical Cabaret where he is taking on the role of the flamboyant Emcee. John graciously took some time out of his week at Wolverhampton Grand to chat to us about the importance and relevance of Cabaret, his recent turn in The View Upstairs and his motivation behind his emerging cookery career and launch of his first cookbook.

Can you describe this production of Cabaret in one sentence? No – I don’t think you can describe a show as multilayered as this in one sentence because in some ways that would be doing it a disservice and would dumb the show down. This is an incredibly innovative piece that deals with really powerful themes and I think it’s so interesting that a show written 50 years ago has such an unforeseen resonance now. Especially as we move through our own political landscape with the rise of the right and the bend away from liberalism from Trump to Farage to Marine Le Pen and of course Brexit. Also if you are to believe the rise of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party and in general here, plus the rising the anti-gay sentiment. These are all issues that are extremely frontline right now and so this show feels important in a way I think it wouldn’t have done 30 years ago, 20 years ago or even 15 years ago. That’s been really interesting for me in putting together my version of Emcee.

Your character Emcee is one of the most iconic roles in musical theatre, how did you approach the role and what process did you go through to make him your own? I lived in Berlin for ten years, it’s where I met my husband, and we still have an apartment there. I’ve been to the real-life Kit Kat Klub which is still alive and fully functioning. Also, people have a strange idea of Germany, even now; we consider it to be Germany of the past. Its heritage is unshakable but having lived there I found it to be one of the most liberal countries I’ve ever lived in as a gay man. I think that is partly why Berlin in the 30s was the capital of Europe and that liberalism remains. Of course the decadence and debauchery we depict in the show is a bit removed but there is still an element of that there and it’s an incredibly vibrant city. What I love about Berlin is that if you want to get an idea of the ground you can find people there that will help you, for no money and if that idea becomes successful you will all reap the benefits. That form of socialism is what Germany is about. In Berlin 65% of the population is Ausländer, so made up of people not from Germany and that multiculturalism is something that certainly here we seem to be stepping away from for some bizarre reason. So I think having spent a lot of time there, I am able to bring that experience to this role. Some roles are just in you. If you are really lucky as an actor you may land two or three roles in your career that are really right for you. The rest of the time you shoehorn yourself in to fit those roles because that’s what being a jobbing actor is all about. There are so few roles that are intrinsically made up from what you have in your box of tricks and I feel that this is one of those roles for me. I also feel that I can roll up my life experience, both on and off stage, the good and the bad, combine it with my training and regurgitate it all on the stage. There’s something kind of cathartic and very therapeutic about that for me. I read a review from somebody this morning that said “the mildly grotesque Emcee, with lurid makeup and chunky thighs” and I was thrilled, and also livid as I have worked hard on these lithe limbs! I’ll take it though because that’s the thing about this role, I get to be many things and that’s what I enjoy doing, I come from the triple threat school of acting and it’s where I feel most at home.

How did you come to get involved in the show? When I heard that the show was coming back out I got in touch with Bill (Kenwright) and said that I really wanted the role of Emcee. I have been working with Bill since 2016 and he’s become a real friend and mentor to me. What I love about him is the fact that he still has an incredible passion and drive which is something that I find really inspiring. Bill has allowed me to play roles that other producers perhaps wouldn’t have because he wants me to continually develop and grow as an actor. At the beginning of the year I went out in Tom Stoppard’s Rough Crossing and that was a role that on paper I’m not right for yet Bill gave me that to help me grow and develop. That is so rare in this game because people aren’t interested in your growth or your development; it’s all about making money because it’s commercial theatre. The fact that Bill allows me to do that means such a lot to me. It’s also all about timing; roles come around and it might not be the right time for one reason or another and who knows when this will come around again. Also Will Young has been hogging it for the last few years so when it became available I jumped at the chance! It’s an iconic show and of course, I always feel nervous when I’m taking on this kind of role. I feel like I’m a caretaker of the part and I’m here to preserve it and look after it.

Why should audiences come and see Cabaret? It’s an honour to open the show out to people who don’t necessarily know it or know this version of it. The stage show is very far removed from the movie and is a lot deeper. This particular production is very clever which gives it a wider appeal. If you are one of those people that doesn’t like musicals and would prefer to see a straight play, then this is the musical for you. Cabaret is really a play with music; yes we have musical numbers in the show but they’re not your all singing all dancing boy loves girl jaunty numbers. It’s not all bluebirds and butterflies and the show is dark, although there is some humour in it. Cabaret really has something for everybody on many levels and that’s really, really hard to do. In a musical, when you can’t express yourself anymore you burst into song and that’s kind of the idea. The thing about this show is it doesn’t necessarily do that. It does in the sense, that a scene takes place and then it’s my characters job as the MC to come out and explain and educate the audience about what they’ve just seen. That’s very different from a normal musical format and that’s why I think the show appeals to so many people and has enjoyed such longevity.

Cabaret has been recreated for stage numerous times, what differentiates this version from all the others? With any great revival, you have to pay homage to what’s gone before and I think we do that. What Rufus Norris, the director, has done so brilliantly is bring in incredibly relevant references to the piece. Even with the iris opening at the beginning, the life through a lens metaphor is not actually a reference that a lot of people know from the period. That’s what Rufus has done so cleverly because he is an intellectual as well as a creative, he has taken those references and included them in the show. The book is as strong as the other component parts. That’s another of the incredible things that Rufus has done with this, he’s made everything equally as important. From the music, to the choreography, to the storytelling, to the performances everything has its own merit and that’s what gives the show all these layers.

Congratulations on the success of the recent production of The View Upstairs, the show has touched a lot of people, why do you think it did so well? It did very well with a certain type of audience, it seemed to have a really positive impact on the younger viewers. That is great for a show about history because it’s amazing when a show educates, inspires and touches people and I think that’s why it had such resonance. Also, Max (Vernon) writes from a young person’s perspective and I think that’s why it spoke to that type of audience. I adored being a part of that piece and a lot of people ask me why I decided to do it. When I saw the character breakdown, it said ‘Buddy, a 50-year old gay man’. Breakdowns like that don’t pop into my managements office on daily basis and roles and writing like that just don’t exist. So when it came out I thought yes! Somebody has written a story for a 50-year old gay man, sign me up! As a company, we worked so hard on that piece. It was a strong group of people and Max was so gracious in allowing our ideas to be heard and incorporated. It was very much a collaboration which is always exciting.

The View Upstairs received mixed reviews from the National Press, yet was incredibly popular with audiences – how difficult was that to reconcile as a company? I just wish that somebody from the national press had cut Max a bit of slack because the reviews were not kind to him. I wish that one person had said how talented he is because all they did was a comment on the fact that the characters were quite stereotypical, or they didn’t like the music, or it was clichéd or it was over the top. Those were the reviews and I found that completely disingenuous. It’s so rare that you find a new writer who writes the book, the lyrics and the music – it just doesn’t happen! The reason why there is no new writing in the UK is that as soon as somebody puts their head over the parapet we completely slap them down. Not one person from the nationals wrote that this guy is talented and I think that’s a bloody disgrace from the critics. Unfortunately, you do need the press and with commercial theatre, they can kill your product. There are only a few instances where the public opinion trumped the critics Les Mis and We Will Rock You, for example, got terrible reviews yet went on to have long careers. All I will say is watch out because Max Vernon is coming!

You’ve been in the industry for a long time; do negative reviews still affect you? I actually love reviews, particularly when I’m on the road because you don’t necessarily tour with a resident director. The nature of touring means you are doing the same thing eight times a week and as a result of that things can bend in a different way. Sometimes you head to a town and the reviews might say “John Partridge is grotesquely over the top” so in instances like that I know I need to reign my performance in a bit. So I actually use them as a way of checking myself and seeing where my balances are because with such repetition on tour things grow and start to feel comfortable and that’s never good! In fact, somebody once told me if it feels good don’t do it! That said, reviews can be brutal and when I get a bad one it’s never water off a ducks back. As an actor, you want to be liked that’s part of the profession. Usually, when you take an on a role you know how it’s going be. You kind of just buckle up and think, alright I’m going to get pasted for this one, so it’s a case of just how badly! Conversely, you also know when you are going to shine in a role so you sort of learn to enjoy the good reviews and try to enjoy the bad ones as best you can.

Your work seems to naturally vary between stage and TV, is this intentional and do you have a preference? My career was very organic up to a point, then I hit a bit of profile and my life sort of changed. I’m lucky enough to be in a position now where I can make decisions based on parts I really want to play and that will help me develop and grow as an actor. For the last 3/4 years, that’s what I’ve chosen to do. I am two years sober which has changed my life massively in terms of taking on parts that a few years ago I would never have considered. It’s funny because when I was drinking and taking drugs I needed to perform, I needed to act. I enjoyed the escapism of it but now I’m happily sober my desire to be somebody else has diminished somewhat because I am liking being me and getting to know myself. It’s not something that I have fully worked out or fully worked through, but it’s something that I have recently discovered about myself. I’m not saying that I’m giving up acting but I am saying that I am taking my foot off the pedal. I’m approaching 50 and I want something different for my next decade. I’m not entirely sure what that is but touring on a weekly basis is hard. I have a husband, I have a family and I miss them dreadfully. As much as I love being a part of this production and being on the road the fact that I know that I’m not going be home for a while it’s really, really tough. So be it TV or stage, acting, in general, is probably not going to be my main driver as I head into my 50s.

Acting on stage versus TV are two very different mediums as well. I find television acting incredibly unnatural because you have to condense everything and you have to pull everything down. I’m naturally quite an animated person and I’m very expressive and for me, on TV I feel like I have to Botox my entire body! What I love about stage work is that you get that instant gratification and you instantly know if you’ve done a good job. With TV it’s a delayed process and it’s much after the event that you think oh God did I really do that or did I really pull that face. Having said that I never watch anything back, I guess because I come from this theatrical world once a moment has passed it’s gone. There is something very odd about going home and watching yourself.

What do you consider your biggest career highlight? People often ask me what I consider to be the highlight of my career and by that, they mean a particular moment or a show. I went into Cats when I was 16 and I’m 48 now. I’ve been doing this professionally for 32 years and to me, that is the highlight – longevity. I look at darling Anita Harris who I adore and at 76 she is able to bring such a wealth and body of experience to her role in the show. I always say when I grow up I want to be Anita Harris – and I do because I find it inspiring.

You’ve enjoyed an incredibly varied and diverse career, is there anything you haven’t achieved that you would like to? There is loads that I haven’t achieved that I would like to, not so much professionally but personally. I have regrets about lots of things and part of being sober is about atoning. I am in atonement shall we say and that is what I’m looking to achieve next, putting right a few wrongs. Don’t worry I didn’t murder anybody or anything like, I’m not asking for forgiveness on that level! I am looking for it on some level though and I hope that I will be able to achieve it. When you are drinking and using drugs there is a selfishness to that behaviour and in the past, I have been selfish and I’d like to make that right. In some ways, that’s what the next decade will be for me. My food career has also become extremely important to me because I have used that to help me be well. I had no idea what kind of impact that was going to have on me. I really hope to be as successful in that as I have been in my acting career and if I’m honest that’s the direction in which I hope my career naturally moves towards as I enter my 50s.

You have your first cookbook There’s No Taste Like Home coming out in April 2020, what was the motivation and drive behind writing it? I’m so proud of the book because food helped me reconnect with who I was. Food is like a great piece of theatre or an amazing piece of music, it evokes memory. Memories are incredibly powerful and in me going back to that time before it helped me remember and it helped me find myself. I know that sounds really deep but it was an incredibly deep process and it’s been my therapy. It starts with the process of remembering; for example, making a cheese and onion pie reminds me of my mum picking me up from dancing and taking me to Stones’s Bakery, she would have the cheese and onion pie and I would have the meat pie. It was that reconnecting that memory with myself that started the process and then the rest came. That helped me develop my own style because it came from me, it came from my heritage and my family and all these things I had diluted and run away from. Part of that was to do with life, part of that was to do with not feeling that it was enough. It was never talent that I was concerned about but more am I funny enough, am I good-looking enough, to people like me enough? All of these things were the reasons I lived the way I lived. Cooking food from my past has helped me live in the present and I want to keep doing that.

Preparing food is self-care and I used to put shit into my body because I did not like myself. That’s why I took drugs and that’s why I drank. I didn’t like myself so I put crap in my body to abuse myself, it’s simple as that. Preparing a meal for myself, a home-cooked meal is self-care. It’s almost so simple it’s unbelievable. There is no crazy magic wand, it doesn’t matter how much therapy you have you still have to say no. No, I’m not going to do that line of coke, I’m not going to have that glass of wine, I’m not going to eat that big burger and fries. As you can see this part of my life is something that I’ve become very passionate about and I’m just grateful that I get to do it. A lot of people don’t get the chance to work it out and atone for past mistakes. You don’t see any 70-year-old coke heads because they’re all dead and I didn’t want that to be me. I just feel so lucky and grateful that I’m able to sit here and talk to you and to do this wonderful show. So many people don’t get that opportunity and I’m incredibly grateful that I do.

We then asked John some Dress Circle Antics quick-fire questions…

Who would play you in the story of your life – Robert Downy Jr

Dream Role – The Phantom

Favourite musical number – I’m going to say Money from Cabaret because I love it

Go to audition song – I don’t audition any more but if I did it would be What Is It About Her from The Wild Party

Describe yourself in 3 words – Vulnerable, fierce and loving

Dream Superpower – Invisibility

Favourite musical – La Cage aux Folles

If you could play the lead in any other musical (regardless of gender) who would it be? – It would probably be Hedwig. I’d love to play Hedwig but I’m probably too old for that now

Top 5 fantasy dinner guests – Kate Bush, David Bowie, Robert Downey Jr, Marcus Wareing and my husband because we are the Johns!

Tell us something no one knows about you – I speak five languages fluently! French, German, Flemish, Spanish and English

Cabaret is currently touring the UK and Ireland until November. John’s cook book There’s No Taste Like Home will be released in April 2020 and is available for pre-order now.

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