Iain Fletcher walks a fine line to avoid panto brutality

Iain Fletcher as Bill Sikes in Oliver!

Iain Fletcher as Bill Sikes in Oliver!

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SITTING enjoying a whisky, looking out onto the dreich, rain-drenched streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town, actor Iain Fletcher could almost have been transported to another time, another place.

It’s easy to see why. Take a walk down the High Street on a wet and windy evening and it’s not hard to imagine gin-filled street urchins and cudgel-bearing villains flitting through the shadows of the Royal Mile.

Dickensian could well be an understatement.

“I’m not expecting the weather to be great,” laughs the 45-year-old. “Only last week I went to this great whisky bar, 300 whiskies in there, it was a June evening, pouring down outside, cosy inside, and I felt Christmas was just a couple of days away.”

It’s not Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that has brought Fletcher to the Capital, however, but the role of Bill Sikes in Oliver!, Lionel Bart’s musical adaptation of Oliver Twist. As he speaks it’s clear Fletcher is still slightly surprised to find himself ensconced in the world of musical theatre.

Fletcher, like many of his contemporaries, trained to be a classical actor and still dreams of playing a season at London’s famous Globe theatre. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he seldom finds himself out of work - albeit often in fields he hadn’t initially intended to explore. Musical theatre is one and TV drama another - he played DC Rod Skase in The Bill for seven years.

“I’ve always been very fortunate in that I’ve had roles that have lasted for a long time. I have a lot of contemporaries who don’t get the opportunity to do jobs like that,” the actor reflects.

“The reality is there aren’t as many jobs as there used to be, but it would be really great to be working at The Globe after this tour, and yes, I’d love to do some classical theatre, but at the moment I’m having a great time doing Oliver!”

Perhaps it’s his classical gravitas that allows him to bring so much menace to the role he is currently playing, a role that is arguably the most unredeeming in the whole Dickensian canon.

“On the tour so far, after every show at every venue, I’ve been booed, but on the opening night in Edinburgh, I was cheered,” he grins.

It’s a reaction that caused him momentarily to worry about Edinburgh audiences, he laughs, but then they do say that ‘the baddie’ is usually the most fun to play.

“You have to be careful having fun doing this role because you don’t want to step into the territory of panto villain,” says Fletcher thoughtfully.

“That’s easy to do that when you’re doing something for a long time, particularly with this character who stands out like a sore thumb.

“Bill Sikes has to be approached with a sense of reality. I’m on stage for about 20 minutes, so over three sequences I have to establish him as an arrogant bully, exercise his power over Oliver, then, when Nancy changes and won’t stand by him, make his world crumble around him.

“There has to be a journey completed with Bill Sikes. His world is pulled out from under him in a very quick sequence of events and he’s absolutely horrified at what he’s done.”

The murder brings Sikes to his senses, says Fletcher, who plays the scene with such reality that audiences have been known to gasp as he dispatches his lover Nancy to the next world.

“We must not forget there are a lot of children watching the show,” he cautions.

“In the early days I played the comedy side of it, although there is not much I can do, so I have to tread a fine line.”

A friend helped him with that after seeing the show, he explains.

“Now, he’s a real ‘Essex geezer’ kind of guy, but he had forgotten that Bill Sikes kills Nancy at the end. He was horrified and told me that the audience were really shocked too by the brutality of the my killing of her with three big hits from my cudgel.

“He realised that quite a few of the children were really upset because they’ve sided with Nancy.”

Nancy, of course, is pivotal to the story and this week, a familiar face returns to the role in the form of Samantha Barks, who takes a break from playing Eponine in the movie version of Les Miserables.

“I met Sam on the very first day of rehearsals and I’m very confident that she is going to slot back in,” says Fletcher of his co-star, who made her name coming third to Jodie Prenger in the BBC talent show I’d Do Anything.

“It’s exciting for me because I’m doing the whole tour, so it’s great to have a new energy come in and to rework the scenes, all of which keeps it fresh.”

• Oliver!, Edinburgh Playhouse, Greenside Place, until June 23, various times, £18.50-£50.50, www.atgtickets.com/edinburgh