WHEN Noel Sullivan first appeared at The Playhouse, in the 2003 production of Fame, he was then best known as one fifth of the reality TV pop group Hear’say.
Twelve years on, he’s back, older and wiser in a musical he describes as “the best thing that has happened to him, so far.”
Sullivan stars, alongside one-time Robin of Sherwood Michael Praed, in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which opens at the Greenside Place venue this evening, bringing with it all the glitz and glamour of the French Riviera.
“I finally feel I am getting to the kind of level I have always wanted to be at,” says the 35-year-old.
“Having the opportunity to play this role is the best thing that has happened to me so far, in that he changes people’s perception of what I can do.
“Everybody knew I could sing, that was given, but with this part, in which I play various comedy characters, the company have been very good in letting me find those for myself. Being allowed to explore the depths of what I can achieve is completely new for me.”
Direct from London’s West End, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is based on the 1988 film starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin.
The show transports audiences to the luxurious French Riviera where the decadent world of sophisticated con man Lawrence Jameson, played by Praed, is set to come crashing down with the arrival of larger-than-life Freddy Benson – a con man of an entirely different order.
Enter Sullivan, who arrived in the Capital a couple of days ahead of schedule. “Any excuse,” he says, “It’s like coming home. Such a lovely feeling.”
Realising the town ain’t big enough for the both of them, Lawrence and Freddy find themselves going head to head in the con of their lives, pulling out all the stops in a bid for the affections of millionaire soap heiress Christine Colgate, played by Hollyoaks’ Carley Stenson.
Little do they know what they’ve let themselves in for.
No stranger to The Playhouse, Sullivan has appeared there in Love Shack, Rock of Ages and as Galileo in the rock musical We Will Rock You, a role that left him in need of a chiropractor after he decided to introduce a limp to colour the character.
At least, he won’t have to worry about that as Freddy... or will he?
“Yes,” he says almost apologetically. “My Freddy has a bit of a hunch, and then I spend the second half in a wheelchair, which is not good for your body either; trying to fling yourself around at speed using just your arms...
“I don’t make it easy for myself, but then I believe that if you are not hurting, you are not doing it right - that’s my mantra anyway,” he laughs.
Directed and choreographed by the Tony Award-winning Jerry Mitchell, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek (The Full Monty) and book by Jeffrey Lane (Mad About You), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is, says Sullivan, “the biggest production on tour in the UK at the moment.”
“It is an expensive show and that is what I love about it. It has this lavish MGM-style and then they just tear that to shreds. People don’t expect that.
“What people who have seen it in London say is that we are topping that production, which is really high praise because London had a stellar cast.
“I think we have a bit more cohesiveness. There aren’t any stars. We are all working together and trying to pass the ball quite fairly.
“With the comedy it’s important that you do that; Michael is not trying to be funny.
“He is doing his Lawrence, and what works really well is the fact that if you just ‘be Lawrence’ and allow Freddie all the crassness, then the partnership works even better.”
Sullivan and Praed are also joined by guest star Gary Wilmot as Andre, a role he originally played on the West End.
“For me it’s an honour to be sharing a stage with Gary Wilmot because he is musical theatre royalty,” says the Welshman, just a little awestruck.
“Everything I have ever seen him in, he has just been perfect. We just lost Mark Benton in that role and Gary has brought a freshness to it.
“He is such a ‘dry’ Andre, whereas Mark played the more obvious comedy - the more Gary pulls Andre back, the better the character becomes.”
Of course, for many the movie version lives fresh in the memory, but Sullivan doesn’t see that as a problem.
“I read an interview with the writers. They said the reason they chose Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to adapt was that it was a great story, but wasn’t a classic film. It is a good film, but not in the way that people go ‘Oh my god! You can’t touch that.’
“That gave us an opportunity to tell the story a bit more, rather than me just do a Steve Martin impression.”
The biggest challenge, Sullivan confesses, is spending much of the second act in a wheelchair... and all the risks that entails.
So has he rolled into the orchestra pit yet?
“We’ve had a couple of near misses,” he laughs. “There’s a moment when I am propelled across the stage by a member of the crew. We have a little rehearsal when I arrive but you just never know how it’s going to go.
“I’ve been pushed straight into the wings and then smashed into some wood; been pushed into the steps in the middle of the stage... and had to crawl off into the wings.
“So I tell them, ‘Don’t worry, let’s go for gold, if you do push me into the pit it wouldn’t be the first time it has gone wrong.”
Despite the danger of the role, which you get the impression Sullivan secretly relishes, it’s clear he is loving every minute of it.
“The Scoundrels rehearsal process scared the s*** out of me,” he confides. “It was such a mammoth script and I didn’t have any songs to hide behind. The only thing I can compare it with was when I did Priscilla Queen of the Desert, then I was thrown completely out of my comfort zone.
“Actually, it is that fear that drives you forward, and while it’s been a long slog I’m starting to make a name for myself in a way I like. What I have learned is that I have to be excited by what I do because to commit to a musical for seven months to a year you have to feel the need to be there. And that’s how I feel about this.”
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Playhouse, Greenside Place, tonight- Saturday, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm), £19.40-£53.40, 0844-871 3014