The Phantom of the Opera unmasked

The Phanton of the Opera
The Phanton of the Opera
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CHANDELIERS, disfigured features and one of the most famous scores in musical theatre – The Phantom of the Opera is back.

Next week, at The Playhouse, a shiver will once more run down spines as the music of the night draws audiences into the darkest recesses of a haunted Parisian opera house.

John Owen-Jones as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables

John Owen-Jones as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables

Donning the famous half-mask, to play the title role in Cameron Mackintosh’s 25th Anniversary production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s West End smash is 40-year-old Welshman, John Owen-Jones.

With a laugh he reveals he can’t wait... at least this time he’ll be there for press night.

It was very different the last time he was due to appear in Edinburgh. Then, the eruption of Iceland’s unpronounceable volcano left him stranded in Egypt, when he should have been on the Greenside Place stage as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.

He recalls, “One of the things about being on holiday is that you switch off, which is very hard to do in a job like this. However, on holiday you switch off completely until the day before you come back. That’s when you start geeing yourself up, so to then be forced not to come home... and to miss the press night... every day I was looking at the news.”

Laughing, he adds, “Eventually, you just have to surrender to it, but I did get a fantastic tan and my understudy got a great shot.”

Edinburgh has featured a lot in Owen-Jones’ life. It was here that he first watched Lloyd Webber’s Phantom and here that he first told his wife, then his girlfriend, that he loved her.

“Edinburgh has very happy memories for me,” smiles the actor who went straight from that tour of Les Mis, into Phantom on the West End, before agreeing to do the new tour, a very different production to the one that took up residence in The Playhouse in 1995, and again in 1999.

“When Cameron Mackintosh asked me to do this tour, the first thing he said was, ‘It’s completely different.’

“The reason they’ve changed it is that they can’t really tour the old set anymore because of the cost,” he explains.

“There’s a huge cost when it comes to building it as they have to close streets near the theatre to strengthen the roof to hold the chandelier. So this version was designed to be packed away and put back up again in four or five days.”

It’s not just the set that has had an exciting make-over, the Phantom too is very different, more human than in the past.

“One of the things we talked about was how we were going to make it a fresh story,” reveals Owen-Jones.

“I know the show inside out, our director Laurence Connor knows it inside out, and that allowed us to go back and say, ‘Actually, we shouldn’t do that. It’s too much like the original.’

“One of the things that has been most enjoyable about the whole process is having Cameron’s say so that we could do anything we wanted.”

With a new make-up design and a different approach to the character, Owen-Jones looked to Gaston Leroux’s original novel for inspiration.

“One of things about the original production is that it is very melodramatic, very Victorian. There’s a lot of stuff hidden in the novel that you didn’t really get to see because the set was so kind of Wow!

“The opening lines in the book are, ‘The Opera Ghost really did exist but it’s a man...’,” the actor paraphrases. “Now, Leroux states that right at the beginning of the book. That resonated with me and I thought, actually, if we can make him a man to the audience, while the people on stage believe he is a ghost, that is what we have to see. Laurence responded to that. He thought it was a good idea and that is where we have taken it.

“Having read the book many times, there are lots of little things that I have put into my performance to make him more real. You also see more of life backstage and what it was really like.”

The physical transformation takes Owen-Jones just over an hour in make-up.

“In the original version the make-up is big and theatrical. Techniques have moved on, and we had the opportunity to reinvent that as well, so we got Neill Gorton of Doctor Who and Torchwood to come in and do a very realistic make up,” the actor says.

“It’s quite heavy, but looks so good that I could walk out into the street and people might think it was real.

“Basically, it’s silicon, which moves very easily on your skin, but it can be very wearing on a two-show day when I can’t take it off, so I’m in make-up from mid-day to midnight, practically.”

Explaining the process he reveals, “They build up my face so that the only features you can actually see that are mine are my left cheek and left eye.

“It’s kind of horrific. We added a bit of blood to it so that it looks sore all the time.”

Wearing the make-up isn’t always painless for Owen-Jones either. “When I take it off at the end of the night it is a massive relief... it also stinks. It’s horrible.”

He adds, “When I finish this run I really can’t wait to grow a beard again, because I normally wear a beard.”

Indeed, when he finishes his stint as the Phantom it won’t be long before the star finds himself back in the Capital, appearing alongside Ruthie Henshall and Dalkeith’s Keith Jack in An Evening of Movies & Musicals, at the Usher Hall. Before that however, he has a holiday to fit in.

“I really am looking forward to coming back to the Usher Hall. We’ll have just been on holiday to Egypt, funnily enough...” 
realisation dawns... “I hadn’t thought of that... No. It can’t happen again. It can’t be jinxed... I’ll get a boat back,” he laughs, as memories of Eyjafjallajökull eruption flood back.

• Phantom Of The Opera, The Playhouse, Greenside Place, September 20-October 20, £19.50-£56, 0844-871 7627 /; An Evening of Movies & Musicals at Christmas, Usher Hall, Lothian Road, November 24, 6.30pm, £20-£60, 0131-228 1155 /