Fra Fee on taking up instruments for ‘A Man of No Importance’ at Salisbury Playhouse

Fra Fee captured the hearts of audiences in Les Miserables, both on film and on the stage, and now, after spending time in Toulon, France performing Sondheim’s Follies, he’s made his return to the UK in the musical A Man of No Importance, which is playing at the Salisbury Playhouse until May 18.

In between performing in A Man of No Importance, in which he portrays Robbie, and rehearsals, Fra found a few moments to talk with me about the show, as well as the rigors of acting while playing musical instruments.

Fra Fee as Robbie in "A Man of No Importance."

Fra Fee as Robbie in “A Man of No Importance.”

SDD: Okay so you’re doing A Man of No Importance right now, which is based on the 1994 film with Albert Finney – had you ever seen the film before getting involved?  If not, did you ever end up watching it?

FF: I hadn’t seen the film, no. I had heard of the musical – I remember the Union Theatre in London had a critically acclaimed fringe production a few years ago, which I unfortunately missed. And I knew the song “The Streets of Dublin” (which I now get to sing!). When I got the job, I decided to watch the film. I thought it was just lovely – really charming, and quite moving – a really gorgeous Irish story, stunning in its simplicity.

SDD: A lot of our readers are probably not terribly familiar with the show, how would you describe it?  What were your favourite and least favourite things about the show?

FF: The story focuses on Alfie Byrne, a middle-aged single Dublin bus conductor in the 60s who has his own amateur dramatics troupe who put on predominantly Oscar Wilde comedies in their church hall. He decides he wants to put on the controversial Salome when he finds his muse for the title character on his bus. The events that unfold about the restraints of a conservative, Catholic community and their unwillingness to accept the play, as well as more importantly the hidden depths of Alfie’s character as well as those of the repressed characters around him are what make up the heart of the story – it is brilliantly witty, funny and has real heart – and also has the ability to really move people emotionally.  My favourite thing about the show is the fact that it’s an alternative love story and my least favourite thing about the show is that we’re only doing it for 4 weeks!

SDD: In the show, the cast plays various instruments, and we’ve seen pictures of you with both a flute and an accordion – did you play any other instruments in addition to those two?

FF: In the show I play the piano, flute, accordion, tin whistle and piccolo…oh! And the finger cymbals…how could I forget?

SDD: Did you already know how to play all of the instruments you play in the show or did you have to learn a whole new instrument?

FF: I had to learn the piccolo (which isn’t too hard as it’s just a really tiny flute) and the accordion – which was a bit more difficult but I loved it. I want to buy one now!

SDD: Was doing a role that involved playing instruments something you enjoyed?  Would you do it again?

FF: Yeah! Absolutely. Actor/muso is a brilliant concept. There are quite a few actor/muso productions done now (Once in the West End and Broadway being a recent hit) and they can be so powerful. When the instruments on stage actually inform the drama of the piece, there’s nothing like it. Interestingly, A Man of No Importance takes the form of a play within a play. The performers onstage make the decision at the top of the show to “reenact” the story of Alfie – so the fact that we all pick up an instrument to tell that story in the form of a musical makes absolutely perfect sense.

SDD: There’s a lot of focus, of course, on Oscar Wilde in A Man of No Importance – do you have a personal favourite work by Wilde?

FF: I love Oscar Wilde! I’m more interested in the man himself rather than his work to be perfectly honest. He was just a brilliant character – and the way in which he was damned by society is so terrible. His comedies are great – but I love The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Beautiful stuff.

SDD: If you were to perform in one of Wilde’s plays, which would you pick and what character would you want to play?

FF: Umm…Lord Goring in An Ideal Husband I imagine.

The cast of "A Man of No Importance."

The cast of “A Man of No Importance.”

SDD: Since Les Miserables, you’ve done Follies and now A Man of No Importance – was it a bit odd-feeling, going back to the stage after doing film?

FF: Not at all. I trained as a stage actor. It’s what I love doing. I never want to stop working on the stage. As much as I adored working on the Les Mis film, and as much as I’d love to do more screen work again, there’s nothing like starting a project from fresh and working it on the stage. Absolute magic!

SDD: What is your favourite part of acting on stage?

FF: Being a stage performer is a bloody blessing – particularly if its in a project you’re very passionate about – you can discover more and explore new emotional territory each and every time you play those scenes each night.  Aside from the actual act of performing, I love the lifestyle. It’s odd for sure – always being at the beck and call of a project and often having to relocate but it’s brilliant fun. Meeting new, interesting people and perhaps most importantly, getting to lie in!

SDD: Do you ever get nervous before shows?

FF: Not usually very nervous. Except coincidentally for the first performance of A Man of No Importance. I’d never done an actor/muso before, so all of a sudden I found myself shaking playing a bloody accordion that I’d only picked up for the first time 4 weeks previously and bring solely responsible for the music accompaniment of someone else’s big number…terrifying!

SDD: Do you prefer musicals or straight plays?

FF: No preference really. I wish I did more straight plays. It’s good to have a balance. I certainly try and see a lot of straight theatre. For me, they’re far more powerful. Nothing to hide behind!

SDD: What is the strangest part you’ve ever played?

FF: In life? I actually pretended to be able to speak fluent Gaelic in a Manchester-based call centre for a whole summer. I can’t even count to ten in Gaelic! Strangest and greatest performance of my career!

SDD: What’s been the most challenging role in anything you’ve done so far?

FF: Umm…Florizel in Howard Goodall’s beautiful musical adaptation of The Winter’s Tale. I was encouraged to use my own accent for the role which I didn’t think was that appropriate due to the fact that although attempting to hide his nobility, Florizel is in fact from royal upbringings and I felt my very colloquial, country accent jarred with that.

SDD: In an earlier interview, you said that while working on Les Mis, Marius was your favourite role to play – which was the most difficult and why?

FF: None were a particular challenge. I always thought I lacked the…well, the height to play Enjolras – but play him I did, and I didn’t even need to stand on a copy of the Yellow Pages!

SDD: If you were to revisit any show that you’ve already done, what would you pick?

FF: Follies is an incredible musical. I’d love to do it again in England. I mean…I wouldn’t mind doing Les Mis again…on Broadway. That’d be…yeah…pretty cool!

SDD: One of the questions I got again and again when asking the fans for questions was about your upcoming birthday.  Do you have any birthday plans?

FF: I’ll be in Ireland which is nice, as the day before my birthday is a much more important celebration – my niece’s christening. maybe someone will buy me a caterpillar cake from M&S!

SDD: What’s next for you after A Man of No Importance finishes up?  Any future projects?

FF: Yes. A Little Night Music in Concert is next month. I’m very excited for it! Stellar cast including Hadley Fraser, Julia Sutton, Janie Dee, David Birell, Anna O’Byrne, Laura Pitt-Pulford to name but a few. Going to be incredible. I’ve got some other projects planned for the rest of the year. Will be sure to keep you all posted on the twitdog!

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