Peter Straker is a legend of musical theatre, originating roles in Hair and Tommy, in addition to forging a vibrant career as an actor and musician. His collaborations include albums with Freddie Mercury, Roy Thomas Baker and The Alan Parsons Project.
Peter Straker’s Brel was a sellout sensation at last year’s Edinburgh fringe and this season he’s touring in a bold new version of The Who’s Tommy, produced by Ramps on the Moon and New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich.
I caught up with Peter between performances at West Yorkshire Playhouse to find out more about the show and his fascinating portrayal of the Acid Queen
Hello Peter, how are you?
I’m very well, thank you. We’ve just finished a matinee and we’ve got another show tonight. It’s going very well.
Have you performed in Leeds before?
Yes, I’ve been to Leeds before, about six years ago with The Wiz and I was here well before that, so I’ve been around the block...
You originated the role of The Narrator in Tommy. How does it feel to return to your past with this new production?
It’s actually quite exciting because this is a different part altogether. I’m playing a woman - I’m playing a man dressed as a woman - called the Acid Queen. The director, Kerry Michael, offered me the role and I thought, “Oh... a man’s never played that part before.”
Is the Acid Queen a drag act or something more complex?
It’s not completely a drag act, no. I’m hoping the character comes across more as a man who likes women’s clothes. I suppose it’s a bit draggy, but the Acid Queen is much more of a cross dresser who likes putting on the makeup, but it’s still very much a man underneath, I hope. It’s a part the character assumes as a way of seduction; enticing people into noticing him. It’s like a witchdoctor part – somebody who sets himself, or herself, up as a healer with the whole idea that Tommy will come and see her. With a bit of luck, she will be able to heal Tommy, with the result of becoming even more famous. I see him or her as a sort of shaman figure. I hope it’s slightly unnerving…
It is. She drugs Tommy, but it’s ambiguous as to what exactly goes on.
Yes, I think she has drugged Tommy and she also tries to seduce him, with some sort of sexual healing with the hope it will awaken his senses and make him feel.
The addition of a new musical number for the Acid Queen provides a strong throughline for the character.
That’s what our director wanted. Instead of a character disappearing in the second act, we wanted to find out what happens to them and how they go on. Working with the dramaturg [Paul Sirett], Kerry has managed to flesh out the story so there is now some sort of logic, whether you agree with it or not. That’s what I found quite exciting as well, because Pete Townshend decided he would write a new song after all this time. At the beginning of the show, the lyrics are different and he worked very hard on the new piece which I believe works very well.
What was it like working with Ramps on the Moon?
I have never done a show like this before, a show which I would say is inclusive, which I find very exciting. It’s very humbling and I choose the word 'inclusive' specifically because we’re all working together as actors on stage. We all make way, work and do together. It’s fantastic and it's been exhilarating. I have loved every minute of it.
There is a naturalism with the inclusion of D/deaf and disabled performers.
Yes, there is, because William [Grint] who plays Tommy is deaf, so it’s real. It’s not just a showbiz show. We’re thundering through wonderful music which is so evocative and it’s proper rock too, which I like very much!
The musical arrangement fills every inch of the space. Would you say it was uplifting?
It's a strange story, but it is uplifting. Rock is a very grand form of music which I’ve always liked. As it was originally termed, Tommy is a rock opera and one of the first of its kind in dealing with the bombastic nature of rock anthems. It has the ability to just lift you and you feel joyous at the end of it.
Has there been anyone you’ve particularly enjoyed working with on the show?
Everybody. I can’t say there hasn’t been anyone I haven’t enjoyed working with. The creative team have been amazing and the concept for the whole production, from Ramps on the Moon, has been an enormous project. For this show, we’ve worked together so very well. I really have to thank our director – I can’t thank Mr Kerry Michael enough and the musical director, Robert Hyman, because we’ve all worked very hard on it all. It’s great, I wish I could find something to complain about!
From Hair to Phantom of the Opera, you’ve been in so many iconic musicals over an incredibly creative period. What makes for an outstanding musical today?
It’s very difficult to say. The thing about this particular show is that it’s very relevant. Even though it was written such a long time ago, it has so many pointers which we’ve become more aware of today. We’re more aware of disability in regards to people who can’t see, or hear. Even those who who are so-called able bodied have little problems, or hidden gigantic problems and Tommy addresses those issues. What it does, in layman’s terms, is encourage us to be aware of each other and have a little bit of concern for other people’s space.
What’s next for you following Tommy?
We’re transferring to Birmingham next week, then we go to London, then we come back up to Yorkshire to the Crucible in Sheffield. Then I’m recording some material and I’m putting together a new production, a one-man show, which I hope will be out in the autumn. So I’m up to my eyes, but it’s all good fun.
Is the production related to last year’s Jacques Brel show?
I’ve done Jacques Brel and I will do it again and again, but I’m doing another show - and I know what I’m doing - but I’m not going to tell you! It’s meant to be a secret, but we’ve started work on it and its going well. But Jacques Brel will always be there, he’s my man. We’re hoping to produce another album of Brel songs, slightly differently, so it’s a busy summer. I’m also going to try and go away and have a rest!
You can find out about Peter Straker's upcoming shows at peterstraker.com.
Originally published for Entertainment Focus.
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