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Isolation Interviews: Jez Unwin

Coming next on the Isolation Interview series is the magnificent Jez Unwin. Actor and musician Jez recently completed a run in the UK tour and London transfer of Amelie the Musical. Jez's previous credits include Once (Phoenix Theatre), Oliver! and The Light at the Piazza (both Curve) and Sweet Charity (Menier Chocolate Factory and Theatre Royal Haymarket). Jez is also part of postmodern swing band The FlyBoys.

Q - What was the first piece of theatre that you remember seeing?
A - The first show I saw was Fiddler On The Roof with the inimitable Topol in the lead role. I was very young and have little memory of the performance. As a Chorister at Westminster Cathedral however I was lucky enough to go to and be a part of a myriad of concerts in spectacular settings. We sung for the Pope, The Queen and Margaret Thatcher to name a but a few. I was bewitched by the excitement of performing as well as the stunning choir music at an early age.

- What inspired you to get into theatre?
A - I have already mentioned the London Choirboy beginnings which definitely gave birth to my delusions of grandeur! Love of Musical theatre came later in my mid-teens. Two shows I saw in London in the mid-nineties bewitched me completely and made me determined to start a career in show-business. The first was the original production of Crazy For You at the Prince Edward Theatre. The staging was out of this world extravagant with rows and rows of showgirls, an incredible set and costumes, the music was by the incomparable George Gershwin and to top it all, it was the original star vehicle for Ruthie Henshall who was just wonderful in the role of Polly. They don’t make ‘em like that any more.

The Second show was Sunset Boulevard at the Adelphi. There has never been nor will there ever be a set like that again. Look it up on google, it was jaw-droppingly opulent. I fell for the drama and the Hollywood glamour of it all. Patti Lupone was mesmerising as Norma Desmond. Sooooo good!

- Who during your career has had the biggest impact on you?
My mother is also a singer and was the reason I was immersed in music as a kid so she had a huge impact on my career trajectory. Aside from mum I can’t really single anyone out. From my amateur beginnings in Gilbert and Sullivan operas to the West End shows I have been lucky enough to perform in I have watched and learned from the best. Because I didn’t go to drama school watching the people I worked with and respected was incredibly important to my growth as a performer. I would say to the younger generation that this is imperative. Watch and learn.

- What is your favourite musical movie?
A - I can tell you which one I hated and that was The Greatest Showman! This was a very unpopular opinion with my students. :/

I would have to say West Side Story was my favourite. It was so incredibly atmospheric and exciting. The moment at the end when Maria throws herself on Tony’s body is one of the greatest moments in cinematic history. It breaks me every time I see it.

- What are your favourite show tunes? (You can pick up to 5 songs)
A - I’m so bad at favourites!

The Light I’m the Piazza from the show of the same name. I was lucky enough to be in the original uk cast of this show at Leicester Curve. I knew nothing about it in advance, turned up for rehearsals and was floored by the stunning score. Sublime.

A Piece of Sky from Yentl. If you’re not a fan of Ms.Streisand watch this film. This song is at the end of the of the story as she arrives in New York and is a musical and cinematic orgasm. (Can I say that word?)

Buenos Aires from Evita. I have never had more fun in an ensemble number onstage than when I was in Michael Grandage’s Production at the Adelphi in 2007. It’s so full of life, spirit and Latin rhythm. Especially when sung by the pocket rocket from Argentina, Elena Roger.

Bess you is my Woman from Porgy and Bess. I wrote my thesis on this work at University. I think this is the best duet of all time.

Being Alive from Company. So many choices for Sondheim. I know this is a bit cliched but there is a reason why it’s so popular. There is no song with a greater catharsis.

- If you could tell your younger self something what would you tell them?
A - I would say to my younger self not to care so much what others think, especially the negative people you cross paths with. I have given far too much energy to these people over the years. I am only now finding ways of giving them less power. It’s very healing.

Also, being different isn’t easy but it is exactly what will make your life a brilliant rollercoaster, so embrace it now!

- If you could have dinner with 3 theatre-related guests (doesn't have to just be performers). Who would you invite and why?
A - George Gershwin. The man wrote such a vast array of incredible music in just 36 years. I would love to talk to him about his inspiration.

Barbra Streisand. I think her stories would be highly entertaining at the dinner table. Also, the two of us could sing one of Gershwin’s duets while he played the piano. ;)

Sammy Davis Junior. My favourite of the Crooners. He had the most stunning voice and way of putting across a song. Also I would love some insight into the real goings on backstage during the Rat Pack era.  I would of course get him to sing Gershwin’s ‘There’s a boat dat’s leaving soon for New York’ from Porgy and Bess while the maestro played.

Now that’s what I call a dinner party!

Jez in Amelie The Musical pictured with Audrey Brisson (Amelie). Photo by Pamela Raith

- You recently completed a run in the UK tour/The Other Palace run of the musical Amelie. How do you reflect on that experience?
A - It’s very hard to keep this answer short but I will give it a go.

Amelie is the show that got me out of semi-retirement, which, for reasons I won’t go into was quite a big deal for me. As soon as I read the script I knew it was right. The story and characters spoke to me profoundly. This is before I even did the self-tape. Cut to rehearsing the show and realising it was a near impossibility to stage in the four short weeks we were allocated. When we started the music for that first preview we were all in a state of emotional and physical collapse. It could have been the worst or the best show we had all been in. Truly none of us had any idea. And then, standing ovation after standing ovation, It was a hit. It moved us and it moved our audiences.

Looking back on it now is surreal. In a time when on my daily walk I cross the road to stay away from other humans, it makes me so emotional to think of our story of simple human connection. It feels very profound. I truly hope that, if any good comes out of this, the Importance of truly connecting to another human being will be fundamentally learned and appreciated.

- I bet it was a thrill to get to work with not only great actors and singers but hugely talented musicians too. I bet you had some great jamming sessions?
A - We did have some great jamming sessions. At the Watermill a few (alcohol infused) instances come to mind! My favourites were when we all got together to learn the vast score without the creatives in the evenings during rehearsals. It was a hilarious, bonding experience I can tell you!

- As part of the band The FlyBoys you've been able to tour the world. You as a band released an album, A Postmodern Swing Sensation, last year. Can you tell me more about the band and the album?
A - I am so proud to be one of the original members of  The FlyBoys. The Band was put together by my friend and ex flatmate Chris Orton. He wanted to put something original together with musical integrity when so much around was just repetitive dross. He truly succeeded.

The music is so cool! Mashups of modern songs with classic swing, reminiscent of bands such as PostModern Jukebox. I mean, that’s heaven for Jez! The arrangements, penned by Chris and a musical genius called Christian Philips are phenomenal. Have a listen on YouTube! What started as a few cruises one summer lead to some of the most memorable moments of my performing life. We performed on Prime Time BBC1 in the series Pitch Battle which was so exciting. More recently we were lucky enough to support Sir Cliff Richard on his national tour. Singing to a sold-out crowd at The Albert Hall was something I will cherish forever.

Touring with the band has also taken me to the most incredible places, the most memorable of which was a tour of the South Seas islands. Oh, what I would do to pop over to Bora Bora right now!

- You've had a great career to date with roles in some great shows. Which have been your favourites to play?
A -  Favourite roles, hmmm.

Ok, so in 2010 I was cast as understudy to the leading man in Sweet Charity. We did a ten week run at The Menier Chocolate Factory and then transferred to Theatre Royal Haymarket in the West End. The lead in the show unusually got to play both the Italian Lothario , Vittorio Vidal and the nerdy accountant, Oscar Lindquist. This was such a blessing for a Performer, and even though I was the understudy I played the role for a good long run in town. It is the greatest range as an actor I have got to display to this day.

In 2008 I was cast in the title role of Don Giovanni at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle. It was a reimagining of Mozart’s incredible opera and instead of the usual Don, the brilliant director changed the protagonist to Count Zhivarny, a Hungarian magician. Zany huh! So not only did I get to sing this incredibly demanding role, I got to perform some amazing illusions taught by world-renowned illusionist Paul Keive (I got to work with Paul again in the groundbreaking Ghost at the Piccadilly Theatre). I don’t think Mozart’s Champagne aria has ever been performed while sawing a woman in half, nor ever will again. What an incredible experience that was!

Lastly, I would have to include The Bank Manager in Once at The Phoenix Theatre. When the UK cast rehearsed this show we were given real ownership over the story. It was incredibly special. My role’s story was comedic and also very poignant. Enda Walsh has an amazing knack of writing a character so clearly yet succinctly in his plays. My character was a man of few words that said so much. Also a gay, cello playing bank manager from Cork... what could go wrong! This show definitely changed me for the better.

And then there is Amelie...

Jez (second from the left) with the West End cast of Once. Photo by Brinkhoff/Moegenburg 

- Away from the theatre what are your other favourite hobbies?
I am a nature lover and an avid bird watcher (I was obsessed with them as a young person) and am now at a ripe old age when I can embrace this hobby with no embarrassment. One of my joys during this strange time is watching the birds in my garden go about their business. It’s very reassuring.

- Can you tell us something we wouldn't know about you?
A - I was Young Choirboy of the Year in 1985.

I'd like to thank Jez for his time and his wonderful insights.
You can follow Jez on Twitter
You can find out more about The FlyBoys

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