Backstage with London's Phantom of the Opera

News   Backstage with London's Phantom of the Opera Andrew Lloyd Webber's long-running The Phantom of the Opera won this year's inaugural special Olivier Award voted for by the public. Together with Les Miz, it is one of the West End's longest-running musicals and continues to be a huge box-office draw.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's long-running The Phantom of the Opera won this year's inaugural special Olivier Award voted for by the public. Together with Les Miz, it is one of the West End's longest-running musicals and continues to be a huge box-office draw.

The current Phantom, John Owen Jones, is a 30-year-old Welshman. Owen Jones, whose dressing-room wall and mobile phone holder both display the Welsh dragon, had already carved out an enviable career in music theatre - the youngest actor (he was 26 at the time) ever to play Jean Valjean in Les Misérables - before his appointment last July as the latest in a line of Phantoms that go back to the original, Michael Crawford.

Owen Jones has some interesting things to say about his relative youth and the role: "I suppose the Phantom is meant to be in his fifties, but it is a very demanding role, physically, and I doubt if a fifty-year-old would be able to keep up the pressure for eight performances a week over a year's contract."

Certainly the role of Christine is recognized as a very demanding one, which is why — since Sarah Brightman originated the role — there have always been a couple of performances a week given by another actress. What about the Phantom? Isn't he offstage quite a bit?

"That's what I thought. After Jean Valjean I thought it would be relatively easy, but I was very wrong! As well as being a very intense part - you are completely lost in the character from the moment you sit in the make-up chair to the curtain call at the end of the show - it involves a lot of costume change, make-up touches and generally concentrating on what's going to happen next." How long does the make-up take to put on? "These days, it only takes an hour. Make-up and also lighting, which means the make-up can be more subtle, have improved since the show was first staged in the mid 1980's. That's another reason why an actor's age is not that important in this role, providing he has the stamina."

Owen Jones offers to take me on a quick tour of the stage. In the dressing room he puts on the skull mask and hat he wears in the "Masquerade" scene in Act II; while wearing this cumbersome gear, he has to be extremely careful to stand in exactly the right spot so that when the trap-door is activated he will disappear without leaving half his chin or the back of his head onstage - and this without obviously looking down to check his where he is putting his feet.

The understage area is vast and almost spookily deep, with masses of old machinery and is the best example of a working Victorian stage in the West End. He points out the trap-door, which is indeed very small. He describes the fans that keep him cool in the "Angel of Death" sequence - "It gets incredibly hot under the lights, and the reason I wear my hair quite long at the moment is that it soaks up the sweat, which would otherwise collect and run out under the bald 'wig' I have to wear, and come out at the two points where it isn't stuck down - over my ears!"

Owen Jones has disclaimed any knowledge of a theatre ghost at Her Majesty's and laughed at most theatrical superstitions - "except the 'Scottish play' tradition; there's something very odd about that play" - but when we're on stage, he touches wood when talking about the famous Phantom chandelier never having crashed onto an audience.

Another few steps and we are at the Stage Door itself, and it's time to say goodbye to an actor and singer whose modesty belies his remarkable talents and youthful energy. Despite the forthcoming major cast changes in the production, Owen Jones is set to continue to lead the company at Her Majesty's for many months to come.