Cabaret's Emcee a bucket list role for former EastEnders star John Partridge

He has played everything and everyone from Rum Tum Tugger in the filmed version of Cats to Christian Clarke in EastEnders but, as John Partridge tells Gail Bell, his long-awaited, upcoming turn as the Emcee in iconic musical Cabaret, is his bucket-list role, the one he's been waiting for

Actor John Partridge who plays the Emcee in Cabaret at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, in October
Gail Bell

LIFE may not always have been a cabaret for John Partridge, but these are now thrilling times for the former EastEnders star as he dons his coat and tails for his "bucket list" role of a lifetime – Emcee at the famous Kit Kat Klub in Berlin.

The flamboyant Emcee – Master of Ceremonies in enduring1966 musical hit, Cabaret – is the role Partridge has been waiting in the wings for and he has been relishing every decadent moment since the show opened in Bromley earlier this month.

It is a full-on schedule, with the Bill Kenwright production (also starring Kara Lily Hayworth as Sally Bowles and Anita Harris as Fraulein Schneider) touring the UK until Christmas – and stopping off at Belfast's Grand Opera House for a five-day run in October.

"Emcee is a great character and great fun to play, although it's quite a lonely role too because I have no interaction with any of the characters on stage," Partridge says with mock self-sympathy. "My only interaction is with the audience... so I'm expecting everyone in Belfast..." – cue, dramatic pause – "to be absolutely RAUCOUS.

"I've played Belfast many times over the years – in Miss Saigon, Chicago, and others shows, and I always loved it. My mum is from Tipperary and I am very proud of my Irish heritage."

The shaggy haircut (so styled for new musical, The View Upstairs) is now gone and Partridge is back to the clean-shaven look favoured by his soap persona, Christian Clarke. But, although the television role brought him to wider public attention, the actor is quick to point out that he did have a successful working life before his four-year stint in EastEnders.

"That's the strange thing about television," he muses, "you pop into people's consciousness and, as soon as you pop out again, people think you have either died or you just don't work any more. People have this idea that you are just that one character on TV, as opposed to the 50 characters you may be have played either side of it."

In his own case, he has certainly worn many hats over the years, including classical ballet dancer – the discipline in which he first trained – theatrical performer, TV actor, presenter, reality TV contestant (Celebrity Big Brother and Celebrity MasterChef ) and lately, cookbook author.

"I joined the cast of Cats at 16, had a classical ballet career, had a career in London's West End and toured all over the world for 20 years before I went into EastEnders," he adds, pointedly. "I didn't join the soap and play Christian Clarke until I was 36; the theatre, really, was where my career started.

"I have to say, playing the Emcee was one of my bucket list roles and it's come at a perfect time for me. Sometimes in acting, it's more about timing than anything else and there are some roles you grow into; that you become 'right' for at a certain times in your life. I've just turned 48 and this is a role that, in many ways, I have been waiting all my life to play.

"I used to watch old movies with my dad when I was growing up in Manchester and Cabaret was a definite favourite. I would sit in front of the TV on a Saturday afternoon and watch Joel Grey in the Emcee role and I would watch it over and over again. My dad was an older father, so instead of kicking a ball around the back garden – not that I would have wanted to – he introduced me to great, theatrical movies which is how my love for the stage began."

He describes the role of Emcee as a metaphor for the wider, political landscape unfolding in Berlin in the late 20s, early 30s, when the Nazis were rising to power; his character's job being to "entertain, inform and educate the audience," by underlining what they have just witnessed on stage.

"I hold up a mirror, if you like, and reflect what is going on around me," he explains. "Cabaret is such a clever musical – on the one hand, it is a glossy show with all the numbers you can think of... Life is a Cabaret, Maybe this Time... but underneath, it is is extremely political.

"To be touring it right now, when our own political landscape is so uncertain with the Brexit chaos, with the rise of the right, antisemitism....Cabaret was written more than 50 years ago and yet it seems to be as relevant today, if not more so. We have a bend away from liberalism in some ways right now and a push towards conservatism and all of us needs to stay woke."

Based on the John Van Druten play of 1951 I Am A Camera (itself based on the Christopher Isherwood book Goodbye To Berlin), Cabaret tells the story of penniless songstress Sally Bowles, queen of the seedy Kit Kat Klub, and her love affair with an American author which unfolds against the collapse of the Weimar Republic. Songs sung by the Emcee link action inside the club with events in the outside world.

Arguably, it is a role as far removed from his Rum Tum Tugger character in 1998 film version of Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Cats as you can think of – although the show-off, rock-star 'cat' and Emcee do share some similarities – but Partridge, who is also well-known as a gay rights activist, likes to keep mixing things up.

His Twitter bio describes him simply as 'husband, actor and cook' – the latter somewhat underplaying his participation in Celebrity MasterChef which he won in 2018.

Now awaiting publication of his first cookery book, the versatile performer (he also released a debut album, Dames, Dudes and Cowboys Too, in 2014), says he is passionate about nutrition and how cooking can help as a therapy for grief. Entitled There's No Taste Like Home, the food memoir is dedicated to his late mother, Bridie, and contains over a hundred recipes inspired by his childhood.

"As I started my career in classical ballet, we were taught about food so I was always interested in how food fuels your body," he says. "But, since losing my dear old mum to Alzheimer's two years ago, I have used cooking as a way to heal. I think food is like a great piece of theatre – it evokes very strong memories. For me, that might be a Knickerbocker Glory, reminiscent of a family day out, or a trifle mum always made for my birthday. Cooking food from my past has helped me to live in the present."

:: Cabaret opens at the Grand Opera House on October 8.

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