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The Life And Times Of Essex Actor Simon Lipkin

A West End and screen star, with a return to the stage imminent, Simon Lipkin has had an eclectic and hugely successful career to date. Katie Traxton finds out more

The first time I saw Simon Lipkin perform I was 12-years-old. It was my first term at secondary school in Essex and he was in the year above me. I walked into the main hall, big enough to hold all the students and teachers, for a choir competition for all ages – 11 to 18. As I watched a sea of accomplished uniformity, one student broke ranks, a breath-taking voice belting out California Dreamin’ as he dropped down on his knees at the insistence of the well-loved lyrics. Every eye was on him.

Only eight years later, he was in the opening cast of Avenue Q. Since then, Lipkin has become a recognised West End star able to switch seemingly effortlessly between stage and screen. After an international hiatus in the performing arts during the early stages of the pandemic and lockdown, he’s now back in action having recently recorded two new TV shows and takes to the stage again for the first time in two years with Brian & Roger at the Menier Chocolate factory opening 2 November. I had the good fortune to catch up with him between rehearsals to talk about his early success, what life as an actor is like behind the curtains and why he still loves every minute of it.

Simon Lipkin
Simon Lipkin was destined to be a star from an early age

The beginning – from dream to reality

It all began when I was a little boy. My parents were huge theatre lovers, so they used to take me regularly to see plays and musicals. It was the musicals I immediately fell in love with. The first one I remember was Oliver! at the Palladium. I couldn’t think of anything more that I wanted to do than be on that stage. Even as a nine-year-old, I didn’t want to be Oliver or Dodger, I wanted to play Fagin. For anyone that doesn’t know, Fagin is an old man who looks after a den of thieving children. It’s a funny part, a character part and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. That’s a theme whenever I see a show, I never want to be the leading man, I always want to be the funny person next to him.

I genuinely believe the only reason I’m an actor today is because of my parents and their support. They never once said to me, “No, don’t pursue acting, get a proper job, have something to fall back on.” That may be irresponsible parenting, but I love them for it. They even supported me in moving to the Sylvia Young Theatre School halfway through secondary school, which was the best thing I ever did.

My first proper job in the West End was at 19 in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Through that, I was cast in the original line-up of Avenue Q. When we opened the show, I was 20, which is pretty young to be in a leading role, but you don’t think about that when you’re 19 or 20, you just think, “Okay, well this is great.”

It was amazing for me, because going on from there I had something behind me that meant people spotted me for exciting jobs that they otherwise might not have considered a 20/21-year-old for. I count myself lucky – and I always say lucky because while people can say it’s not about luck it’s about talent, it’s a mix of right place, right time, a bit of luck and backing it up once you’re in. That said, once you’ve had that first big opportunity, there is a very real pressure to keep climbing from there, which makes life tricky because it means the jobs you can consider are thin on the ground and you’re still only 21!

Overcoming your inner critic – and the ones writing reviews

There are definitely times of fear and panic when that voice inside your head tells you that you’ve got to keep the momentum going, but one day they’ll stop wanting you and go for someone else. What do you do then?

 For me, the only way to get around that is not to think about it. To do this job, you can’t think about whether you’re making the right decision or not, because every day is filled with rejection or someone telling you you’re too short, tall, thin, or fat. You definitely need a thick skin, but even so, I can’t think of anything else I’d want to do. There are other things I’m passionate about that I occasionally turn my hand to, but it’s always acting that draws me back.

Opening nights scare the hell out of me, big press nights with all the reviewers. I have read reviews in the past, but I desperately try not to. Nothing good can ever come from it. Also, if you believe the nice things that people say about you in reviews, you’ve got to give credit to the bad things. You can’t just tell yourself that the people who say the nice things are right, and everyone else is wrong, so it’s easier not to read any of it. I was in a show once that one critic described as “the biggest pile of theatrical poo they’d ever had the pleasure of treading in.” I wish they’d put that outside the theatre, I think it would have sold a lot of tickets!

I’m pretty sure every actor questions whether they’re any good. Every job you turn up to you think, “Okay, this is the one where I get caught out, this is the one where they realise that I’ve been winging it for the last however many years.”

I do a fair bit of TV and film and I can’t watch myself back. It’s a terrible experience, so I try to avoid it! It isn’t a great industry for self-confidence, but for some reason, none of that matters. It goes back to having a little switch in your brain that means you just can’t do anything else. It’s all part of what we do, so you just accept it for what it is.

Simon Lipkin in Nativity The Musical
Starring in Nativity! The Musical

The life of an actor – in and out of the spotlight

On stage is where I feel most comfortable. There is a natural remedy when you’re on stage; you can have had a terrible day, but when you get on stage it transports you somewhere else. I think that happens on both sides of the theatre. As a member of the audience, if a show is done well, you should be transported, you should forget everything else. It’s different to the cinema, because actors and audience are in the same place at the same time. Standing in front of an audience is where I feel most alive, there’s no other way of describing it. It’s not a job, it’s a privilege.

I’m not working hard for a living. Even if something stressful happens at work – and there are stressful parts to the job – I know how lucky I am to do what I do because of the rewards and the satisfaction that I get in my heart. That’s how I feel – although physically and skills-wise it is a hard job.

If you ever go and see a musical or play, the cast will have dedicated their lives to learning how to fulfil their roles. You see them jumping around having a good time, which is exactly what they should be doing, because their job is to create that experience for the audience, but a lot of work has gone into that.

If they’re in the ensemble and they’re incredible dancers, they’ve probably danced since the age of four or five and done nothing else and broken bones and their feet have bled. They work out and condition themselves continually to make sure their bodies can do what they need them to do eight-times per week for roughly two hours per show. For them, every show is basically like going to the gym whilst singing and smiling and they do that every week without fail.

It also affects your lifestyle. If you’ve got ‘a big sing’ and with big notes to hit you can’t ever go out, because you’re being paid to nail every performance, so during the day you stay quiet and look after yourself. You can’t ever go somewhere where you need to shout, because it’ll damage your voice. Even if you’re doing a play you need your voice, which means your social life becomes a bit non-existent.

You’re also working at the times everyone else socialises. You work from 6pm to 11pm, so a short shift really, but that’s every evening and all through Saturdays and Sundays. It can be a lonely lifestyle, which is what makes the West End or any acting or showbiz community a little family and why we’re all so close. But I can’t stress enough that despite all of that, it’s worth every second.

The creative process – and having fun with it

I think every actor enjoys a different part of the process. I love auditioning, some people hate auditioning, but the bit that gets me going is the creative process. I love going in, auditioning, creating something, the rehearsal process. It’s so exciting, especially when you’re doing something new and you’re in it from the start and I’ve been lucky to be the first person to play a lot of roles.

Auditioning is brilliant, because even if I don’t get the job, for half an hour whilst I’m in the audition, I still get to play that part. Rather than be nervous, I see it as getting to have fun and sing those songs or read that script and do those actions and I get to meet amazing, interesting people who are smarter than I could ever hope to be.

Where my creativity tails off is with repetition. One show I did for two years and by the time you’re six months in, as much as it’s still an absolute joy, it does become your job. Like a lot of people, what I find exciting is exercising that creative muscle in whatever way captures my imagination.

I’m always developing new skills. I have an unusual set of skills that I developed from a young age. I act, sing and dance, but I’ve also been fascinated by magic and puppetry since I was a child. I taught myself to play the piano and the drums too. I always think my brain works in a weird way; it has a thirst for learning new skills, which doesn’t always pay off, but the discovery is satisfying either way.

The future – now and next

As an actor, you do worry about where the next pay cheque’s coming from. We’re all self-employed freelancers, so once one job’s done you often have no idea what’s going to happen next. So far, something has always come up and even if you’ve spent a few months dwelling about not having a job, as soon as the phone rings and you get another job everything is fine again. That little switch resets and you crack on. It’s all part of the life you’ve chosen.

Right now, I’m lucky to be working on stage and in front of a camera. The two require very different skills and offer very different experiences. When you move from theatre to TV and film, it’s hard because you can’t immediately feel whether what you’re doing is working like you can with a live audience. You do multiple takes of a scene, shot from multiple angles and then someone else edits different performances together to make the final scene. You have to trust your director and editor and the enormous group of people working together to make it happen. The lifestyle is also very different. Both are fun and I love making TV and film, but my heart will always be in the theatre.

You can’t match the satisfaction of being on stage, so I’m very happy to be in rehearsals for Brian & Roger at the Menier Chocolate Factory. It’ll be my first time on stage in about two years due to the pandemic, so I can’t wait. I would love to write things for other people, because I really enjoy helping others achieve things they didn’t know they could from behind the camera or by putting pen to paper, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to step away from acting. Maybe the future will be a cycle of directing, writing and acting. If I could keep going around in that sequence indefinitely, that’d be a pretty happy existence.

Visit menierchocolatefactory.com for more on Brian & Roger. Katie Traxton is the founder of Good Vibes Only Talent, goodvibesonlytalent.com (Portraits by Richard Southgate)

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