As an original cast member in both the Manchester and West End productions of & Juliet as Swing, Christopher Parkinson was due to make his debut as May, one of the lead characters, on the night the theatres closed for the foreseeable future which saw the performance be cancelled at the last minute. Christopher rewrote the SIX the Musical song Ex-Wives to create his own version called The Life of a Swing, which he recorded and released on his YouTube channel which has since proved very popular amongst viewers, and led him to setting up the Swing of the Week chair with The Theatre Café. Having a lot of experience in stage, Christopher was in the closing cast of Kinky Boots at the Adelphi Theatre and covered the roles of Brad, Riff Raff and Eddie/Dr. Scott in the international tour of The Rocky Horror Show and his extensive screen work has included playing Biggs in the UK Disney Channel series As The Bell Rings and Christopher Jackson in Magnificent 7 for BBC. Chatting with Christopher, he talks about being in the cast of & Juliet, releasing The Life of a Swing video and joining the closing company of Kinky Boots in the West End.
How has your time been so far as Swing/Fletcher in the Original Cast of & Juliet?
& Juliet has been such an amazing experience so far. It’s only the second time I’ve been part of a production from the very beginning! The first time was seventeen years ago when I played Billy in the Billy Elliot workshop. Where have the years gone? Weirdly enough, we did the workshop for & Juliet at the American Church on Tottenham Court Road and that’s where I did the workshop for Billy Elliot, it was a real full circle moment for me. I think the opportunity to have an imprint on a project from the beginning is so rare and special, especially with a show like & Juliet. These are songs by artists of our generation! I never thought I’d be dancing and singing in the West End to I Kissed a Girl by Katy Perry, and then to actually perform it for Katy Perry was crazy! We’re a real family at & Juliet, and I know everyone says that and it sounds cliché, but we’ve pretty much all been together since the workshop through to Manchester and then to opening in London. Everyone has played a part in the show being a success and I’m proud to be a part of the & Juliet company.
Being an original cast member comes with its highs and lows! Recording a cast album, being part of a show whilst it’s nominated for Oliviers or WhatsOnStage awards and performing on television are all things you miss out on later down the line as the show continues and is recast. It also comes with the unknown territory of whether or not it will succeed. There’s a pressure that no matter how good you think the show is, it’s ultimately up to the public to decide, which can loom over you at times but I’d say the show has come in with a bang and I’d like to think it’s going to be around for a while!
You were about to make your debut as May on the night the theatres closed, how had you prepared for this and what was the role like to learn?
So, I’d actually been on holiday the week before theatres closed! I was visiting my friend Carly Burns, who was playing Penny in Hairspray on the Royal Caribbean. I was a little bit oblivious to what was going on at home. I found out that while I was away, I’d missed my chance to make my debut as May and was devastated, but I’d made peace with the fact I’d missed it and I knew it was going to come around again at some point! I’m the second cover and that means that I don’t have any set dates to play the role so when the opportunity comes along, it’s exciting, but if you’re not even in the country there isn’t much you can do!
I landed back in London on the Sunday, and on Monday I received the call from my company manager saying I would be going on! I had already pre-empted that I might be on so I was already on my way to work when I got the call! My biggest fear is being unprepared, so I wanted to have the time to go through it on stage before the show that evening. I’d rang my family in Manchester to let them know I was going on! My mum took three trains to get to London in time and my sister told me she couldn’t make it because of work, my agent booked a ticket and so did my other half. When I got to work at 1pm, nobody was there and I went down to the stage and ran through the show by myself, and was later joined by our Dance Captain and we ran the show a second time! I’d never felt more ready for anything! I’d been part of the production for almost a year and was finally going to show everyone my version of May! I’m sure you can guess the rest!
We’d just finished physical warm up when we got the news that the show would be suspended and that we would not be continuing with the performance that evening! Naturally, I was gutted, I rang my mum who’d just arrived into London Euston, and my sister had also turned up to surprise me, and they were gutted. On leaving the theatre, there were a group of fans of the show who had booked tickets to come and see me who appeared to be more upset than myself but I think I was just in shock! The support I felt was amazing but also it just shows that people love our show and that speaks volumes!
May is a beautifully complex character and It’s such a rewarding part to play. She challenges people’s thoughts on what’s normal and what’s acceptable, and it’s 2020 so we should all be free to be who we want to be! As with any role you play, part of your approach always comes from personal experience, there’s a little bit of “May” in all of us – the fear of not being accepted for who we are and trying to conform to rules that shouldn’t exist. I’ve definitely felt that way at some point so I found her quite easy to relate to! I’m looking forward to getting back to & Juliet and I think the day I get to go on will be even more special than it would have been that night.
As Swing, you’ve already covered a number of tracks, including Lord Capulet, what do you enjoy about covering so many roles and what is Lord Capulet like to play?
I think the most enjoyable part about covering multiple roles is that you feel constantly challenged. There’s rarely a dull moment at work for a swing! There’s always people on holiday or someone might be injured or off sick and it’s down to you to get on stage and play their part as if it were your own. I love the thrill of never knowing who you might be going on for, we don’t actually find out till after the cut-off at 3pm if we’ll be in the show that evening. As an actor, it’s a gift to cover multiple roles, the show is different every time you step on stage.
I’ve grown to love Lord Capulet, initially, I was in denial that I’m actually approaching my thirties and I just kept thinking I’m far too young to be covering this role, but it’s great fun and it gives me the chance to age up and hold some gravitas. He’s sort of the bad guy and I’d like to think anyone who knows me would say I’m more of the joker, so it’s a challenge and I love it.
How do you find the experience performing at events such as West End Live with the show?
West End Live is always one of the best events that occur yearly in the musical theatre calendar! I’ve been lucky enough to perform at the event for the last couple of years consecutively. My first West End Live experience might have actually been the first year it happened in 2005. I went to Sylvia Young and they participate every year. It used to be in Leicester Square and started as a little festival. To see it grow into a huge event fifteen years later and to still be up there performing in it is amazing!
Last year, we turned up with a show nobody knew anything about (& Juliet) and it was received so well! We were finally able to share our special show with the world and the crowd didn’t disappoint! They were instantly singing along and that’s the beauty of & Juliet, it features songs everybody already knows so it feels like it’s been around for years!
I’d recommend West End Live for anyone who loves theatre but doesn’t get to see much! West End Live offers a taster of what you can expect and it might push you to see things you wouldn’t have thought about going to see! Also, it’s completely FREE! What’s not to love?
How did you come up with the idea for The Life of a Swing, and what was it like to film?
The Life of a Swing video was born out of a complete joke between myself and the other swings. We were in Manchester and it was the day we were filming the EPK (advertisement for the show). Everyone had to be in at 9am, regardless of whether we were being used or not. As swings in the show we weren’t being featured at all, so it was a very long day spent in the dressing room for us all! Billy (Nevers) was playing Ex-Wives from SIX the Musical and I just happened to change the lyrics to the first line of the song and made it about being a swing. I don’t know why but I then went on to re-write the whole song in about twenty minutes. I then bought a backing track for the song just so I could perform it for the other swings (dedication, right?). After I finished, we all thought it was hilarious and I asked the boys if they would help me record it! I sang the song into my iPhone whilst sitting in a makeshift studio made of up of chairs and blankets to try and block out the sound! Josh (Baker) then put it into GarageBand and added effects, and the end product was The Life of a Swing. It was always supposed to end there.
I went around the dressing rooms lip-syncing to my own song showing everyone. Jordan Luke Gage filmed me and put it on his Instagram and I told him to remove it as I didn’t know if I needed copyright approval from SIX. Before he could remove it, someone had screen recorded it and put it on Twitter. Within minutes I had so many messages asking for the full song and when it would be released. The following day I got a message from Lucy Moss (co-writer of SIX) and she’d asked Jordan to send her the whole song and I was terrified she was going to sue me. She actually messaged me after listening and said she thought it was brilliant and told me to record a video to go with it and put it out on socials. So I did. We spent the next week at work filming the video all over the theatre. Anyone who wanted a cameo role got one and everyone was so supportive. What started as a joke, turned into something really significant.
The basis of the video was for people to see what it’s like to be a swing in a musical. It’s such an awkward question when people ask who you play and you then have to explain you’re a swing and everything you have to learn. People switch off and it sort of just goes over their heads, whereas now there’s an informative video which covers all the bases 😂. I also made a wonderful friend in Lucy Moss, who tweeted the video saying she thinks it’s better than the original! (Find the tweet, it exists, I promise).
How has it felt seeing the great response to the video?
The response to the video was amazing. I just hope that it gives people an insight into what goes on behind the scenes, everything I put in the video is true. It’s a hard job and sometimes people don’t understand. Our job is to make sure the show continues as normal, even when it might be under really pressured situations due to illness or holiday, or there simply is not enough people to get the job done! I find it strange that so many people have seen it, and I was even at a party at New Year and someone came up to me and said “I just wanted to say I love your video”, which is great! It was noticed and it’s educational.
I also then set up the “Swing of the Week” chair with The Theatre Café! It features a new swing every week on the back of one of the starry name chairs they have inside, you can sit on the chair and have a picture and tag them. Nicky and the team at The Theatre Café played a huge part in the success of the video and I’m so glad we worked together to do something special for some of the unsung heroes of the West End! They’re still featuring the Swing of the Week on their Instagram throughout lockdown, so go show the swings some love! 👊🏻
You made your West End debut in Kinky Boots at the Adelphi Theatre, what was this show like to be part of?
Kinky Boots was my dream show! I was so lucky to be part of the final cast in the West End. It wasn’t my official debut, but it was my return to the West End as an adult which was really special! I took my mum to see the show the year before, and in the finale when the Angels do the runway show, my mum turned to me and said: “you should be up there doing that”. I laughed and said, “that’s not how it works, Mum!”. Almost a year to the date, my mum and sister sat in the same seats on the front row of the dress circle and watched me strut my stuff down the catwalk as an Angel! It’s an incredible show and I hope it comes back to the West End before I’m too old to throw myself into the splits again. I’d go back in a heartbeat! It’s full of positive messages and amazing music. I was lucky enough to feature in about fifteen seconds of the film that we made! Of course, nobody was off that week 😂.
What was it like going on as an Angel in the show?
Going on as an Angel is the best job I’ve ever had! I’d never done makeup before and I loved picking up a new skill! I looked awful for about five months, then started to get the hang of it! It would take me three hours to do my makeup because I was terrified of looking terrible next to the other Angels who’d all been in the show a while or had done makeup before! But I didn’t care because I loved it! The only track I didn’t want to play was the Bikini Angel and the Angel that does the tour to split in Sex is in the Heel. I was first cover for both and went on a lot, by the end they had to drag me out of the bikini… and the splits actually because I struggled to stand up afterwards 😂.
Can you say about covering Brad, Riff Raff and Eddie/Dr. Scott in The Rocky Horror Show International Tour?
Kinky Boots was my first Swing job, but the year before Kinky Boots, I was in the international tour of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I was a phantom (ensemble) but I also covered three of the lead roles so I almost felt like an onstage swing! The international version is much darker than the UK version and it was epic! I covered Brad, Riff Raff and Eddie/Dr Scott. My favourite role to cover was Riff Raff. I tend to gravitate towards the roles that are not stereotypically my casting! I love the challenge to become someone completely different, and Riff Raff was certainly a challenge! I’ve never worked so hard in my life. Brad was a great part and, again, so different from the other roles I covered. I pretty much learnt how to swing on that job, finding a way to retain everyone else’s roles plus your own ensemble track always kept things interesting!
Rocky Horror is like no other show I’ve been a part of, it has a crazy cult following and I always loved the audience participation! Thousands of people shouting and throwing things was mayhem! Pretty much everyone comes dressed up and it’s one of the best nights of theatre and it’s still running after so many years! An added bonus of the show is if you forget your line, there are at least a thousand people who can tell you what it is!
You’ve also worked in screen, can you tell us about some of the shows/films you’ve worked on?
I’ve been really lucky in my career to cover all basis from musical theatre, radio, straight plays, commercials, voiceover, television and film. Screen work is probably the field I’m most passionate about! I’ve been very lucky to work with some incredible creatives in the TV and film industry! My favourite job was a film called Magnificent 7, not the cowboy film, it was a BBC drama about a lady who had seven children and all three of the sons were autistic. I played the lead son (Christopher Jackson) and my mum was played by Helena Bonham Carter. We spent six months shooting together and watching her was a masterclass in acting. I was thirteen at the time but we worked so closely together. The film is based on a real family and I got to meet the boy I played which was surreal. He had Asperger syndrome and that in itself was a challenge, I had done so much research for the part so it felt as sincere as possible.
I was also part of the first Disney Channel show to be made in the UK called As The Bell Rings. I played Biggs. The show featured a group of friends at school going about their daily life. I had an amazing time shooting this show. I was obsessed with Disney when I was younger and to be part of that family was something I won’t ever forget!
I’ve appeared in Doctors twice as two different characters, once when I was fifteen and once when I was nineteen. Doctors is almost like your induction into the world of television! Every actor I know has, at some point, appeared in Doctors, so if you want to get into TV and film, that’s where you need to be starting! ☺️
How did you get into acting/musical theatre and can you tell us about your training?
My first introduction to theatre was at a local theatre group’s show! My mum has always loved theatre so she would take me to see shows and finally when I was old enough, she let me join! I would spend six nights a week at dancing, and if I was ever naughty, my mum wouldn’t ground me, she would just tell me that I couldn’t go to dancing! Which was the worst thing that could have happened to me! When I was nine, I got accepted as a junior associate to the Royal Ballet and from there I auditioned for the Sylvia Young Theatre School. I was awarded a half scholarship and moved down in the September.
SYTS gave me my fondest memories and the groundwork for the career I have today. As soon as you join the school, you are put into an agency and sent for auditions. Monday to Wednesday was academic studies, and Thursday and Friday were purely vocational studies (singing, dancing and acting). I grew up extremely quickly. I was in boarding Sunday to Thursday and would travel back home on the Virgin Trains by myself age ten at the weekend. I’d always been brought up really independent and I loved the freedom to roam. I stayed at SYTS until the age of sixteen and then went out into the world to work! SYTS taught me everything I know, I still go back and visit to this day. I’d go back and do it all again tomorrow if I could.
Which are some of your favourite theatre shows to watch?
My favourite musical and my ultimate dream role I’d love to play is Micky/Eddie in Blood Brothers. It’s my mum’s favourite so she would take us to see it all the time and I think that’s when I knew I wanted to do this as a full-time career! I’d love to be able to play the role and have that full circle moment of dreaming as a child to the reality of making it happen! West Side Story is another one of my favourites. I love the film and we watch it as a family every year at Christmas. I’m drawn to it artistically and the musical score is by far one of the best! Finally, I’d have to say that I’m the biggest fangirl of SIX the Musical, especially since the release of The Life of a Swing video! I’ve been told by the writers that I’m a “friend of the show”. I think that’s just a polite way of telling me that I’ve seen it too many times!
What do you enjoy away from your career?
When I’m not performing, I love the downtime to focus on other things! It’s such a fast-paced lifestyle that sometimes you can forget to take the time for yourself. If I wasn’t a performer, I’d love to be a stylist or an interior designer. I’ve always been drawn to fashion and to creating and designing! Since the lockdown happened, I’ve been trying to find the positives in the situation! I’ve worked out and eaten well, which isn’t always easy when you work in central London next to every fast food chain! I’m learning to slow down and enjoy my own company! I’ve also, like everyone else, become a star baker, so Mary Berry better watch her back because I’m coming for her gig!
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