With the world premiere of The Wicker Husband opening at The Watermill Theatre in March, Stephen Leask was playing the role of Cobbler, with the show closing soon after press night when theatres shut for the foreseeable future. Prior to starting his run in The Wicker Husband, Stephen opened in the West End transfer of Waitress the Musical, which saw him make his original West End cast debut in the role of Cal. The previous year, Stephen was leading the cast of School of Rock at the New London Theatre (now named the Gillian Lynne Theatre) as Dewey Finn, and while in the cast, he performed on Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. Catching up with Stephen, he speaks about starting his run in The Wicker Husband, playing Cal in the original West End cast of Waitress and performing as Dewey Finn in School of Rock.
Before theatres closed, you’d just opened in The Wicker Husband as Cobbler at The Watermill Theatre, what was the production like to be part of?
It was great to be back in a rehearsal room helping to create a brand new show that had never been performed before. The creative team had painstakingly worked for years to get the show developed, funded and finally shown. It was such a collaborative effort with a wonderful score written by Darren Clarke, a wonderful script by Rhys Jennings and led by the awesome directorial force that is Charlie Westenra. The story was so earthy and honest and the Watermill was the perfect venue for it. These things are always a rush to get ready in time but the cast, crew and company were all so brilliant, it came together beautifully.
What were you looking forward to for continuing the run?
We were so fortunate to get a press night. We found out that the West End had closed as we were doing our warm up. There was almost an unspoken decision to give it our all because we had no idea what was going to happen the next day. We rehearsed for four weeks and performed five shows! I was looking forward to settling into the run and for it to become second nature. The most exciting part of putting on a new show is right at the start of the run when you’re nervous and still getting used to running it. The BEST part of a show is it being second nature, having the confidence to play and explore the characters. I was also looking forward to enjoying the beautiful countryside around the Watermill. It had just started to become Spring after three storms!
You were in the original cast of Waitress the Musical in the West End, can you tell us about playing Cal and preparing for the role?
There were quite a few audition rounds, so by the time rehearsals started I was very familiar with the material and the music of the show. Cal is the smallest of those principle roles but he has some brilliant one-liners and comic moments during the show. There is a temptation to play him as aloof and grumpy, but I always felt he had more of a journey in the show. He cares about Dawn and Jenna even though he hides it. He is attracted to Becky physically but their personal lives are passionless and they bond over the necessity to connect. You can do a lot on stage with looks, moments of physicality and good chemistry with scene partners. Discovering those moments throughout the rehearsals and the previews meant that the role kept developing over time.
What was it like opening the show in London and working with the cast?
The West End company of Waitress was the most supportive and caring I have ever been a part of. The best way to find the rhythm and balance of a scene is by developing a rapport and chemistry with your scene partners and I was so fortunate to be partnered with Marisha Wallace, as Becky. We bonded as a company very quickly and there was so much excitement when we finally opened! It had been a dream of mine to open a show in the West End and to be part of the “Original Cast” for a show. Press night was very special for me, it had been eleven years since I graduated drama school and you do start to think it might never happen, but I learnt very early on in my career that patience is a valuable tool for an actor. I treasure my time on Waitress, it was hard to say goodbye.
You’ve previously hosted the Waitress Karaoke, what are these like to do?
They were slightly awkward at first because we didn’t really know what we were meant to do, but eventually, we realised that it was meant to be fun. Myself and David Hunter kicked off the Karaoke one night with our own version of Bad Idea, having made suitable lyric changes, and treated it as a way to entertain the fans of the show with something different. It was a great opportunity for fans of the show to stand on the stage and experience what we (sometimes) take for granted. The Waitress fans are fiercely loyal and crazy fun; to give them the chance to stand on the Adelphi stage and sing I Didn’t Plan It, or duet I Love You Like A Table with Laura Baldwin is brilliant!
Can you say about being part of Unmasked at The Other Palace?
Unmasked was such an exciting project. The opportunity to work with Richard Curtis, who is responsible for so much of my favourite comedy growing up, on a new Andrew Lloyd Webber project was amazing. The cast they got together was unbelievable and to have been asked to be part of that was such an honour. It was a great show and it is a shame it was only four performances!
How was the experience playing Dewey Finn in School of Rock?
School of Rock was one of those “it’s now or never” moments. I was a huge fan of the film when it came out, I was a rock fan, I played in bands, I love Jack Black. I had come so close to getting jobs on scale but never an opportunity like this. I sat down and had a little conversation with myself and said: “Right, it’s been nine years. You can do this.” I had so much fun playing the character and was given real creative licence to add things and make the part my own. I had never been the lead in a West End musical before and it was a challenge especially on those hot summer days! It is hard to put into words exactly how much it meant to me. I enjoyed every single show and was very honoured to have been given the responsibility of such a well-loved character. I love that show and I miss it.
What’s the production like to perform in and did you get chance to go back and see the show before it closed?
Unfortunately, I was rehearsing The Wicker Husband at the time so I couldn’t see the show before it closed, but on the day of the last show, I did feel a little lump in my throat. The great thing about working on the production was that no two shows were ever the same because there was always a different team of kids to work with. We had three teams of kids and they would share shows across the week. Each team had their own personality and it kept you on your toes. Also, and it’s disgusting I know, but the sweat! The Deweys wear three layers throughout most of the show whilst running around, doing knee slides, jumping off desks, and in my case, the odd somersault. When friends would come and see, I would tell them to avoid the front two rows as they were often referred to as the “splash zone”!
You performed on Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, how was this?
Singing live on television in front of a Saturday night prime time television audience? Absolutely fine… Easy! No nerves in the slightest! It was a brilliant experience and meeting Ant and Dec was great fun. Andrew and many of the creatives from RUG were there so it was nice to work closely with them. I remember getting messages from some of the cast who were watching in the dressing rooms back at the theatre. It was a great night for the kids and the show.
Over your stage career, you’ve worked on many productions including One Man, Two Guv’nors, The Murder Before Christmas and The Revenge of Sherlock Holmes, can you tell us about some of them?
I have been lucky enough to work on a variety of shows. One Man, Two Guv’nors was really special because that show is so iconic and really is the standard when you talk about modern theatrical comedy. I was part of the last West End company at the Haymarket. I covered Francis and when I got to go on and play the role it was joyous! I don’t think I could have played Dewey without having played Francis a few times!
Can you say about some of the screen work you’ve filmed?
I’ve done episodes of Eastenders, Doctors, True Horror for Channel 4, and in 2018, I worked on an independent film called Country Lines, which I am yet to see. I would love to do some more screen work. I would love to do more comedy on screen. Camera work is a different discipline and utilises very different skills, but I get great satisfaction from it.
Was there anything that helped you decide on an acting career and how did it come about?
I always enjoyed Drama and, along with English Literature, it was my favourite subject at school. I did the foundation course at LAMDA when I first left school because I wanted to see if drama school was the right thing for me. I learnt a lot and really matured in those eight months and knew that I wanted to try and audition for the three year course. I was fortunate enough to get in and started the Acting course the following year.
What do you enjoy doing away from acting?
I love cooking! I enjoy cooking a meal that takes a long time to make. There is nothing better than making your house smell like delicious food! I grow my own veg in the garden, which is another food thing (seeing a pattern here!), and I’m a big fan of a pub quiz. The lockdown has brought out the best in Zoom pub quizzes, but unfortunately, none of them have been in a real pub!
You were involved with The Show Must Go Online, how was this?
I think what Rob Myles and Sarah Peachey have created is brilliant. They were the first people to bring “live” Shakespeare during lockdown and others have followed suit. They create really innovative and surprising productions. Rob is very knowledgeable about Shakespeare and is a great teacher. The productions feel very accessible and fun; exactly what we need during lockdown.
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