With Grease returning to London, Darnell Mathew-James booked the role of Eugene for his West End and professional debut, starting his run when the show opened at the Dominion Theatre last month and is set to continue in the role until October. Having trained during the pandemic, Darnell joined The Urdang Academy in 2019, graduating this year, and whilst there, he performed at West End Does Christmas and Urdang’s Summer Show in 2021, and he played the lead role of Lola in Kinky Boots for his final year production. We caught up with Darnell, who told us about playing Eugene in Grease, making his West End and professional debut in the musical and playing Lola in Kinky Boots with The Urdang Academy.
You are currently playing Eugene in the West End production of Grease, how did it feel booking the role and what originally drew you to the musical?
It was very overwhelming when receiving THE phone call. Although I was not supposed to, I did in fact tell my close friends about it as I was just too excited!
How was it rehearsing as Eugene and seeing the show come together?
It has honestly been such a magical process as we as a company have worked so hard to bring truth to Grease’s story; the changes and tweaks our director, Nikolai Foster, has implemented have really helped to serve a much rawer and honest portrayal of what is essentially a group of friends.
How was it preparing for previews and press night at the Dominion Theatre?
We all know that the Dominion is one of the biggest theatres in London so, with that in mind, I prepared myself by getting used to filling that stage with every inch of my character – and for press night, I made sure I stood out just as much as my outfit!
What are you most looking forward to for continuing in the cast and performing the musical numbers?
Honestly, just sharing that stage with such a genuine and beautiful cast is enough for me. But, of course, Greased Lightnin’ has to be a favourite of mine.
Can you tell us how it feels making your West End and professional debut in Grease?
SURREAL – I don’t think it’s actually fully sunk in yet. I get paid to do what I love every single day, and I couldn’t ask for anything more.
Why would you recommend booking tickets to see Grease at the Dominion Theatre?
Because Grease is so relatable! There’s a character on that stage which everyone will be able to see themselves in, especially with the diversity that has been pushed in this particular production of Grease.
Was there anything that drew you to train at The Urdang Academy and how was your time there?
As a mixed race male artist, I am aware of the challenges I may face, not only the industry, but in this world! Urdang, I felt, could provide me with a safe enough space to grow as an artist and be proud of my heritage at the same time.
You played Lola in Kinky Boots for your final year production, how was this?
A challenge, in every sense of the way! Lola’s character stands for so much from beating toxic masculinity to acceptance as a queer/drag performer. I wanted to do the role justice by not only showing the camp, more performative side of Lola, but also her vulnerability. It was also such a vocal challenge for me, not originally being the most confident singer in the room, but I think I proved to myself the strength and versatility I have as a performer.
What was the experience like playing the character and what are your favourite memories from being in the musical?
My favourite moment has to have been Not My Father’s Son – that song speaks so many truths, not only to me, but I’m sure to many other queer identities who know the show. Tears were forming the very first time I performed this in the rehearsal room.
Can you tell us about some of the other shows you performed in whilst training?
Kinky Boots was actually my first ever musical, however, I have performed as a dancer in a number of events such as West End Does Christmas 2021 and Urdang’s Summer Show of the same year.
We understand you are a model, what do you enjoy most about modelling work?
Modelling is much like performing to me, being able to embody a particular emotion and have it captured in a single image is so fun as a performer.
Do you have any stand-out highlights from your modelling career so far?
I have done a few commercial jobs but I am yet to tick off all my goals in the modelling industry.
Where does your love of acting, dance and modelling come from and how did you start in each?
I think my personality is naturally so expressive that performing just felt at home for me. When I’m on a stage playing a different character, ironically I feel myself.
Do you have any favourite theatre shows to watch and which would you like to see that you haven’t done so as yet?
Hamilton is by far one of my favourite musicals of all time! The whole show is just genius with its clever choreography and lyricism that really help drive the plot along. I have only seen the recorded version on Disney+, I am yet to see it live and in person.
How do you like to spend your time away from your career?
I don’t really think of my career as a career, it’s my way of life. Even on my days off from the theatre, I am almost always performing in some way or working on refining my artistry. But other than that, spending time with my friends is what I love to do the most.
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