FIRST PERSON: Ken Caswell, actor and theatre director

First published in News

Ken Caswell, 68, actor and West End director sits down with Carys Thomas to talk theatre and growing up in Tredegar.

“I AM Brynmawr born but was brought up in Tredegar. My mother’s name was Madge and my father Leonard worked for Monmouthshire County Council as a clerical officer.

My mother took me to the Chapel in Brynmawr to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it completely fascinated me. I was a very timid child, I had a severe stammer so reading in class was torture for me.

I remember being part of the school play, we were doing Toad of Toad Hall. I was the assistant to Elphin Jones, a drama teacher at Croesyceiliog. I played the judge, the character was about 50/60-years-old, I was 15-years-old at the time.

I used to listen to a lot of radio dramas and imitated the characters voices off the radio such as Carleton Hobbs. When I was acting I found that my stammer had cleared.

I was taken as a child to the professional pantomime in the Lyceum Theatre in Newport . It was a beautiful theatre but sadly it was pulled down in the 1960s.

I was a member of the Gwent Youth Theatre in Monmouthshire at 15-years-old. I loved going to the Welsh National Opera.

I attended drama school at the Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama in Kent. I was taught in acting and teaching.

I found teaching very enjoyable but I really wanted to be an actor.

My first professional role was in a comedy. I’d been back in Wales for three weeks when I received a letter from an agent in London. They were looking for a piano player and my college had recommended me for the part.

I auditioned and got the part playing Wilfred, the youngest son in Bill Norton’s play Spring and Port Wine. I played in London for six months and then we went on a tour of the UK.

It was a wonderful start. I was very naive at the time, nobody said anything about how to network or anything like that. You have to make the most of the chances you have.

I later worked in repertory theatre and in those days actors would be rehearsing one play in the day and playing the other at night. It could be tiring and you had to be fit.

In 1970, I hit a bit of a slow patch with theatre work and had to take up a job as a part-time cleaner, an officer worker and even a security guard at Earl’s Court Stadium.

In 1984, I appeared in the musical play, Little Me, at the Prince of Wales theatre in the West End with the comedian Russ Abbott. I played several small roles in the ensemble and was also Russ Abbotts’ understudy. I played his role in a three week run. Russ was very supportive of me.

Little Me was a comedy. Comedy is more demanding than drama. You have to feel the atmosphere of the audience and it’s a different experience with every performance.

In 1985, I appeared in the original cast of the musical Les Miserables, playing the Bishop of Digne and later the role of the inn keeper, Thenardier.

Later on I was asked to become resident director at the Palace Theatre. The role is about keeping the show in shape and directing understudies.

This was my first experience at directing. I always thought it would be interesting to go into directing.

I worked with the producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh and the director Trevor Nunn. I learnt an enormous amount from both of them.

This led to my directing Les Miserable productions all over the world over the last 15 years. It was a fantastic opportunity, working with actors in Sweden, France, South America and on Broadway.

I directed the 10th anniversary concert of Les Miserables at the Albert Hall.

I also had the pleasure of working with Craig Revel Horwood production of Fiddler on the Roof which toured Holland. We also choreographed and produced an arena production of La Traviata in Rotterdam.

Other productions I have directed are Lionel Bart’s Oliver at the London Palladium and several productions of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. If I am passionate about an idea I will do it.

I’ve lectured at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, The London School Of Musical Theatre, The Royal Academy of Music and The University of Essex in Southend On Sea.

Moving back to Wales, I directed the opening of the Millennium Centre in Cardiff. I have also been involved with the Congress Youth Theatre in Cwmbran.

I helped with their productions of Les Miserables and the Pirates of Penzance. They are very talented bunch of young people and under the guidance of their director Rachel Hamilton they work to a professional standard.

My son John is a stage manager in the West End, soon to be working on the musical the Bodyguard at the Adelphi Theatre. I have two grandchildren, Max, 17, who is interested in films and an eight-month baby girl Darcey.

In 1976, I met my partner Peter and we came back to live in Wales 12 years ago. We are intending to move back to London to be closer to my son and his family.”

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