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INTERVIEW: Neil McDermott - from soap star to The Sound of Music

Former EastEnders star Neil McDermott as Captain Von Trapp at the Belgrade
Former EastEnders star Neil McDermott as Captain Von Trapp at the Belgrade

Coventry is alive with The Sound of Music - as the hit touring production continues at the Belgrade Theatre until 10th February. It stars Lucy O’Byrne as Maria, who was runner up on BBC1’s The Voice, and Neil McDermott, the former EastEnders star. Here he tells Herald arts about playing Captain Von Trapp, and his career.

Tell us about Captain Von Trapp — how you are playing him? Are you channeling Christopher Plummer?

“He’s a dad and a widower; he’s struggled to deal with his wife’s death and bring up the children on his own, so he’s depressed to a certain extent and spends a lot of time away from his children and away from the family home, probably because they remind him of his wife. So he’s in quite a bit of trouble at the beginning of the show. Then Maria comes in and we tell the story of The Sound of Music — he becomes free from the trap that he’s put himself in. We begin to see the captain of days gone by, and he’s very stubborn in terms of his political beliefs — quite rightly as history revealed. He firmly believes the Nazis are bad; he sticks to his guns and is not willing to negotiate and that’s why he can’t form a relationship with the baroness and why his friendship with Max breaks down — and he finds in Maria someone who is strongwilled as well, someone who is able to match him in an argument and someone willing to take care of his children… and so they fall in love.

“Am I channeling Christopher Plummer? Not really I’m not fond of copying anyone in the roles I do. I try and bring as much of myself to the role as I can — humour and my beliefs. That’s what acting is about rather than copying anyone.”

Sound of Music is so iconic — can you recall when you first encountered it?

“Eleven years ago I played Rolf in The Sound of Music at the London Palladium. I watched the film ahead of the audition and that was really the first time encountering it. I’ve become very fond of the musical — it’s become a big part of my life.”

Compared to some of the other musicals you’ve been in — Shrek and Wind in the Willows — The Sound of Music is quite a serious story, what’s its appeal?

“I have been playing comedy baddies for a while so to have the opportunity to play a heroic good guy was certainly part of the appeal for me. The story of Sound of Music really connects with the audience – it’s a story of family, love and humanity. The themes are told in a great way.”

Tell us about the team, and how is it working with Lucy O’Byrne?

“We are very lucky that a lot of the cast have worked on the show before – because it’s been running for a few years — and also the director and production crew, so the team know what they are doing. Lucy has played the part before, she’s really familiar with her role, but has been able to adapt to my captain and some of the other characters. She’s absolutely fantastic.”

There are of course some great songs – what’s your favourite?

“A personal favourite is The Lonely Goatherd — the kids and Lucy perform it; it’s a great song, very joyful and goes down well.”

You’ve had some great roles onstage — Lord Farquaad and Chief Weasel — which have been the most fun or stand out?

“Every role is enjoyable for different reasons, so yes Lord Farquaad is a great role in Shrek — you have to play it on your knees, and it’s great fun and a very funny role to play. It was the first musical comedy role I’d had so to move into those character roles rather than ‘juvenile lead’ was really important for my career; and Chief Weasel was similarly like that. I’ve done other great shows, like Only the Brave, which is based on a true story… I played Den Brotheridge who was the first Allied combat soldier to be killed on D-Day, so that was a moving show to be part of.”

You’ve done stage, TV and film — which do you enjoy best, and what have you been most proud of?

“I enjoy it all! That’s why I haven’t stayed in a show too long; I like playing different characters and working with different people. Obviously TV is a bit different compared to stage, and there are different techniques, but the core of what you are doing remains: to tell the truth and find the humanity.”

Growing up, when did you decide you wanted to be an actor?

“I didn’t get into drama until really late; I was a sporty child and was really into football. I got into acting aged 15, and was inspired by my great drama teacher, Frank Whately — brother of the actor Kevin Whately — and he got me involved in the National Youth Theatre. I got the bug, so aged 18 I went to drama school, at Mountview in London, did an acting course for three years, and the rest is history! I’ve been very lucky.”

Which actors do you admire?

“I like actors in musicals that really tell the story — that act through song particularly well. I did La Cage Aux Folles with Doug Hodge who played Albin and he gave a masterful performance and won an Olivier and a Tony. Watching Doug perform I had a realisation that acting should never be put on the backburner when you are doing a musical. In fact the acting is even more important — the storytelling is the most important thing and in musicals you have to work harder to make it believeable… and what Dougie did in that inspired me in every role I’ve ever done, and to always commit to doing my best whenever I am onstage."

When not onstage what do you get up to?

“I have a young family [a son and daughter with actress Michelle Edwards] when I’m not onstage I am with them; taxi service, a dad, a husband and doing all the things that everyone else does. I like to keep up with what’s happening in theatre and on TV; plus keep fit by going to the gym.”

See the Herald's review here

When and where: The Sound of Music is at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre from 6th to 10th February. Tickets available from www.belgrade.co.uk or call 024 7655 3055.

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