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Matthew Kelly: Illuminating behind the scenes

For many his name is still synonymous with Saturday night telly but Matthew Kelly has undergone a transformation of his own since his days as a small screen personality. As the Olivier Award-winning stage actor heads to the Grand Theatre with the 40th anniversary production of Noises Off, he tells us how the town put stars in his eyes

“When I was a kid we used to go to St Annes every year and look longingly at the bright lights of Blackpool but couldn’t afford it,” says Matthew Kelly. He’s come a long way since those days, growing up in Manchester in the 1960s, with a career that’s taken him from the small screen to the grandest stages. Next week he’s arriving at one of our own.

Kelly is playing Selsdon Mowbray in the Theatre Royal Bath production of Noises Off, which arrives direct from the West End at the Grand Theatre on 3rd October for a five-night run.

Michael Frayn’s riotous 1982 play within a play is widely regarded as one of the greatest British comedies ever written. It follows the on and off stage antics of a hapless touring theatre company as they stumble their way through the fictional farce, Nothing On.

“A play within a play allows you to narrate certain sections which would be dull,” points out Kelly. “You’re allowed to comment on the play itself and each other, and it allows for greater comedy in exploiting the foibles of actors – which is never not funny. People always love to laugh at actors.”

The real cast behind the play – which also includes TV actors Liza Goddard and Simon Shepherd – is far slicker of course. Kelly was first trained as a theatre actor before he became a household name in the 1990s as a TV personality. For many his name is still synonymous with TV talent show Stars in Their Eyes. “Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be…” has followed him for three decades.

But Kelly himself has done an impressive job of reinvention, returning to his stage roots and bagging an Olivier Award in 2004 for his portrayal of Lennie in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. When the play toured and came to Blackpool, Kelly remembers “a wonderful flyman at the theatre gave the cast beautiful etched glasses and cases with the Of Mice of Men logo on them – gifts which I treasure to this day”.

Returning to Blackpool is always a treat, he says. He tells us his most loyal fan of 40 years lives here and always comes to see him, “the audiences are warmer, and the fish and chips are great”.

“Touring plays is such a fantastic experience because you become a family, I love a company of actors,” he says. “You become very close to people because, particularly in a play like this one, you have to trust people you don’t know very quickly.”

In Noises Off, for example, he comes on stage every five to ten pages, says something funny and then disappears off again.

If you drop one line or if you forget something then the whole thing falls apart.

“But I have to be on the side of the stage the whole time because unless you’re listening to it, you can’t just bob on, do one line, come off and go back to your dressing room. It’s so tightly choreographed and absolutely drilled into us what we need to do when.

“Otherwise you couldn’t do it. If you drop one line or if you forget something then the whole thing falls apart. It relies on everyone relying on everyone and that is pretty much what touring a play is like.”

It’s a world away from the life of a touring theatre company depicted in the play, which he says is what he would like to be true of a tour. It’s far funnier, for one.

“There’s usually a lot of larking around on tour although there’s not a lot of hysteria as actors are generally incredibly supportive and kind. Or maybe I’m just busy having a lovely time so I don’t notice,” he says. “An audience can always spot that and feel the warmth of that.”

Kelly calls Noises Off a “genius piece of writing” by Frayn, who’s now 89.

“He understands chaos and yet it is clever because it’s so interweaved,” Kelly says. “In the first act they are rehearsing the play and just being actors. In the second act you see the same thing only from backstage when they are actually on the road. And in the third act it’s the same play but from the front and on the road when the thing has completely gone to pieces. Audiences witness the progression not only of the disintegration of the play but also the disintegration of the people and their relationships.”

What’s so thrilling about good writing in theatre, he adds, is that the audience feels like they’re part of it. His character, Selsdon, is an elderly actor who enjoys a tipple or two.

“He’s really sweet and really annoying at the same time and has absolutely no idea what’s going on. It’s my kind of part.

“He’s an old drunk so I’ve based my entire career on him,” he adds, laughing. “I’m digging deep for it and I’ve done a lot of research.”

Noises Off is at the Grand Theatre 3rd-7th October. Purchase two top price tickets for the opening night and get a free Silver 1894 Club Membership. Membership offers access to exclusive ticket offers and savings, special invites, priority booking, access to the exclusive 1894 Club box, priority seating, competitions, discounts at the theatre bar and more. Click here to book.

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