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Kinky Boots: London’s most successful new musical
Image Credit: Matt Henry (Lola) and Killian Donnelly (Charlie) in Kinky Boots, © Matt Crocket
Kinky Boots: London’s most successful new musical
Image Credit: Killian Donnelly (Charlie) and Matt Henry (Lola) in Kinky Boots, © Johan Persson

Kinky Boots: London’s most successful new musical

21 February 2016 Lydia Cooper

Kinky Boots, the story of a man who designs shoes for drag queens in order to save his struggling factory, premiered in London last year to rapturous reviews. The production, which has won six Broadway Tony Awards, was the biggest new hit on the London musical scene last year. We chat to Killian Donnelly, who plays Charlie, and Matt Henry, who plays Lola, about Cyndi Lauper, drag queen names, and tricky choreography.

London Calling: This is probably the most obvious question anyone could ask, but it’s got to be done -

Killian Donnelly: Let me guess it. Is it how do you dance in those boots?

LC: Yes. And how long did it take you to learn?

Killian: It comes up a lot because people are so amazed by it. To me, it comes naturally now, I’m so used to them, it’s just dancing. If you’d asked me that question during rehearsals, I would have said ‘Impossible, it’ll never happen, I have so many bruises!’ What’s really weird is I now have a completely newfound respect for women who wear high heels, by the way. I don’t know how they do it, but I get it. My lower back became really sore because of the angle that the heels turn you and change your form, but as soon as I put the heels on again my back felt fine. I also look at women’s heels and shoes a lot more now. The dancing now is fine, and I really look forward to it. You have to be able to dance very well though to pretend to be bad, like I do.

Matt Henry: It took seven weeks to learn. When we started, we were like Bambi, and by the end we were Black Beauty! I trained mainly with the Angels, but also on my own. Any opportunity I could get the boots on, I would. I knew that everyone was coming to see if I could do it, so I put pressure on myself to get it right and prove myself.

LC: What about the conveyor belt scene, which has very complex choreography?

Killian: About two or three weeks of rehearsals. We’d slowly walk on the treadmill to start, and then you’d have to go across on your belly, and then pick up the speed and run. The part where they join all four treadmills together is the hardest bit, as your feet go into the cracks and crevices as you dance. Some of the Angels have to do it in heels, which is even more of a challenge!

Matt: That was definitely the hardest scene. The conveyor belts move at two speeds, and you have to practice getting on and off when it’s still and moving. I was like a cat when it goes into the garden for the first time really tentatively, and it only goes halfway and then comes back...but then the next thing you know it’s in the neighbour’s garden! It was testing the waters a bit at first, but my part is far easier than it is for the Angels in their heels!

LC: Well it looks very slick. Killian, how does Charlie’s character compare with other parts you’ve played [Raoul in Phantom, Enjolras in Les Miserables, Tony in Billy Elliot, Deco in The Commitments, Huey in Memphis]?

Killian: What I always look for is a contrast, something I haven’t done before. Charlie is nothing like Huey or Enjolras or Valjean. You have to slowly but surely feel your way into the character. One new thing with Kinky Boots is that I have to sing very differently from how I’ve sung before. I’ve done big opera, soul, rock, but this is all in the throat and chest and it’s Cyndi Lauper pop. We were lucky enough to have Cyndi here during rehearsals and she would teach us how she sang. She steered us away from the classical sound and helped us to sing more like her - if you’re gonna be in a Cyndi Lauper musical, you kind of have to sing it like her!

LC: In a way the singing sounds almost American. I guess it’s a similar challenge with your character: he has a very conventional arc (wanting to prove himself, impress his father, follow his legacy, ditch the nasty girlfriend for a nice factory girl). This is a very by-the-book progression, which in a way makes it harder because you have to give your character more depth than the superficial material.

Killian: It’s exactly that. The show’s appeal is that it ticks all the boxes, and the character is very recognisable. In the script you can see a very obvious arc that Charlie goes on.

LC: Matt, how did you research Lola’s character? What was your inspiration?

Matt: I literally watched every series of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, just to see all the drag queens I could, and some Lily Savage... I first knew about the show through the film, actually, I was a big fan, and when I heard about the musical I saw it in New York and fell in love with it. At that point I didn’t think I’d be in it, but I was totally in awe of the show and its message, costumes, music... When I had the opportunity to read for the show, I was like absolutely!

LC: How does Lola compare to previous roles you’ve played?

Matt: This is the most challenging role I’ve done. I have to wear six inch heels on stage, I’m corseted, the way I sing, the way I speak, the way I move is so restricted and different. I did have to wear a corset as Simba in The Lion King, but that was a very heavy, beaded one! This one is about forcing your physique to look more womanly. I’m experiencing all the challenges that women have daily, but as a man.

LC: Are you ever tempted to switch and play Charlie, Killian’s part?

Matt: I’d just love for Killian to experience Lola for one day! She looks amazing, but to create that takes time and effort. I’m in the theatre at 5.30, before everyone else arrives at 6 or 6.30. I have to do my own warm-up and vocals and then I’m in the chair for an hour getting my make-up done, and my wig, and my costume...

LC: Are the scene changes quite quick too? There’s one bit where you go from a pared-down look to a full blingy outfit very swiftly...

Matt: Most of my changes are full-on, I have a team of five people. One will be taking my eyelashes off, one will do my wig, one will do my bra... Yes, it’s a pit-stop race to get it done in time.

LC: Killian, would you ever be interested in playing Matt’s part in the show?

Killian: We always joke about having a little swap, but honestly when I wear heels for fifteen minutes I get a bad back. He actually gave me heels when we first met, two months before we started the job. He lent me some high heels and advised me ‘Honestly, start practising now...’ And my calf muscles tightened, my bum tightened...It was really painful at the start but very helpful. Our relationship kind of went from there after we bonded over the high heels!

LC: What would your drag queen names be?

Killian: I was asked this before - in rehearsals, not by a journalist - because the drag queens actually name themselves. We’ve got a Sissy Elliot, we’ve got all sorts... For some reason, I don’t know where it came from, mine is Fifi Lion. There were a lot of Irish-based jokes about my name too, Shamrock Mary and all that!

Matt: Oh my godddd, so hard to decide! I’ve never thought about it because I always play Lola.

LC: People say for your stripper name you should take the name of your first pet and your mother’s maiden name.

Matt: Mine would be Buster Henry! That sounds quite cool.

LC: Definitely more like a sexy male stripper though. When I saw the show, the final scene got a standing ovation. What’s your favourite number from the show to perform to an audience?

Killian: I do absolutely love the finale. We have the best finale I’ve ever seen in a musical because it completely raises the roof. I love performing ‘Raise you Up’, it does what it says on the tin.  It just lifts the roof of the place, and when you see everyone dancing you feel ten foot high.

Matt: I have two favourite numbers - the part where I get to be Simon is great for me, it’s a real turning point for me. Charlie and I both realise we don’t need to live up to our father’s expectations. I think that’s where the true heart of the show is.  And then my second favourite is ‘Everybody Say Yeah’ - it’s dangerous! The adrenalin needed to get through that number is incredible; I live on the edge for that thrill.

 

Kinky Boots is on at the Adelphi Theatre and booking has been extended until September. Tickets from just £25.

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