Dirty Dancing in Eastbourne: an interview with leading man Michael O’Reilly

Michael O'Reilly (Johnny), Kira Malou (Baby) and Simone Covele (Penny). Picture by Alastair Muir
Michael O'Reilly (Johnny), Kira Malou (Baby) and Simone Covele (Penny). Picture by Alastair Muir

A bursting, irresistibly likeable musical: Dirty Dancing comes to town next week (July 15-20), and the Congress Theatre will be doing what it does best.

Since the re-opening in the spring, we have all been getting back into the Congress habit. The auditorium feels familiar, but fresher, and the access meets everyone’s approval. Now we just need the shows. Several have arrived already – including some huge, raw and full-throated musicals such as Rock of Ages and American Idiot, as well as Rocky Horror and Thriller Live.

But I always think the real winners are what you might call the three-generation shows: with appeal to the kids, the parents and the older folks. The next few weeks, for example, will see everyone’s favourite orphan Annie back in town (August 13-17), preceded by our very own Rattonians (July 25-August 3) with the unmissable classic musical Top Hat.

And next week (from Monday, July 15) you can certainly bring the whole family for a spot of Dirty Dancing.

Screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein created the story in 1985 – based, apparently, on events in her own youth. You do have to wonder how she hit on the title of Dirty Dancing, which might just mislead a few potential theatregoers. The story has nothing at all edgy or sleazy: it’s a sweet teen romance, rather formulaic but none the worse for that, with bright bouncy characters and smashing music. What’s not to like?

Indeed, since the exuberant arrival of the original 1987 movie, Dirty Dancing has surfed the decades with ease. The story-line is perennial. On vacation with her parents in the summer of ‘63, 17-year-old Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman falls adoringly in love with the resort’s dance instructor Johnny Castle – Patrick Swayze in the movie.

The plot takes on a twisting, turning choreography of its own, but – as they say in a line that has become an industry catch-phrase, “nobody puts Baby in a corner!”. And by the end the inevitable has happened, the young lovers’ fate is written in the stars, and sealed with that final, triumphant iconic Lift.

I caught up with the show’s leading man, Michael O’Reilly, earlier in its marathon tour. And he’s a lucky guy in all respects – a huge break in his very first year out of drama school!

“Yes, it’s been a dream of a year, and this is the role of a lifetime. We all know what a really competitive business performing is, and I’m taking nothing for granted. I’m loving the show, the role and the opportunity it is giving to me.”

“I had just graduated from drama college in July last year, and my agent had been on to me with this news – and we started rehearsing in August! Not sure how I will follow this, but that’s for the future!”

You were at Bird College in London, Matthew, known for its strength in dance?

“Yes, but we learn all the disciplines, of course. And before that I was incredibly lucky with one special break: I was 17, still in my home town of Plymouth, and Matthew Bourne staged a production there of his Lord of the Flies.

“I found myself in the auditions, not expecting too much, and landed a part in the production. You could call it life-changing, certainly life-shaping. An awesome experience.”

“After working with Matthew I did consider majoring on just dance, and trying for the classical conservatoires, but Bird gave me a much more rounded training, and a show like Dirty Dancing needs you to act, sing and dance. We have a multi-talented company and we seem to thrive on each other’s energy.

Now tell us about this show, Michael: “It’s a massive tour, and we are really lucky to have joined the production in its prime. Dirty Dancing has always enjoyed a huge and loyal fan base – I guess it began with the movie but it has been adopting new fans ever since, and people are saying that this production has got it just right.”

“There are always debates with a stage version – is it too much like the movie, or not close enough to the movie? This show feels to have the balance just right. We’ve worked with the same script as the movie, and the staging – including a revolving set – makes the action quite filmic.”

How are you handling the touring? “Oh, it’s brilliant. People expect you to say touring is exhausting, but it is actually exhilarating! Think about it – we get a new opening night every single week, and each venue is a little bit different. Eastbourne will be new territory, and I can’t wait to see you all!”

The show starts at 7.30pm from Monday to Thursday, with 5pm and 8.30pm performances on the Friday, and 3pm and 7.30pm shows on the Saturday. Tickets cost £19-£49. Call 01323 412 000 or visit www.eastbournetheatres.co.uk.

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