Page last updated at 08:40 GMT, Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Atkinson gears up for Fagin role

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Rowan Atkinson: 'I wouldn't claim to be a West End musical junkie'

Rowan Atkinson is returning to the stage for the first time in two decades, playing Fagin in the West End production of Oliver!

The Blackadder and Mr Bean comedian stars alongside the winners of the latest BBC reality television programme, I'd Do Anything, at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

The role of the miserly criminal mastermind was one Atkinson admits he was reluctant to tackle - and producer Cameron Mackintosh spent years trying to convince the star he was perfect to pick a pocket or two.

In the end it was a case of now or never... and the small matter of playing the part in his daughter's school production.

Rowan Atkinson as Fagin (Photograph: John Swannell)
Fagin is a villain and it's always nice to play a villain... they are always more fun than straight guys
Rowan Atkinson

"Fagin is a part I felt I could play, it is a part I have enjoyed watching and have always been intrigued by," Atkinson says.

"I suddenly realised that the next time it came around I would be told old to play it... that was the clincher for me. The feeling that if I was going to do then I should do it now.

"Fagin is a villain and it's always nice to play a villain... they are always more fun than straight guys."

Atkinson, 54, was born in the north east of England, and, while studying engineering at Oxford University, started performing comedy.

It was at the University's Experimental Theatre Club that he first met writer Richard Curtis - with whom he collaborated on Blackadder, Mr Bean, The Tall Guy and Four Weddings and A Funeral.

Great role

Mackintosh, who is producing the latest incarnation of Lionel Bart's classic musical, says he embarked on a long, hard campaign to tempt Atkinson onto the stage.

"I first met Rowan about 14 or 15 years ago and I asked him if he was ever going to go back to the theatre, but he had no plans.

"I said, 'well there is a great role there for you - Fagin.'"

Blackadder Goes Forth
Atkinson starred in all four series of Blackadder

Mackintosh believes Rowan has "all the ingredients" for a great interpretation of the character.

"What you need is a wonderful comedy actor who is rather extraordinary.

"All the best Fagins in musicals are people who have an odd take on life, have a marvellous physicality, and who can seemingly be will-o'-the-wisps."

He adds: "I always could tell there was more than a passing interest with him, but not enough to make him commit to doing it."

Reinventing the wheel

Atkinson's low-key stint playing Fagin at his daughter's school piqued his interest in the role "more than he knew", Mackintosh says.

But it was Atkinson's previous outings on the West End stage - in particular his long-running, award-winning, one-man show, Rowan Atkinson In Revue - that made him reluctant to commit to the part.

"I did quite a few West End shows in the 1980s and I enjoyed doing them, but I think I did the last one for too long," he says.

Jodie Prenger
Atkinson joins I'd Do Anything winner Jodie Prenger on stage

"The peculiar thing about theatrical performance is that you are forced to reinvent the wheel night after night after night and I found it quite a grind."

As Atkinson starts his six months as Fagin there are new challenges ahead.

"It is not easy keeping your head and body in the right place," he explains.

"For example the posture I adopt to play Fagin is crooked and it does my back and neck no favours at all, so I have to keep on top of issues like that."

Despite his reservations, Atkinson says he is "curious" to see how well the production goes down with the public.

The enduring appeal of Oliver, however, is guaranteed.

"In the end - like those very best books or children's stories you remember - you don't mind how often you hear them as long as they are well told.

"That is what we've tried to do."

Rowan Atkinson and Cameron Mackintosh were speaking to BBC News arts correspondent Rebecca Jones. Oliver! opens on Wednesday at the The Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London

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