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Daniel Radcliffe leaves Harry Potter far behind in his West End stage roles

Daniel Radcliffe as 'Cripple Billy' in The Cripple of Inishmaan

Daniel Radcliffe leaves Harry Potter far behind in his West End stage roles and proves the benefit of celebrity actors in West End plays

Celebrity infiltration of the West End stage has always been a controversial issue, although most pertainable to musical theatre rather than straight theatre. Although live theatre is a very different creature to on-camera acting, it’s less of a challenge than for a singer/actor trying their hand in musicals and famous faces making the transition from screen to stage are generally better accepted. Included in my recent preview selection of shows opening in the West End this September were such plays as Barking in Essex, Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night Dream, which all star well known actors: Lee Evans leads a star-studded cast in Clive Exton’s comic play, while the respective duos of James Earl Jones/Vanessa Redgrave and David Walliams/Sheridan Smith are performing in these two Shakespearean productions. One of the best examples of celebrity casting in straight theatre in recent years was former Doctor Who co-stars David Tennant and Catherine Tate, who teamed up as wise-cracking couple Benedict and Beatrice in the 2011 production of Much Ado About Nothing, which was the hottest ticket in town and saw the Wyndham’s Theatre mobbed on a nightly basis.

Of course, one could have wandered down to the Noel Coward Theatre recently if they wanted to see how well it can work out when a famous actor joins a West End play. There, they would have encountered a globally recognised actor who is probably one of the most famous young talents of our time: Daniel Radcliffe.

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know his name. Radcliffe shot to fame playing the role of boy wizard Harry Potter in the film adaptions of J. K. Rowling’s acclaimed book series. He first appeared on our screens in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone at the tender age of 11 and went on to star in each of the subsequent seven film releases, growing from boy to man before the eyes of the world. In doing so, he seems to have managed to escape the stigma of the ‘child star’. Although he will always be connected with his Harry Potter role, he hasn’t allowed it to define him, which has resulted in him carving out a successful acting career beyond the films. He has taken on a variety of roles away from the lightning-scarred ‘Boy Who Lived’, such as widowed lawyer Arthur Kipps in the 2012 horror film, The Woman in Black. That film, of course, was adapted from the stage production, which has been playing in the West End since 1987, making it the second longest-running play in the history of the West End, behind only Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap.

It’s not the first time Radcliffe has been linked to the world of theatre. Although he could have focused on becoming some big movie star on the back of his Harry Potter fame, he has always taken his acting career seriously and made choices based on what he wants to do and how he wants to be seen as an actor. This has led him to take several stage roles over the years, the first being in 2007 when he starred in the London revival of Peter Shaffer’s play, Equus. Radcliffe certainly made a statement with this particular choice of role. He played a troubled 17 year old boy who has a religious and sexual fascination with horses and is treated by a psychiatrist after he blinds six horses with a spike – a far departure from his Harry Potter role. More controversy was caused by a scene in the play in which Radcliffe would appear completely naked and simulate sex on stage. I don’t doubt that Radcliffe was sending a very strong message here. From teenage hero to teenage anti-hero, the distance between the two roles proved that there was more to Radcliffe than ‘Harry’, and even though it’s been clear to see that he has improved as an actor throughout the course of the film series, it was his Equus performance that really marked him as a strong, well-rounded and incredibly capable acting talent. He reprised his role in the Broadway transfer of the play and the similarly favourable response from audiences and critics across the pond saw him nominated for a Drama Desk Award.

He dipped his toe into the waters of musical theatre after that, taking the lead role in the Broadway production of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. He coped well with the demands of performing in a musical and his efforts saw him once again nominated for a Drama Desk Award, but I think Radcliffe himself would agree that his future doesn’t lie in musicals. He has already proven himself as an actor in his own right, but when singing and dancing are added into the mix, the overall effect is somewhat diluted.

He returned to form with his latest stage role at the Noel Coward Theatre in The Cripple of Inishmaan, playwright Martin McDonagh’s 1996 work about a Hollywood film crew turning up in a small island community off the coast of Ireland and how the inhabitants react to their presence, especially when a young crippled boy is given the chance to appear in the film. Radcliffe has been playing ‘Cripple Billy’ since the production was revived in June, ending his West End run only days ago (31st August 2013). A physically and emotionally demanding role, Radcliffe has been applauded for the performance he delivered, with The Telegraph’s critic Tim Walker calling it ‘the finest piece of acting I have seen all year.’

Radcliffe really seems to shine on the stage, silencing those who may believe that the success he enjoys is only due to the start that Harry Potter gave him, rather than earned. The actor addressed the matter in an interview with The Irish Time, saying that: “I don’t want anybody to be able to say that of me. People say things like, ‘Potter will be the biggest thing that I will ever do.’ And that is absolutely true, but nor do I think that it is going to be the best work I ever do – and that absolutely satisfies me.”

No matter what he achieves in his career though, he will never be able to fully shake the Harry Potter mantle, or avoid the cult status it has awarded him. Pictures of repeated scenes where Radcliffe was caught in a mob of fans at stage door during his time in The Cripple of Inishmaan highlight just how famous he really is, and as nice as it would be to attribute that level of attention to his performance in the play, the reality is that many were probably there to see ‘Harry Potter’ in person. As mentioned previously, Radcliffe takes his acting career seriously and has described the phenomenon of celebrity as ‘ghastly’ and ‘vile’ in the past. Fame is the inevitable side-effect of being a successful actor, and although it obviously carries many beneficial qualities, I can’t help sympathising with actors who want to be primarily judged on the merits of their work.

Actors like Daniel Radcliffe are a huge bonus to the theatre industry. His presence in a West End production undoubtedly boosts sales and provides a level of promotion it would be unlikely to achieve otherwise. Not just there as a famous face however, the skill of an acclaimed acting talent is always of utmost importance and will satisfy the loyal theatre fans who place a high-quality production over who is in the cast. I know I would love to see Radcliffe return to the West End in the future, and it’s not because I’m a Harry Potter fan, but because he is an insightful, committed actor who brings out his best in every role. That’s the type of celebrity that lends itself to the West End stage and theatre-goers would be happy to see more of in further productions.

By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)

Tuesday 3rd September 2013