London theatre is a highly competitive industry. There are a vast number of extremely talented stage actors looking to work in the West End and with a select number of theatres and shows, opportunities are limited; add to that, the ever-growing number of students graduating from drama/theatre schools with each passing year, and they become even more limited. The reality is that there aren’t enough roles to meet the demand, so a lot of these talented performers are missing out. Even when they do make it onto the stage though, the challenges don’t end there. If the number of West End productions are limited, the lead roles are even more so. Not everyone can be the lead, so more often than not performers will find themselves in the ensemble. Sadly, the members of the ensemble are regularly overlooked by audiences, who save the biggest applause for the ‘stars’ of the show – but everyone in a West End show is a star.
Not everyone necessarily appreciates what being an ensemble member entails. It is a demanding job, requiring physicality, variance and most of all, being able to work as one with a large group of performers. There is a lot of talent hidden away within a show’s ensemble, which is why I’m aiming to bring it to the forefront. Each week, one ensemble member from a West End show will be publicly recognise them for their work. I think it’s about time the ensemble had a spotlight on them, don’t you?
Dean Chisnall seemed the perfect choice to kick off the series with. I first came across the Lancashire-born actor on ACT ONE: Songs From the Musicals of Alexander S Bermange. The 2008 musical theatre album contained a selection of the composer’s songs, performed by some of the West End’s up-and-coming stars. Some of the names featured included Earl Carpenter, Summer Strallen, Oliver Thompsett, Alexia Khadime and Ramin Karimloo. All of these have gone to to become leading men and ladies in the West End and Chisnall, who duetted on the album with Sabrina Aloueche in ‘The Threshold Of Her Heart’, is no exception to that rule.
I first saw him perform as part of the Love Never Dies ensemble, but before that, he’d worked quite extensively. After the Lancashire-born Chisnall graduated from Arts Educational Schools, London in 2005, he made his West End début in his first job; The Woman in White at the Palace Theatre. He was given a place in the ranks of the ensemble and also understudied the role of Walter Hartwright. From there, he appeared in the cast of Evita at the Adelphi Theatre, performing in the ensemble and also covering the role of Magaldi, before joining the UK Tour of Never Forget, in which he played his first leading role as Ash Sherwood. He remained in the role when the show subsequently transferred into the West End, where it enjoyed a run at the Savoy Theatre. After Never Forget, Chisnall appeared in La Cage aux Folles at the Playhouse Theatre. He has also appeared in pantomime with Qdos, playing Prince Charming in Cinderella (High Wycombe and Nottingham).
In 2010, he was cast in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies, at The Adelphi Theatre. Chisnall was in the ensemble and also 1st cover to Joseph Millson in the role of Raoul. He played the role on stage on numerous occasions, and always to great acclaim.
Chisnall left Love Never Dies in March 2011 as part of the show’s cast change and headed over to The Theatre Royal Drury Lane after joining the original London company of new West End show, Shrek the Musical. Again in the ensemble, he performed as a Knight/Papa Ogre/Thelonius/Pig (Bricks), as well as understudying the lead role of Shrek. Nigel Lindsay originated the role of the lovable green ogre here in London, but following the news that he would be leaving the musical in February 2012, it was announced that Dean Chisnall would be taking over the role full-time.
There was a surge of delight from both theatre-goers and stage performers alike that a show had given a lead role to its understudy, and it was certainly deserved. Millions saw Chisnall perform the finale song ‘I’m A Believer’ with the rest of the company on Britain’s Got Talent and it was clear that he most definitely had bucketfuls of it. He continued to star as Shrek in the West End until its final performance on 24th February 2013, although that didn’t mark the end of his relationship with the show.
After taking part in the workshop of Water Babies, it was revealed that he would be reprising the role of Shrek for the first ever UK and Ireland Tour of Shrek The Musical in 2014. The touring production launched at the Grand Theatre, Leeds on 23rd July 2014, with Chisnall leading the star cast which also features Faye Brookes as Princess Fiona, Idriss Kargbo as Donkey and Gerard Carey as Lord Farquaad. They are currently entertaining audiences at Dublin’s BGE Theatre, before setting off again to visit other venues in Oxford, Manchester, Aberdeen, Canterbury, Newcastle, Birmingham, Glasgow, Sheffield, Norwich, Southampton, Plymouth, Milton Keynes, Edinburgh and Cardiff throughout 2014/15, with further dates still to be announced.
Dean Chisnall went from being just one in the ensemble to landing his dream role and being the star of the show, which is why he was a natural choice to feature in the first article of this series. He serves as a perfect example as to why more recognition should be given to ensembles, and proves that there are many future stars just waiting for the spotlight to shine on them.
By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)
Updated 8th November 2014