At curtain down on last Saturday's matinee performance of Les Miserables, second cover Paul Wilkins was told he was going on as Marius that evening.
'I came off after the matinee at five thirty, and there was a call from the company manager saying that Rob Houchen hadn't felt well all during that show. A bit later there was an update that Rob had definitely gone off ill. The first cover, Ed, was saying that his ensemble track would be more in his head than Marius's - and he wasn't well, either. So, I was on.'
Paul then started to say that he had told himself that there was no need to get in a panic; that he had tried to stay cool, calm and collected during the show. I interrupted to quote Judge Judy:
'That's a conclusion. I want what you did, what you said, what was said to you...'
I've only met Paul once, by the way, across a pub table in Crewe, when I was having the shittest time of all shittest times playing Dame Trot. Yes, I know, that's a conclusion, but I'm saving those stories for a later blog. Paul had just graduated from Arts Ed, and his social skills, seriousness and focus shown clear in his gamin face told you he was going places.
'And where did you go after you'd just heard the news about being Marius that night, Paul?' I asked.
'Clunky much?' he commented, quite rightly. 'I moved dressing-rooms to the Marius one, taking all my comforting stuff: i-pad, phone, hair products; pictures of my family. I was having an adrenaline rush at that point. Water - made sure I had a lot of water. And my Dr Nelson's steamer. My housemate's also in the show, and went out for food for me. I steamed for thirty minutes and no talking so my voice was set back, meanwhile going through my Twitter feed. Then the dance captain, Jordan Lee Davies, came to take me through the blocking: everywhere Marius goes, who he speaks to, props he takes with him. The tech crew were waiting to reset for the evening show and the front of house staff were out in the auditorium - they were all finding this pretty funny because Jordan was playing all the other parts opposite me, including Cosette.'
I'd last seen Jordan Lee Davies sing a heartbreaking "Suddenly Seymour" with Velma Celli at the London Hippodrome and was wondering where he'd got to, so now I knew.
'My voice was feeling fine and I'd usually be flapping but all I thought about was telling the story. If my voice might go a bit dirty, then I needed all the virtues out there. I was back in the dressing room at this point, sharing with Bradley Jaden, the Enjolras. He said to me to do whatever I needed to do - silence, have the TV on, whatever. There was no sense of panic building, as we'd all done our cover runs. I got my first costume on - convict - and went down to the side of the stage. People were hugging me and I was telling myself the whole time to keep my breath down. I had the other roles to play before Marius: convict, judge, priest, guard. Then it came to playing the role itself. I remember a feeling of everyone willing me on. Then it became a blur.'
Pressed, he remembered:
'The revolve turns, which is an unusual way of bringing you into a scene, and this helped with my upping the intensity. I could feel it creep up. The lights dim and the music starts playing. At that point I tried pushing - no, not pushing: being truthful. Let my impulses happen. I had a bit of a moment: in the dialogue with Peter Lockyer, Jean Valjean, when he's saying that he's now the convict being hunted - my mind went blank on my lines. Only at the very moment it came for me to speak did muscle memory take over. In "Empty Chairs" I felt I had reached the objective - apologising for being alive. Regretful that I was still there when all the others were dead. Oh, in the wedding scene I remember being totally relaxed. Quite at ease. Then in the bows I felt suddenly incredibly tired. My adrenaline dropped, my body sank. We were all off to the pub, obviously. But first I thought I should move everything back into my usual dressing room out of Marius one...'
Zoe Doano, Paul, Carrie Hope Fletcher and Bradley Jaden
Paul on the official Les Mis site
Paul's page on StageFaves