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Life's A Drag

Shane Richie reprises his West End role of Hugo/Loco Chanelle in the touring version of smash-hit musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie...

You first played Hugo/Loco Chanelle in 2019 and have recently returned to the role for the reopening of the show in the West End, prior to this UK & Ireland tour. How did playing the part come about? 
I’d just come out of EastEnders, and I was kind of happy just to have a break because I knew I was going to be busy from April/May onwards. But then Nica Burns, the show’s producer, got in touch with my manager. I’d heard a couple of tracks from the show, and I really liked them, but when you’re in EastEnders, you’re in a bit of a bubble, so I hadn’t had the time to go and see it. So I went to see it with my manager, Phil Dale, and was like, ‘Oh my God, I just love this show!’ They said, ‘We’d like you to play a Sheffield drag queen’, and because it was so different to the next character I was lined up to play on stage - Archie Rice in The Entertainer - I thought, ‘I need to do this’. I was in panto at the time, so I didn’t get as much rehearsal time as I thought I would. It was seven weeks, then ‘Bam!’, me and Layton Williams, who plays Jamie, both started at the same time.

How has the past 18 months been for you with theatres closed?
When the Jamie tour got cancelled, I thought it would only be for a few weeks, but then we got to realise just how serious it was. There was no light at the end of the tunnel, although I always knew I was going into the castle for I’m A Celebrity, so I had that to look forward to. Before I went into I’m A Celebrity, I was asked to go back into the West End production in January, so when I was in the castle I was thinking, ‘I need to lose a bit of weight so that I can fit back into the dress’, knowing full well there was going to be no panto. Then, two days before I was due to go into rehearsal, the show had to be pulled. There were all these false starts, and it was so disheartening. I was alright at first, but when there was no light at the end of the tunnel for theatres, I started panicking. 

What are you most looking forward to about going back out on the road again? 
We started off in Sheffield and played to 24,000 people in three weeks. Then we got to do Northampton and Edinburgh before we reached Birmingham and were forced to cancel the tour. I thought, ‘That’s alright’, because I thought it was only temporary and I was pretty tired. Then I went home and was wiped out for four days, not realising I’d got Covid myself. As for starting up the tour again, I can’t wait to see everyone in the cast and crew. There’s a different buzz when you’re on the road compared to being in the West End. It feels like we’re bringing the circus to people, and they’re so excited when we arrive.

How did you prepare to play Hugo’s drag queen alter-ego, Loco Chanelle?
My dad used to run clubs in London, so from the age of 10 I was used to seeing men in drag. Then, on one of my very first tours, when I was 17 or 18, there were three drag queens and two strippers in the show. I knew drag queens, I grew up with them, and I knew Danny La Rue. It’s funny now - if you’d have said to me 30-odd years ago that drag would be mainstream, I’d have said, ‘Don’t be stupid’ - but drag is mainstream now and quite rightly so.

Did it take long for you to master the high heels?
I had a nightmare. With my left calf muscle, even when I just talk about putting on the heels, I can feel it twingeing. It’s one thing standing in five-inch heels, it’s another thing to walk in them and another thing entirely to dance in them. Layton and the other drag queens in the show helped me. I’d do the school run, then come home, put the heels on and walk around the kitchen. My wife was like ‘Seriously, if the Tesco delivery man comes, you’re not answering the door in high heels!’. I walked everywhere in them.
When the show reopened, though, I struggled at first because my calves didn’t have muscle memory. When I put the heels back on, I thought I’d only need a day to get used to them again. The producer said, ‘Shane, you might want to practise’, but I was like, ‘Shut up’, but then I put them on at home one day and I was a wreck. I couldn’t walk in them. People say it’s like riding a bike, but once you’ve not worn heels for a long time, it’s so hard. The first couple of shows, I had a few little stumbles, but now I’m twirling again and I know what I’m doing.

What kind of feedback about your performance did you get from fans ?
Those who’ve followed my career for years loved it, but there’s a whole generation who would only have seen me as Alfie Moon. There’d be these young girls whose mums wanted to come see the show because they’re going, ‘What, Alfie’s playing a drag queen? I’ll come see that with you, darling’. At the stage door, boys and girls and teenagers were there with their parents! If I can bring another generation to come see Jamie - the 40-plus-year-olds who wouldn’t normally come see a show like this - and then they love it, then I’m happy. From the outside looking in, they might be like, ‘Oh, it’s about a gay boy who wants to wear a dress’, but it’s not about that at all. Right at the beginning, he’s going, ‘I’m gay, get over it’. It’s not about someone being gay, it’s about someone who dares to be different. 

How important do you think that message is nowadays?
It’s so relevant. We’re in a country where there are so many social, political and cultural changes going on, and people are being divided. We’re getting angry with each other; there’s the Far Left and the Far Right, and then there’s this show that goes, ‘Be who you want to be, let others be who they want to be and celebrate diversity’. 

What’s your favourite musical number in Jamie?
For me, it’s Over The Top at the end of act one. Lyrically it’s all there and it sets everything up for act two, where Loco passes the baton to Jamie and goes, ‘Right, your turn now’.

What couldn’t you be on the road without?
I bring my guitar, a lot of books and my back-roller for the physical warm-up. I try to make my dressing room like a home-from-home, so I’ve got my iPad, my guitar, my music and my pictures of my family.

The tour calls at The Alexandra in Birmingham. Does the venue have any particular significance for you?
I did Scrooge there, among many other things, and every time I go to Birmingham I see so many changes. Culture is seeping out of the walls. They’ve got fantastic museums and fantastic shopping, and I’m really looking forward to going back.