After a stint in London’s West End and a regular gig as Ash on River City, Dundee actor Brian James Leys is becoming literal theatre royalty – as the Emperor in a new production of Aladdin.
The 37-year-old Dundonian is ready to embark on “a whole new world” post-Covid, with his first professional pantomime a welcome way to return to the stage.
“For about ten years I’ve just been in musical after musical,” says Leys, who was in the middle of a run of acclaimed show Everybody’s Talking About Jamie in London’s West End when Covid hit.
“This is actually my first professional panto though, which is nice.”
Playing alongside Bafta-winning Gary: Tank Commander (AKA Greg McHugh), Still Game‘s Gavin James and River City co-star Leah MacRae, and kitted out head to toe in a gold get-up, Leys feels every bit the regal Emperor, “who I thought was a sultan in the Disney version, but there you are”.
And he’s more than ready to get back on the boards after a year when so many performers were stuck at home and, in Leys’ case, talking to the walls.
“I’ve not been on stage at all during the pandemic,” he says.
“Over lockdown I moved back to Dundee, and then I moved back down to London because they tried to reopen the show I was in – Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. But we did about four shows and then they closed again.
“I’ve been trying to play piano as much as I can, singing as much as I can – acting! Reciting something and thinking I’m Shakespeare in the morning… all these things keep you sane. I mean, you look insane! But they keep you invested.”
Covid created ‘whole new world’ for actor
Like so many in the arts and entertainment industry, Leys was forced to make some tough choices as a result of the pandemic. He even thought he might need to move away from the career he’d built, after staring off at Downfield Musical Society and making it all the way to the West End.
“I was getting paid some, but nothing like what you need to keep you in London. Then it got to that point where I was like: ‘OK, this is it – Tesco, I’m going to work for you!’” he laughs.
“Literally that very same week that I packed my bags, my agent phoned me and said the River City casting director was asking for me, but I’d need to be based in Scotland.
“And I went, ‘Well my bags are packed, so I’ll see you tomorrow!’ So I’ve been on River City since, which is certainly good fun!”
River City co-star to play dame
And his River City co-star, Leah MacRae (Ellie McLean), is just as excited to be getting back in front of live audiences after months of lockdown followed by extremely careful filming.
“It’s been really quite impressive to see the (River City) episodes go ahead with the way they’re being produced, with single camera and limited cast,” she explains.
“It’s been a really complicated way of doing things, with loads of adjustments, but the crew and the cast have been amazing.
“We all pulled together as a team, we are like a big family down there.”
Having just finished a run at the Edinburgh Festival, she’s thrilled to be back in front of live audiences, saying: “To see everyone’s wee faces there smiling back at us is the best medicine in the world.”
And even more special for MacRae is the role she’s been given – iconic panto dame Mrs Twankey.
“I’m playing Mrs Twankey so it’s a really exciting thing for me. The first thing I ever saw in the theatre was Aladdin – but I’ve never been in it,” she says.
“And it’s quite unusual for a woman to get the opportunity to play the dame, so I’m really quite honoured to be trusted with the part. It’s a huge, iconic role. She’s the dame of all dames in my eyes, so I’m really chuffed.”
Both Leys and MacRae are living examples of the resilience of performers and the entertainment industry at large, and they hope people will turn out in support of the pantomime after a year of empty auditoriums.
“I think with pantomime being for everybody, the whole family can come and enjoy it together,” MacRae points out.
“It’s so important to us in the arts industry that people come and support the return of live entertainment, because it’s been a rough, rough run for us. We were one of the most heavily affected industries and a lot of people haven’t been back to their work yet at all.
“So when you think about that, the return is quite monumental.”
Meanwhile Scottish treasure Greg McHugh appealed to audiences in true Gary: Tank Commander fashion at the panto launch, saying: “Hiya troops! Ah pure cannae wait to be back at the SEC… back in the hoose! YAAASSS it’s actually happenin’!
“Canny wait to see yous all, this is gonnae be extra amazin’, pure loads ay fun, N HUNNERS AY mega LOLS! So if ye huvnae got your tickets yet, get them now, SERIOUSLEH! Obviouslehh! GET INVOLVED! YA MAD RADGES!”
Aladdin will be performed at the SEC Armadillo, December 11-29 2021.
Brian James Leys will appear at the Whitehall Theatre on Friday September 3 in Magic Of The Musicals Live.