Saturday, April 9, 2011


This handsome lad (even with heavy makeup and bad teeth) is probably known and recognized by many PBS regulars as the eccentric, socially inept though brilliant (sometimes in his cups) ex-detective Brian Lane of the eminently successful BBC production of New Tricks which just ended its seventh season. He is all that and much, much more. He is the talented Alun Armstrong whose body of work appears to include something for everybody from Dickens and Shakespeare to modern theater and TV. He spent nine years with the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1979 to 1988.

Armstrong (Aye, his Father was Scottish) overcame many obstacles as a child and was motivated even as early as grammar school to seek a career in theater. He pursued his dream through some bumps and grinds that included a stint as a gravedigger and ultimately earned his position as one of the elite entertainers on our planet.

In his maturity he shows the march of time though that only enhances his character and perhaps the range of roles he can play. This man from coal mining stock has never forgotten his roots which inspire him to this day. His very credible theater, television and film credits are far too numerous to mention here except to comment that he raises the bar whenever he sets foot on stage.

We note Armstrong has never tried to reinvent himself or be somebody else. He is comfortable in his own skin and origins. We suspect he is right at home in a local pub with his fellow AFC Wimbledon fanatics. To his extraordinary credit he has always opted for extremely challenging roles including the treacherous Mornay in Braveheart (vengefully killed by Wallace) who as a sidebar never existed in reality.

In 1985 Armstrong joined the original London production of Cameron Mackintosh’s musical Les Misérables playing the part of gleefully visceral villain and disreputable innkeeper Thénardier (photo above). Armstrong originated and literally created his "gruesome and comic character" and was successful as the epitome of both evil and the only comic relief in Les Mis. Those that have followed in the role to include the late Leo Burmester of Broadway fame and the recent efforts of the multi-talented Matt Lucas are but shadowy imitations of Armstrong’s interpretation. In short, Armstrong owns the character.

Armstrong reprised the role in Les Misérables - The Dream Cast in Concert at their tenth anniversary at the Royal Albert Hall in October 1995 which was filmed and released on DVD. One Les Mis reviewer commenting on his performance offered, “… the absolute delight of Alun Armstrong as Thénardier - his rendition of "Master of the House" in the 10th Anniversary concert is a truly joyful experience that should not be missed by anyone who is a true fan of the musical - the entire stage of actors who are behind Alun as he sings that song are visibly delighted and enjoying his rendition of that song as much as the audience.” Absolument

We cannot fathom anyone ever matching that performance much like Colm Wilkinson’s Jean ValJean though Alfie Boe may be the one to push Wilkinson witness his standing ovation during the 25th Anniversary show following his Bring Him Home. It was a first for Les Miserables though we need note this was celebration.

In more of a fit of humility than failure in judgment, Armstrong was surprised by the success of Les Misérables and stated, "I didn't think it would be very popular.” He underestimated the universal and powerful theme of Les Mis and the incredible performances (especially his own) that have made it the world’s most popular musical. Armstrong left Les Mis after a year wanting to work on other projects and, I suspect, fearing that he may trapped in that character.

When we saw Armstrong come on stage for the memorable encore finale of the 25th Anniversary performance of Les Miserable in London, we noted that same youthful exuberance and playful gleam in his eye that takes him to other places and dimensions we of the mortal plane can only imagine.


Ned Buxton

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