“It’s like being a footballer and playing for the top manager...he is the most powerful and richest producer in the world.”
Brian Conley is sharing what it means to be given the thumbs up by theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh.
“To have his nod of approval and for him to say ‘Brian, I want you to play Barnum,’ you think, ‘My God’. It’s special.”
Barnum – the story of America’s Greatest Showman – makes its Milton Keynes stage debut next week.
“Sir Cameron is the only person that could tour a show this size,” Brian says.
“It is a real spectacular – there are 28 of us in the company, 11 in the orchestra.
“It’s a lovely story about him and his wife, a true story.
“When he died, PT Barnum was the richest man in America.
“Barnum turned the theatres into palaces and made them ornate so that he would get families and the middle classes in to see shows.
“Every beautiful theatre in the country is down to Sir Cameron,” Brian says, mixing his Mackintosh’s with his Barnum’s, “Erm, I mean Barnum...although I suppose it is down to Sir Cameron too...”
Barnum is another plump theatrical role for Brian, and follows his star turns as Al Jolson, as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray and Fagin in ‘Sir Cameron’s’ tour of Oliver!
“...I know for a fact if that hadn’t gone well, or they thought I was a bit too big for my boots they wouldn’t have asked me back,” he realises.
“It’s all about getting on.” Brian says that is a trait learned young: “I think it’s down to your upbringing, without a doubt,” he says, before giving me another example of that affable Conley trait.
“I would say that my brother is the top stage manager in the country – for Ant & Dec, for Paul O’ Grady.
“He does Britain’s Got Talent, Strictly...he is a good people person.”
Brian is as comfortable on the small screen as he is on the live stage, and as happy singing as he is making us smile.
“I’m an all-rounder, an entertainer,” he states.
“I’ve always thought of myself as someone who, like Barnum, acts a bit, does comedy, sings...I’m not a comedian who just stands there and tells jokes.”
“It’s kept me ticking over for the past 40 years,” he says modestly.
And yet despite all the success, here he is walking the tight-rope on a nightly basis!
How long did it take? “Six months and I’m still learning,” Brian admits.
“Obviously you are not that high the first time you do it.
“You start on what they call a cheese cutter, which is only a foot off the ground, then you gradually progress and get higher and higher.
“You just have to do it,” he states.
“It is part of the show and something every Barnum has to do.
“It is also a wonderful metaphor for what is happening. He is having an affair and is walking a tight-wire....”
And all of this stage action (“the first half is an hour and four minutes and I’m on for an hour and three, the second is 50 minutes and I’m on for all of that”) is making for a trim, fit fella.
“I’m the fittest I’ve ever been. “With the tight-wire you really have to work on your core strength,” he shares, “My core strength is good and my leg muscles are phenomenal now!”
Any high wire mishaps?
“Yeah, I’ve fallen off quite a few times. But the first thing you learn is how to fall, and you grab the wire as you come down.
“Touch wood, I’ve never really hurt myself, but that’s what makes it such an exciting and rivetting moment in the show.”
And it’s a show with wheels turning until September.
“...nice to be in regular work, innit?” he says, half quip, half serious.
Brian today paints a rather different picture from the fella who bowed out of ITV show I’m a Celebrity a couple of years ago. Brian endured his own trials and tribulations in the jungle which saw him removed from the wild and plonked in a hospital bed: “I still had three weeks of the most amazing holiday in Australia though,” he counters.
“We had Helen Flanagan and she didn’t really do any of the trials, so we ended up not eating at all. I ended up collapsing and wound up in hospital with malnutrition, dehydration and exhaustion.
“I’m fine now, because when I do Barnum, they feed me!”
Barnum begins on Tuesday, with performances through to Saturday, May 16, 2015.
Showtime is 7.30pm nightly, with additional matinee performances on Wed, Thur & Sat at 2.30pm.
To book call the box office on 0870 870 7652 or visit www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes