Eoghan Funge sits down with West End legend, Killian Donnelly
It may shock readers to learn that one of the biggest names on the west-end right now is from Kilmessan, Co Meath. Killian Donnelly is an actor and singer who has gone from strength to strength since moving to London from the quaint Meath village. Donnelly started his career as a swing in the London production of Les Miserables, and from there has gone from job to job, developing a name for himself, his craft and becoming a highly revered and multi-nominated performer. I was fortunate enough to be joined by Killian on Zoom to have what felt like an extremely open and fresh conversation regarding his career, mental health, and the bizarre experiences he has had, being a part of multiple moments in European and British history just through being a part of the various productions he’s been in, in his incredible career.
Our conversation started in the most Irish way possible - “Well how are ya!” “Any news?” - as though we had met outside the local pub. Our first discussion was that of the weather. “Sure it's fierce cold here as well,” in reply to Killian’s comments on the London weather. We laughed as he discussed his weekly flights home, giving out that every week he can tell it will be frosty when he's flying back, and every week his flight gets delayed due to frost - a problem that seems to be preventable, if not at least predictable.
Already feeling comfortable, Killian and I jumped straight into the conversation at hand - him. Our conversation around his career started here, in Ireland, at his beginnings in amateur dramatics. Killian discussed how in many ways, amateur dramatics was his training. “Growing up in the am-dram, that gave me a passion for it. I wasn’t trained and getting A+s in every exam in training so I should get this role.' It took me being told ‘Look you’re not really right for this role, but you are for that role.’ Learning that from 15 was a great lesson to learn, because now I go into auditions preparing myself, doing the best I can possibly do - but I know if I’m told I'm not right for it, it's not because it was a bad audition.” He continues to say that, where he thinks a lot of people who have gone through traditional training struggle with this, it is because they feel that if they are qualified, they have a higher chance of achieving a role - despite their suitability to it. He says to those who are hoping to perform professionally not to focus on what you have done, but what you can do, remarking that it doesn’t matter what's on the CV, you have to prove your suitability and adaptability.
Interestingly, Killian’s start in the theatre professionally didn’t happen because he moved to pursue a dream of playing the Phantom in Phantom of The Opera, he moved because he wanted to try something new. At 22, he moved to London and got a job in a pub, hoping to move for a while, get a few stories and possibly move back as the lad who went to London. What he didn’t see coming was a phone call from an agent who he was put in touch with, asking him to audition for one of the biggest West End musicals of all time - Les Miserables. Killian always maintained that being a swing (one of the many of the company who cover multiple roles on any given day/night), is the best experience in professional theatre he could have had. It seemed from this conversation that what he really loved about this role was being able to have a story and an emotional connection to every show. It seemed that these characters really mattered to him, and you could tell he was aware of how much a good character stands out. “Les Mis swing was the best training I could have gotten. It took my voice from being able to do 3 shows a week to 8 - a day to rest my voice then I’m back on.”
What really struck me in this was that this was all happening in his life, while still being the age of 22, was how hard it must have been to adapt to such a hectic and difficult routine. I asked Killian how this change of routine affected him, how he managed this change of routine, and his health, both physically and mentally. “The honest answer is, while people talk so openly about mental health now, it wasn't so much the way in 2007. Where I was lucky was where I worked there was this complete support network. A well timed pat on the back helped so much more than having to reach the point of needing to reach out for support.”
He says now, of course his perspective is different, back then when asked how he was by members of the creative team - he always took at is being in relation to his professional life and never his personal, now of course, being that bit more experienced and having a wife and child here in Ireland, his understanding of what that question can be has changed. “That show was my life. I was at that lovely age where everything was the show. [...] One time, one of our swings had just been from a funeral, her grandad had passed. When asked why she was there, she told me she needed it.” Killian maintains that there is no better therapy than being able to go on stage and use that energy you have and channel it into something you can leave and be happy with. Channelling it and using that energy, in his eyes, is the best way to use and ease his emotion. He was also quick to remark that “There’s a joke in Kilmessan that you came out of the womb holding a hurley.” How delighted he is now that this mentality has changed and how now, it's not a weird thing for kids at 10 or 11, particularly Irish boys, to say they love certain musicals.
Leading into March 2020, Killian was proudly on tour, donning the iconic white mask in Phantom of The Opera. The behemoth West-End producer Cameron Mackintosh, in Killian’s eyes, was so caring with the cast involved in his productions. In the interview, I asked Killian how it felt going from the tour, to this silence in the arts, when governments across the world were often reluctant to bring the arts back. “Ireland was always two weeks ahead of where England was.” He recalls being on the phone quite often to family at home, who would be concerned that performances are still going forward in full in the UK. “When Boris did his 6 O’Clock announcement, the joke being ‘don’t go to work, but go to work’.. Cameron took it upon himself to cancel the show that night.”
The cast were all told to go home to where they were staying in Leicester at the time. “I rang my fiancé, and remarked ‘We’re done.’” I was impressed at what a realistic and remarkably friendly outlook toward the ongoing pandemic and health concerns Killian had. It seems, without him wanting to admit himself outwardly, that he was a beacon of wisdom and hope to the cast and company of this tour. When the show continued to be postponed, Killian made a choice: “I took it upon myself to get on a ferry and go home. The Friday show was cancelled so I went home for the weekend.”
Over time, more and more stops of the tour were being cancelled. By July they were called to a Zoom meeting, where the 200 members of the company were told the tour was cancelled. It was at this moment I felt on the call that we were both sent back to that time of the pandemic, where jobs were falling back and artists were struggling, but he was quick to defend the production, saying the tour continued to pay the company for as long as they could before payments stopped, but continued support to members of the company who may be in need of guidance.
“I always feel bad to say I benefited but my son was born a month later. And I just got to be a dad for 18 months. But in regard to where my head was, it was heartbreaking because in Ireland, it was ‘Let's get the pubs and GAA back open but never the arts.’” It seems that, while the distance between himself and home may be vast, Killian is constantly engaged in what is happening here, and for the past few months has been involved in Oireachtas conversations regarding the recognition of Musical theatre as a separate ending on funding application requests - hoping to push forward original Irish works and groups.
Of course now Covid-19 for many seems like a distant memory. As the dust settled on what had been an extremely tumultuous 18 months for communities globally, it seemed that a return to work was possible - and what was potentially seen as normal was starting to poke its head. Killian told me about how starting back at Phantom of The Opera, the situation was handled with such care - you would arrive before each show, get tested for covid and before you even begun to get ready and interact with anyone else, every member of the company would have to be tested, from Front of House crew to the cast and technical teams.
“There were real nerves. I will never forget, till the day I die, our first show back [...] These were your hardcore fans, dressed as The Phantom and Christine. Still to this day I could not hear what Christine was singing, because the second the image of the phantom came on stage, the roar was deafening.” This, of course, isn’t the first time that Killian has been a part of milestone performances in massive West End Productions. In fact, it seems as though Killian is followed by historic events.
”Somehow, in my career I’ve always been part of these iconic shows when something historical has happened.” Les Mis - the 25th Anniversary, which coincided with the Royal Wedding of Kate and William, Phantom of The Opera’s 25th Anniversary, Billy Elliott, a show about the mining strike and Margaret Thatcher's legacy, during the run of which it is announced that Margaret Thatcher had passed.
Then he returns to Phantom - Global Pandemic. It seemed however, that Killian had forgotten one key historical moment. Being among a production synonymous with London but also, in a theatre owned by The Royal Family, at the time named Her Majesty’s Theatre. I was intrigued to hear his experience as an Irish Actor, among a culture that has become so ingrained within London, during the passing and mourning of Queen Elizabeth II. When asked this, there was this pause, and suddenly it clicked with Killian what a unique and in ways, bizarre experience it was. “No one’s asked me this.. It was so bizarre. I had a TV in my room. I had the BBC News on - and the ticker tape says Queen Elizabeth rushed to hospital. What started circling was ‘critical condition’ and before you know it, we got sent a protocol from the producers; ‘In The Demise of The Monarch.’” This document highlighted the rules should her majesty pass during a show.
It would be announced at the interval and Act II wouldn’t happen. Should it happen between shows, it would be announced at the top of the second show and that show would go forward. “At 6pm they made the announcement. All I could hear down the hallways was our Raoul shouting ‘She’s gone everyone. She’s passed.’ Immediately over the tannoy there was the announcement.” From there, Killian looked back on how the theatre’s being so close to everything meant they always felt at the very centre of this shift - his walk to the theatre would be past Buckingham, the start of the show would be marked by a minutes silence for 12 days, and the cast and crew would all keep each other up to date on the ongoing stories and news around the situation. It seemed that while the show could eventually go on, it was consumed by this news. As Killian remarked, “Bizarre.”
I have had the joy myself of seeing Killian perform here in Ireland twice, once in Les Miserables as Jean Valjean - the second Valjean to have been performed by an Irish person in Ireland, preceded only by the legendary Colm Wilkinson. However, the second time was something of an unsung project of Killians - Donegal in the Abbey Theatre in 2016. In this discussion, I learnt that Killian was the basis of the role - the character description read “This is a Killian Donnelly-like character,” and he was asked on the off chance that he would be available and willing. He maintains it was extremely overwhelming working with a cast of phenomenal Irish stage actors. “I would sit and just watch them, how they analysed the text and the scene and eyes would turn to me and ask ‘What do you think Killian?’... and I would remark ‘I actually don’t know, I’m kinda overwhelmed by everything.’”
The passion Killian had for this role was beyond remarkable, to an outsider you would think performing on the West-End in some of the most iconic and memorable roles to date, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Kinky Boots, Memphis, Billy Elliott would bring forth the most passion, but in my conversation with him, his face lit up as he talked about this experience and this opportunity he had to perform at home, in an Irish work, with an Irish cast. “When the Abbey calls, it's always an immediate yes. Loved it. It’s mad, I could be on the Tube, but when you’re on the front of The Abbey Theatre, on a poster, that was a real moment. All my wages went into the flowing tide pub across the road. When you’re in a musical you can’t do that, you have to look after your voice. It was absolutely incredible.”
This was it. The entire interview building up to this moment. In my head I had been figuring out how to pitch this scenario to Killian without feeling like a complete and total idiot. But throughout our discussion and chat, I began to feel as though Killian had really welcomed me into his conversation, made me feel like a friend, catching up with him. So the question was this: You’re at a wedding - your friend comes to you - the wedding singer has gone missing, gone, no trace. They ask you to sing - what is your song? Without a pause, or even a moments thought, he was straight in with “Mustang Sally '' by The Commitments. “People love hearing Mustang Sally, but to sing it, it’s a dreadful song.” He went on - he learned this it turns out, not while performing the role on the west end but rather, on Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway - where he realised, there were deep uncomfortable silences between phrases, and watching Ant and Dec try to fill those beats, going from sheer showbiz confidence, to awkward silence, was hilarious. What was even more hilarious, was sitting with Killian as he exhibited this discomfort to me. Making sure to really make those 8 counts of silence, silent.
It was there that we brought our chat to an end. It really felt like Killian had given me all I wanted and more. I opted not to push on what was to come next, but rather to respect that throughout this process he was so open about his own experiences and it seems now, what he wanted more than anything was a pause, as he comes to an end of his run as The Phantom. He has more than earned a break and time with his family. However, I do strongly believe this spells a return of Killian Donnelly to the Irish stage, perhaps not in performing, but in acting as an advocate for the arts, now more than ever.
My sincerest thanks to Killian and his team for communicating and arranging this call. It was a joy to talk to and learn from Killian about all things being an Irish actor in London - the ever growing niche demographic. To hear the full interview, with more stories, tidbits and jokes than you could imagine - keep an ear out for the audio version, coming soon.