Ross Noble interview: Mel Brooks told me to tone it down
He sings. He dances. He has a cockney accent.
I am unsure which of these things surprises me most about Ross Noble’s performance as hunchback manservant Igor in the West End production of Broadway hit Young Frankenstein. The answer is probably a dead heat between all three.
And then there is sticking to a script. Better make that a dead heat between four. For over two decades I’ve been enjoying Noble’s livewire performances as one of the UK’s top improvisational comics. Ideas fly out of his brain so fast you need a net to catch them. But this time his words are written by veteran genius Mel Brooks.
It is not the first time Noble has worked with Brooks. He played pigeon-fancying playwright Franz Liebkind when The Producers went on tour, but this is his West End debut. And the role is bigger. Once Frederick Frankenstein (Hadley Fraser), the grandson of the original mad scientist, arrives in Transylvania, Igor — pronounced Eye-Gor — is at his side as he builds a new monster (Shuler Hensley). As we settle down backstage at the Garrick Theatre, Noble sings a snatch of the song that underlines that they are a double act “...like Laurel and Hardy, Coke and Bacardi”.
Did he have to audition? “They don’t use the word audition, it’s a workshop, which was three days with the assistant director, choreographer and musical director. Then they filmed it and sent it to Mel. I went full-on with it and was really Elephant Man-grotesque. I thought that would appeal. I might be the only person in history that Mel Brooks told, ‘You have to tone it down’. We talked on the phone and he said, ‘You’ve got pure funny bones, I love what you did, Ross, but we’ve already got one f***ing monster in this show’.”
Noble, 41, can barely conceal his admiration for Brooks who, at 91, remains a force of nature, overseeing the production alongside director/choreographer Susan Stroman. “I remember meeting an older act when I was a teenager and he said: ‘You love it now but wait until you are 15 years in’ — but then you look at Mel...”
Young Frankenstein has just had a dry run in Newcastle, which was nice for Noble, who was born there and considers himself a Geordie, even though he grew up in Cramlington, Northumberland. “I had a disagreement with Cheryl Cole. She was born and grew up in Heaton just outside Newcastle, whereas I was born in Newcastle — so I’m more of a Geordie than she is.”
I can’t copy what Marty Feldman did, so I’ve put my own spin on it
He saw his first live shows at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal with his late father Malcolm, who introduced his son to classic comedy movies such as 1974’s Young Frankenstein starring Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman. “I remember as a kid sitting there and thinking: ‘There’s something to this’. And then at the end of our first show Mel took a bow. The whole thing was magical.”
The stage version takes its inspiration from the movie but, as with The Producers’ transition from screen to stage, adds new tunes. It is shorter than the three-hour Broadway version: “It brings back the spirit of the film that was lost. I can’t copy what Marty Feldman did, so I’ve put my own spin on it.” Hence the cockney accent.
The plan is to commute to the Garrick on his motorbike. His family — wife, Fran, and young children Elf and Willow, recently moved to West Sussex from Kent, so home life is a little chaotic. But at least they have a home. In 2009 he and Fran lost everything but what they were wearing in a bushfire when they lived in Australia. It prompted a return to England and a new phase. It was around this time that he started to appear on television and was then cast in The Producers. Yet when I interviewed him pre-fire, Noble had said his only ambition was to be a stand-up comedian. Did that experience change him?
“I don’t think so. Maybe I was up my own arse when I said that! To be honest, having a family changed things. It’s hard to be away a lot on tour. I still stand by what I said back then though. Stand-up is what I do. I’ve just had opportunities to do other things for fun.”
It took something as attractive as Young Frankenstein to lure him away from his first love: “If you are going to do musical theatre you want to do something that’s going to be as much fun as stand-up.”
Noble is one of the UK’s favourite comedians. The BBC recently selected one of his gags as an all-time great one-liner: “How come Miss Universe is only ever won by people from Earth?” You might see him on QI but he is picky about what he does. “There should be an IMDB page for the stuff you’ve turned down. I could’ve dumped stand-up a long time ago and become a TV type but that’s not what I want to do.”
There should be an IMDB page for the stuff you’ve turned down. I could’ve dumped stand-up a long time ago and become a TV type but that’s not what I want to do.
He plans to return to stand-up after Young Frankenstein. He is signed up for Igor until February and then he is eyeing up a world tour, called El Hablador — aptly it means “the chatty one”.
So will he be working with Brooks again? How about a part if Brooks puts his Western spoof, Blazing Saddles, on stage? Brooks recently said on Radio 4 that the film might not be made today because of political correctness, referring to the repeated use of the N-word: “We have become stupidly politically correct, which is the death of comedy,” he said.
Noble says Brooks has mentioned a stage version. “I think if this works, why not, but it’s an interesting one. I think it’s doable,” he fiddles with an elastic hairband as he thinks about his answer. “The N-word is used a lot, but he’s attacking racist attitudes. I think it potentially could be brilliant. I’d like to see it.”
Maybe if he can tone down those funny bones he can be in it too.
Young Frankenstein is at the Garrick Theatre, WC2 from September 28-February 10, 2018 (0330 333 4811, nimaxtheatres.com)