With his big hair, big outfits and larger- than-life persona, the role of Edna Turnblad in Hairspray is a massive challenge for any actor.
But for Mark Benton it’s a dream come true.
The actor has got one of those faces you recognise, but you’ll not necessarily know his name.
A regular on TV, he’s now barely recognisable in his latest venture – as the madcap maternal matriarch in a new touring version of Hairspray.
So how is the 47-year-old, who has appeared in the likes of Early Doors, Northern Lights and Waterloo Road, adapting to his stage musical debut.
“The funny thing is, I am loving it, and I do wake up in the morning and look forward to coming in,” says Benton.
Hairspray tells the story of Tracy Turnblad, a big girl with big hair and an even bigger heart as she sets out to follow her extraordinary dreams, inspire her mum and win the boy she loves.
Edna Turnblad is a much-coveted role – played at different times and across different art forms by John Travolta, Divine, Michael Ball, Phill Jupitus and Harvey Fierstein.
So how did a veteran of various Mike Leigh films end up playing an overweight laundress living in racially segregated Baltimore, Maryland, in 1962 – and singing and dancing eight times a week with it?
“This got mentioned a few years ago, actually, but nothing ever came of it,” recalls the ever-amiable Middlesbrough native, speaking in a London rehearsal room just prior to the start of the tour.
“I then got a call and thought, ‘What the hell?’ I’ve always tried to do different things and keep people guessing, so it’s nice to go, ‘Yeah, why not?’”
He laughs as he recalls one particular remark: “I remember when I left college, someone said, ‘Being big, don’t you worry about being typecast?’ and I thought, well, if I’m being typecast, I’m working.”
And, with Hairspray, on something that comes with “an awful lot of new challenges”.
Benton did plays with music while studying at RADA, the prestigious London drama school, but he doesn’t read music so knew he was sailing into unknown territory on that front alone.
What’s more, he has never before played an American. “But that’s all part of the challenge, and it’s a good one and it’s something as an actor where you can say, ‘OK, let’s go!’,” he says.
“Part of it is that you want the fear some times, you want that thing of ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’
“It’s also great in your career, or at least in my career, for me to try to do stuff that I’m not necessarily comfortable doing. That’s all part of the game, I suppose.”
Benton is coming to terms with a part that requires the physically capacious Edna to do a fair share of shimmying herself, all the while sporting a costume that can leave the out-sized actor absolutely dripping with sweat after a show.
“I’ve had the fat suit on and it’s a killer, though it’s only when you take it off that you realise that your T-shirt is soaking wet,” says Benton, who on this topic takes the pragmatic view.
“I’ve wanted to lose weight for a while now, so I think this is going to be an easy way to do it.”
And a fun way, too? “Exactly: it’s all a good thing – all good – and if I eat right, I’ll lose weight; there are no two ways about it.”
Benton lives on the South Coast with his wife and three children, ages 14, 12, and seven; his wife runs the upscale Lion Street Store in the East Sussex town of Rye.
How, then, does he feel about touring?
“It was a tricky decision, if I’m honest, but we came to it together, and I thought, if I don’t do it now, I’ll probably never do it. It would be nice to have done it in the West End but that wasn’t an option so you kind of go, ‘I want to do the show,’ and if you want to do the show, you have to go on tour.”
Again, he takes the longer view: “Actors are essentially nomads anyway, so you go where the work is.”
As it happens, Benton appeared just after Christmas on the ITV1 show Panto!, starring alongside two actresses, Sheridan Smith and Samantha Spiro, who between them have won three Olivier Awards for doing musicals on stage.
Did these two musical stalwarts offer Benton any advice? “No,” he says with a smile. “They just said, ‘You’ll love it; you’ll enjoy it. Just throw yourself in there’ – and so, I am.”
Hairspray runs from Tuesday to June 29 at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff. Tickets priced £18-£45 available from the box office on 029 2063 6464 or via www.wmc.org.uk