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Home / Latest News / Life’s not a drag for Mark Benton as he takes on the role of Edna in Hairspray

Life’s not a drag for Mark Benton as he takes on the role of Edna in Hairspray

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?’”

A scene from Hairspray
A scene from Hairspray

 

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

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