Interview: Ross Noble

From left, Tiffany Graves (Ulla), Russ Noble (Franz Liebkind), Stephane Anelli (Carman Ghia).
From left, Tiffany Graves (Ulla), Russ Noble (Franz Liebkind), Stephane Anelli (Carman Ghia).
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Ross Noble is famous for his freewheeling stand-up comedy, but for The Producers he’s happy to stick to the script. Nick Ahad reports.

Ross Noble is best known as the long-haired Geordie comedian whose mainly improvised stand-up comedy shows have been delighting audiences for over 20 years. If you have seen his shows, in which literally anything can set him off on a weird fantastical flight of fantasy, you might think he is possibly the last person that would ever be cast in a play which required him to, well, learn a script.

That is exactly what has happened, however, and he is currently playing the unhinged character of Franz Liebkind in Mel Brooks’ The Producers at Leeds’ Grand Theatre.

Ross Noble and an actual script he has to follow every night?

“Everyone says that, but this is a Mel Brooks script, and that changes everything” says Noble. “I get to go on stage and say lines written by Mel Brooks and that is just an absolute joy. Every single line in the show has been perfectly crafted, by a master craftsman. If you’re going to do someone else’s work, you want to be doing the master’s, so it was a bit of a no-brainer for me.”

Adapted by Brooks from his movie of the same name in 2001, The Producers tells the story of New York producer Max Bialystock. Impoverished by a string of flops, he recruits downtrodden accountant Leo Bloom to help him pull off Broadway’s greatest scam.

Noble explains: “Bialystock realises you can make money with a flop more than a hit. If you over fund a show and it closes after one night you get to keep all the money.”

It’s a brilliant scheme. Together Bialystock and Bloom decide to try produce the worst show ever, see it close and run away to Rio with the millions left over.

“They have to guarantee the show will be a flop , so they set out to find the worst play ever written which is where my character comes in,” says Noble. “He’s a Nazi now living in New York with his pigeons and he’s written a play called Springtime for Hitler, a gay romp about the life of Adolf Hitler.”

The original stage version of The Producers opened on Broadway starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, ran for 2,502 performances and won a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards. When 
you consider it – this is a play 
about the hunt for the Worst Play Ever – the achievement and the meticulous ironic framing is comic genius.

Which is why improv master Noble is willing to stick to the script.

That’s not to say he’s never tempted to veer away.

“I very nearly did last night when someone, for some inexplicable reason, had a crying baby in the audience. I very nearly dealt with the baby in character (that is to say, dressed as a Nazi) but even I thought pulling a gun on a crying baby while dressed as a Nazi, that’s never a good idea. Spoils a night out pretty quickly.”

The main cast features Jason Manford giving a performance that will surprise many as Leo Bloom and an astoundingly energetic and stage-owning Cory English as Max Bialystock. And if you doubted the class of this production, David Bedella, one of the leading musical stars of his generation, plays the flamboyant director Roger De Bris, brought in by Bialystock to ensure Liebkind’s script is a major flop.

Noble says: “I saw the show when they first did it in the West End and I thought ‘this is the funniest show I have ever seen’ and it pushes the boundary further than you ever thought possible. Even now with things like Book of Mormon and all the South Park musical stuff they have done, you might think ‘oh well, Second World War satire? It’s not going to be that hard-hitting’ – then you watch Springtime for Hitler.

“Performers are literally goose-stepping around the stage and then you see the banners drop with the big insignia on them. You can hear the audience gasping. They know it’s going to happen and so do we; even we look at it and think ‘really?’.”

The answer is, yes, really. It really is something.

The Producers, Leeds Grand Theatre, until June 13. Tickets 0844 848 2700