Stephen Beggs Is Cooking With Elvis

Bruiser Theatre Company's new production is Brit pop theatre at its best

It’s not every day you get to play a quadriplegic surveyor Elvis impersonator, let alone one who actually believes he is ‘The King’ and leaps into Vegas-style theatrics at the drop of a magically realised hip.

It’s a role that has coaxed Elvis fan and long-time Bruiser Theatre Company manager, Stephen Beggs, bounding from back stage and into the spotlight to play the dad in their imminent revival of Lee Hall’s tragic-comic-camp-culinary-confection, Cooking with Elvis.

Beggs will be known to many as a successful actor and one third of the 'Those Who Can’t' guerrilla comedy outfit, but this is his first acting role with the revolutionary theatre company he helped form with director, Lisa May, back in the early noughties.

'If you’re going to come out on stage for the first time, it may as well be to play Elvis.' he laughs. 'I essayed the role of the dad at this year’s Pick n Mix Festival, and Lisa suggested I audition for it again for the main run, and luckily I got it. I loved the play as soon as I read it, although I hadn’t been familiar with it before. I understand it came to Belfast for a couple of shows ages ago with Frank Skinner.'

It’s a pivotal role that Beggs inhabits in the Northern Irish premiere-proper of Hall’s black, sticky and very funny play. His dad is at the sickly heart of a dysfunctional family that also features 14-year-old daughter Jill, who has an insatiable appetite for cookery books, and mam, whose appetites lie elsewhere.

Jo Donnelly, Shaun Blaney and Nuala Magowan make up the sterling cast of Bruiser players old and new. As you’d expect from the writer of Billy Elliot, Cooking With Elvis vacillates dramatically between light and dark dealing as it does with sex, loss, regret and, of course, cooking.

Showstopping highlights feature Beggs' character casting off his disability and leaping into able-bodied, jump-suited action for a number of later Presley classics, including 'Burning Love' and 'Suspicious Minds', with the cast members accordingly transforming into a Caesar’s Palace-style chorus line as back up.

As well as maintaining a steadying hand behind the scenes, this latter day Henry Irving is also clearly relishing the opportunity to cut loose in an anarchic Bruiser-shaped production. 'I’m a total sucker for the Dennis Potter school of theatre, where the mundane is suddenly transformed with a swish, a flourish and a sparkle,' says Beggs.

'It’s not exactly a musical, but there are these great songs in the midst of the drama of the play. It’s so well written, and the themes of care and responsibility come through powerfully. There are definitely bits that will make you laugh out loud and others that’ll make you cry. And my Elvis turn is a bit fabulous, of course!'

Beggs cites post comeback early-70s Elvis as his favourite incarnation of the King of Rock n Roll. 'After all those terrible movies and before his descent into parody and decline, that's the Elvis that really does it for me.'

Beggs hopes to channel the spirit and vigour of that period for the show, but is keen to emphasise that it’s not an end-of-the-pier Elvis impersonation.

'This is a guy who used to be an Elvis impersonator who believes that he is actually Elvis in his own head, which is when we get the big Vegas numbers. So it’s not me directly pretending to be Elvis, it's me pretending to be a man who thinks he really is Elvis, if that makes sense... And no method went into the role. I haven't been dieting on hamburgers in preparation.'

Between the pastiche and the character though, Beggs is clearly having a big disco-shaped ball. He credits musical director, Mark Dougherty, for keeping a tight grip on the group harmonies and the trouser tightening top notes.

'It’s always the thing with actors who sing rather than singers who act, isn’t it? They need to be carefully directed shall we say, and Mark has done that expertly with us.'

And what of taking direction from long-term creative partner, Lisa May? 'Well, Lisa hasn’t really directed me since university. This is very different, but luckily we’re very close and get on very well,' is the diplomatic reply.

Cooking With Elvis cooked up a fan-assisted storm when it hit Edinburgh way back in 1999, and Beggs believes that it has found a perfect home in the ever-expanding Bruiser universe.

'There's lots of harmonies and physicality and comedy and tragedy. It's a great play for the company and I think it will be a great play for audiences as well. So many Brit-pop era theatre tried to be edgy and cool, and is painful to watch now. Cooking with Elvis has really stands up as an enduringly great show. Sex, food and the King, what more could you ask for?'

Cooking With Elvis begins its run at the Waterfront Studio in Belfast on September 22 before touring around the country. Check out What's On for more information.