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Thursday, 17 April 2014

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My life and career, by young star Brad Kavanagh

HE’S performed in front of the Queen and Michael Jackson, been nominated for awards alongside Daniel Radcliffe, Matt Smith and Robert Pattinson, and he’s even enjoyed Sunday lunch at Sir Elton John’s home. Not bad for a lad from Cleator Moor.

Brad Kavanagh has crammed a lifetime’s worth of memorable experiences into his 19 years; rubbing shoulders with Hollywood A-listers, attending glitzy LA award ceremonies, and entertaining millions around the world on stage and screen.

And speaking to The Whitehaven News during a rare break in his filming schedule for his current project – Nickelodeon’s House of Anubis – Brad would describe his journey from Whitehaven Theatre of Youth to becoming a children’s television favourite, via a starring role in Billy Elliot on London’s West End stage, as “a bit of a mad one”.

“If you told me when I was growing up that all this would have happened to me, then there’s no way I would have believed it,” says Brad.

“There’s been so many times I’ve had to pinch myself; I’ve been so lucky. But it’s been cool at the same time.”

Originally from Cleator Moor, Brad and his family moved to Whitehaven when he was young. He would sing to himself around the house which prompted his mum to take him to singing lessons.

“I went to local teacher Mandy Norman when I was six, and she taught me all my singing basics, as well as verse-speaking, pacing, elocution.

“I was also given extra lessons by Baxter Shaw, who was a vocal genius. He gave me my passion.”

Brad competed in music festivals at Whitehaven, Workington and Carlisle from an early age, and having joined Whitehaven Theatre of Youth, he was given his first starring role in a production of Joseph at St James’ Church.

“I loved it all; singing, acting, performing. It was all I wanted to do.”

A life-changing opportunity arose for Brad when, aged only 10, he responded to a call for auditions for a new musical that was in the pipeline based on the smash hit 2000 film, Billy Elliot.

“The auditions were in Newcastle and I thought I would just go for the experience. It was the first time I had ever auditioned, so there’s no way I thought I’d get anywhere.”

He was wrong. The producers from Working Title were impressed with Brad and shortlisted him for the part of Michael, Billy’s quirky best mate.

The shortlisted kids were given six months to prepare for the final auditions and Brad, who admits to having “two left feet”, used the time to take dance classes in Penrith, alongside weekly acting and singing lessons in Leeds.

The gruelling schedule culminated in a weekend-long final audition in London.

“It was a crazy audition; we were put through some really tough routines.

“Michael, the character I was going for, is a bit of an oddball so we had to bring our own interpretations to the part. In one example, we were given a phonebook and told to do something creative with it; some jumped up and down on it, and others ran around, so I just started to go mad and tear pages from it and I threw them around the place.

“I thought it was a bit of a fluke that I had made it so far as the final audition, so I just went for it!”

After an agonising two-month wait, the casting director called Brad and offered him the role. So it was off to London, aged only 11, to begin the six-month rehearsal programme ahead of opening night.

“The young cast lived together in a house a Spitalfield, near Whitechapel, under the care of two housemothers,” says Brad. “There were nine of us – three Billys, three Michaels and three Debbies – as we’d work on rotation as there was a limit on how often we could work due to our ages.

“It was scary moving away from home at such a young age, but it made me grow up really quickly and gave me independence that others perhaps don’t get until they’re a lot older. It was a real learning curve.

“It was hard not having my mam and brother there, but I did come home during my days off.

“In rehearsals, because it was a brand new show, we had to build the show from the ground up. In that sense, you could make the part your own and bring your own character to it.

“It was good fun and you were able to improvise lines that ended up in the script. I recently saw the show to mark its seventh anniversary and it’s a great feeling to see that lines that I improvised all those years ago are still in the show today and are being performed by other young actors.”

After two months of preview shows to iron out any last-minute problems, opening night came on May 11, 2005, and Brad was chosen from the three Michaels to be in the first show at the Victoria Palace Theatre.

“It was the coolest thing ever,” recalls Brad. “There was a big red carpet and loads of celebrities came. But being backstage, you didn’t realise the impact until you saw the newspapers the following day and it was on all the front pages.”

The day after opening night, the young cast were invited for Sunday lunch to the home of Sir Elton John, who had written the music for the show.

“He was the most generous person I have ever met. He’s such a big star but didn’t act like it at all. He was so humble and wanted to thank us for bringing his music to life.”

But Sir Elton wasn’t the only famous face Brad encountered during his West End days.

“The Queen and Michael Jackson both came and saw the show, and Michael sent a note of congratulations to us backstage. But a lot of people actually came backstage to meet us, people like Matt Damon, Liz Hurley, McFly, Rolf Harris; it was all so surreal.

“One night, I saw Matt Lucas and David Walliams in the front row, and as part of the script I had to do the ‘I’m a ladiiieee’ line from Little Britain, and that night I had to say it in front of David Walliams himself. Bizarre!”

But it wasn’t all mixing with the stars. It was a gruelling schedule, admits Brad, with late nights and early mornings, school tuition in the shared house during the day, occasional rehearsals, and then performances eight times a week.

When Brad turned 14, after three-and-a-half years in the show, he felt that time had come to leave.

“They refreshed the cast every six months so you had to give six months’ notice that you wanted to leave so they could get a replacement trained up.

“My voice had dropped, so it was becoming harder and harder to sing in such a high key. Plus my GCSE exams were coming up so it was the right time to call it a day. I knew it couldn’t last forever.”

It was back to Whitehaven for Brad, and back to St Benedict’s School. Although he’d spent a year there before leaving for London, he was very much “the new kid” when he returned three years later.

“I was only 14 but I wondered what to do next...”

He immersed himself back in local theatre, but at the same time was attending auditions for film and television roles. He was one of the final two candidates for a role in a film The Talisman, to be directed by Steven Spielberg. But just before the final audition, the project was scrapped by Spielberg in favour of developing War Horse.

He was more successful however with an audition that followed for the Disney Channel and won the role of Dylan in teen comedy As The Bell Rings.

Filmed in London, Brad, then 15, combined his television work and his studies and says he will be “forever grateful” to St Benedict’s School for supporting him through this period.

He was in As The Bell Rings for its second and final series, but was retained by Disney as a recurring artist, presenting and performing for the channel on a regular basis over the next two years.

And his performances caught the eye. He was nominated for a BAFTA in 2010 for Best Breakthrough Talent, and in March this year battled Messrs Pattinson, Radcliffe and Smith for Best Actor at the prestigious Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards in LA, losing out to Twilight star Robert Pattinson.

“It was unbelievable to be nominated against names like that,” said Brad, who combined his role as a nominee with interviewing duties for Nickelodeon and spent the awards ceremony rubbing shoulders with the likes of Colin Firth, Jim Carrey, Jack Black and One Direction.

He’s in Whitehaven for a brief stay – including a show at Rosehill tomorrow (Friday) – and heads back to Liverpool afterwards for a seven-month stint to film series three of teen drama House of Anubis, where he’ll be solving mysteries as nerdy Fabian. It’ll be broadcast on Nickelodeon early next year.

So what does the future hold for Brad?

“I’d like to do more in America, and I’ve got agents in London and Los Angeles working together to hopefully make that happen.

“But what I also like to do something at home. I am always thinking about Whitehaven whenever I’m away, and I’d love to set up an academy here to create opportunities for local kids to perform and hopefully help some local talent get a big break in film or television.”

Brad will be performing at Rosehill Theatre tomorrow (Friday) alongside St Bees band Shore, plus special guests Cathy and John Marcangelo and Martin Kelly. Tickets are £12 on 01946 692422.

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