After Hurtwood: Ryan Heenan (tireless musical theatre actor and working survivor of lockdown)
So it’s almost showtime here at Hurtwood and Doug is finally living the dream as the whole school girds its loins for the arrival of Sondheim. Surely that means it is time to catch up with some of the finest talent that has passed through our doors, time to escape grim realities, masks, statistics and lockdowns? Let’s do this in style. Les Misérables, I hear you say? Then let’s man the barricades, raise the flags and get out the hankies. Time to catch up with the amazing Ryan Heenan, who inhabited the role of Jean Valjean and helped make what he calls his ‘dream show’, one that he had ‘grown up with’, amongst the most impressive experiences of our little theatre’s history. Meeting him was an unalloyed pleasure: his legendary talent and modesty go before him, with the addition now of a wealth of theatrical experience and invaluable advice to others. Pull up a seat, pause on the popcorn, piano roll, curtain up! Let’s hear it for Hurtwood talent!
At present enjoying West End success of the iconic ‘Back to the Future’ at the Adelphi Theatre, Ryan generously made time to share the details of his Hurtwood past as well as his onward journey with us all. Our lunchtime chat ambles easily from his past to present (all puns intended) with clear glimpses of what promises to be a rewarding future. We move freely from specifics to anecdotal overview, with plenty of really grounded advice along with a repeated refrain that he has been, above all else, ‘lucky’. From what I have heard from colleagues who taught him, I suspect that hard work, commitment and a gracious, reliable good humour have had rather more to do with it, but let’s find out. He is now a late riser, I soon realise, as a professional ‘treader of boards’. So there is no need, I quip, for the occasional nap in his French lesson? He chuckles and recalls Annick’s patience and brilliance as a teacher: she was ‘a legend’, he asserts, part of that whole-school support system that he remembers from all his teachers, for what he was doing ‘above and beyond the A Level syllabus’. What had brought him to Hurtwood, I suggest.
Coming from Sylvia Young, he recalls being ‘blown away’ when he visited this ‘cool school on the top of the hill’ which was then festively involved in the throes of a production of ‘A Christmas Carol’. With more than ‘a whiff of Hogwarts’ also in the mix, he was hooked. Swiftly securing a scholarship, he committed to an intense portfolio of studies balancing Maths, Music Tech and French alongside his Theatre Studies. He repeats his delight in the collective sense of support – ‘even the Maths department’, he recalls with humour – as he realised that he had landed in a world where the highest standards were encouraged and supported across the board. His studies ‘expanded (his) knowledge’ while the ethos of the school gave him ‘permission to grow up’ even as he continued to build on his performance skills. Of the shows, he recalls ‘a succession of old man wigs and spray-on stubble’ courtesy of the lovely Loz, as well as the truly impressive barricades (we’re talking Les Mis, of course) being wheeled on by the irreplaceable Al. He remembers also the excitement of the concerts and showcases. ‘We had a ball’, he tells me; the two years flew by and he was soon off to the prestigious Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and a course that focused in particular on musical theatre. He ‘lucked out’ once again, in landing in a place and a group of fellow students that serendipitously ‘worked’: each student, he recalls, was allowed their own unique style which proved mutually enriching rather than competitive. The 18 students of his year remain in touch, it seems, but having been encouraged to find their own unique selling point, have never been in contention for the same role.
School and further studies complete, Ryan had already been picked up by a great agent. His career began with a ‘baptism by fire’ as he raced between productions of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (an early peak – ‘Sondheim is why I do musicals’ – and he is longing for another crack at this amazing writer) in Derby and Colchester, and The Burnt Part Boys at the Park Theatre in London. He was truly launched. The whole of the following year provided ‘a real learning curve’ of a different kind, as he toured with a production of the evergreen ‘Grease’. As one of the iconic T Birds, he danced and sang his way from Cornwall to Scotland, visiting virtually every city in the country. It was formative stuff. He slotted swiftly into the weekly routine of arrival, set up, performance and off again, alongside the daily flux of new faces and the camaraderie of the same faces, learning that ‘discomfort is part of the enjoyment’. Inevitably leaving this reliable routine, he learned perhaps the most important lesson of all, as he reacquainted himself with the challenges of the audition that is at the heart of the actor’s life. Experiencing what he describes as ‘a little self-doubt’, he moved back into the fray.
A swift immersion in ‘Titanic: the Musical’ followed, and then many other roles that included ‘a lot of time in school uniform’. With the good graces of his ‘excellent’ agent, (‘it is so important to have a collaborative and honest relationship’) he was kept busy, now always staying open to new work challenges. After what proved a particularly elongated series of auditions over fortnightly intervals he was delighted to accept a role in a brand new musical based on a David Walliams book. He found himself working with Mark Ravenhill (who was adapting the book for stage) and relished the challenge of being right out of his comfort zone. Invited along with the rest of the company to be part of the process of establishing a performance ‘from scratch’, he loved being able to innovate and even contribute with ad libs, some of which stuck. The run was marvellous and clearly all-encompassing: when it ended with satisfied farewells in, of all places, Stratford-upon-Avon, the outside world burst rudely and most unexpectedly in. It was March 9th 2020, and ‘theatre, the magic of’ had sheltered the company – or Ryan at least – from the unavoidable storm that had broken on the world. Welcome to the other side: pandemic.
We all have our own narratives of the Covid crisis and Ryan is swift to acknowledge that he at least benefitted from some govermental financial support. Alongside this he scratched around to secure a few voice gigs, joining so many others in ‘stripping the shelves bare of acoustic panels and USB microphones’, but ultimately settling into ‘a 40-hour week in a fridge’ working for Ocado, which was a challenge indeed. Through all this his determination and reputation served him well. He was approached by Salisbury Playhouse, and found himself by November 2020 in a lead role in a four-handed performance that functioned (of course it did) within the legal confines of space and interaction. I hope he will one day be telling disbelieving grandchildren how this involved a strict adherence to a 2-metre separation at all times on stage, no physical contact whatsoever and company confinement in accommodation in four separate flats in the depths of Wiltshire. Was there luck involved? Well, as Wiltshire happened to be in Tier 2 (you’ve not forgotten that surely? So soon?) and thus the show did indeed go on – until closing day, 27th December. Yes. I agree luck was involved.
Meanwhile, he had been approached to join the transfer from Manchester to London of the successful production of ‘Back to the Future’. This of course takes us very neatly back to where we began, and ‘jammy’ Ryan (his girlfriend's term; I have permission) had his ‘passport’ into 2021 already stamped. Of course, there were hurdles and delays on the way, including so many of the shifting ground of Covid requirements. It is clear, however, that fun is being had on both sides of the stage, and I for one cannot wait to be part of the audience.
Time to get on with the day and leave Ryan some space before the evening show. Last scraps of advice? From the heart and soul, it comes with little prompting and absolutely no pretension. ‘Love what you do,’ he offers, and I for one take on board the order of words in that sentence. ‘If it feels easy, you’re probably not doing it right. Hard work always pays off’. He also adds comforting suggestions. ’Don’t compare yourself to your peers and don’t set arbitrary milestones about what you want to achieve.’ When he adds ‘Be nice to people on the way’, I feel like we have squared the circle. Hard work, commitment, flexibility and reliability are the hallmarks of Ryan’s journey so far; add to that a gracious thoughtfulness for those around him and his success seems more than deserved. You’ve made Hurtwood proud indeed, Ryan: thanks for looking back for us: and here’s to your very promising future.