Nigel Harman: EastEnder to West Ender and beyond

Nigel Harman, and below as Lord Farquaad in Shrek
Nigel Harman, and below as Lord Farquaad in Shrek
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He is probably best known as Dirty Den’s son in EastEnders, but there is a lot more to Nigel Harman than just a former soap star, as Nick Ahad discovers.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work.

You’re an actor who fancies trying his hand at directing. You pull in some favours, you assist on a couple of shows, you cut your teeth on some small venues and, if you can make the leap – and it’s really no guarantee that a good actor a decent director will make – you might get a shot at taking on some big shows.

There is no greater proof that Nigel Harman is much more than “just” a soap star than the fact that in a couple of months time he will make his directorial debut, with a show opening in Leeds. Not in the smaller space at West Yorkshire Playhouse, but at Leeds Grand Theatre and not with a little show – but with Shrek The Musical.

“I knew I was going to direct something, but I thought I might start small,” says Harman, laughing at the scale of the project with which he will actually make his debut.Shrek is not small. However, there are indications that Harman can do the job already. He is in some pretty good hands and has already had some advice from a “higher power”.

“I was at a party organised by the producers, Neal Street, and Sam Mendes, who set up the company, came up to me and said ‘can I give you some advice on directing?’. I thought ‘yeah, you’ve directed James Bond, you’re allowed to give me some advice on directing’. He said ‘make sure you get up and talk, to the whole company, at the first opportunity you get’. Then he gave me a hug and told me I’d be fine,” says Harman.

When you have a man who won an Oscar for the first film he directed telling you you’ll be okay when you direct for the first time, it’s fair to say you might think you have the wind at your back.

While Harman was best known as playing the dark and brooding son of Dirty Den, there were indications early on that this talented actor would have a life long after he exited Albert Square.

One of his first jobs out of Walford was on the stage of the Sheffield Crucible under the gaze of director Jamie Lloyd, one of the most highly regarded young British directors of the moment in a play that is a modern classic.

Playing the part of Mick in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker was an important moment for Harman. It showed not just that he had the chops when it came to acting on stage, but re-positioned him in the heads of many who had thought EastEnders was his limit.

“I came from theatre, that was what I had always done, but when I came out of EastEnders, that’s what people recognised my name for,” 
he says.

“The first thing I did was a musical, which I don’t think people were expecting (he received impressive reviews for his turn as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls) and then I came to Sheffield to do The Caretaker,” he says.

When he came to Sheffield to play Mick, in a modern classic of British theatre, it was a marker that he could stand on the shoulders of a theatrical giant like Pinter and not wobble. Other shows followed and he returned North a few years later for True West, this time on the stage of the Sheffield Crucible Studio.

It was an underlining of the fact that here was a serious – and very good – actor.

“I was lucky after EastEnders, I didn’t have to choose to do things because of the money. I never decided to do something because it would make me ‘more famous’. That was never a consideration.

“I enjoyed creating a world on stage and telling a story. That was always the big attraction for me.”

Which is all well and good, but choosing interesting parts to play and deciding to direct is a bit of a jump. It is also a significantly onerous job, an actor knows that better than anyone, so to want the job, you need to be a certain sort.

“It’s because I have always been really nosey. I knew how my bit worked, the being on stage part, but I wanted to learn about how it all fit together, how the big picture worked,” he says.

“It was actually when I was in Sheffield doing True West that I really started to think about the possibility of directing.”

Before that thought turned into reality, however, came the part he played in the West End that ultimately gave him the opportunity to finally take the reins on a project.

He was cast as Lord Farquaad in Shrek The Musical in the West End. Any remaining doubters about this once bad-guy-on-a-soap-opera evaporated when he won an Olivier for his performance. They don’t hand those out without good reason. He had proved himself over and over, he had earned his chance to direct. The producers offered him the chance to put his mark on the tour of Shrek and he will open it in July at Leeds Grand Theatre, where it will run for just short of a month.

“The great thing about opening in Leeds is that the company will really come together. When you do a show in London, people jump on the bus at the end of a show and go home, but when you are in a different city, you spend more time with each other, get to know the city and I think that makes for a better show,” says Harman, already aware that one of his jobs as director is to create harmony in the cast.

Having been in the show, Harman also insists that, while this is clearly a much loved movie, not only does Shrek the Musical stand up to that, it even might supercede it. “It’s just so full of joy. It really does take the film and tops it,” he says.

“It’s incredibly funny and the musical set numbers are absolutely brilliant.”

He isn’t wrong. The reviews from the West End were effusive. Harman’s due to make a pretty good start in his directing career.

Shrek The Musical, July 23 - August 17. Tickets 0844 848 2700,

Small screen to big stage

Although best known for his television work, Harman has always described theatre as his first love.

After training he worked in theatre, then in 2003 he landed the role of Dennis Rickman in EastEnders, becoming an instant hit as the soap’s new bad boy. A major early storyline for Harman involved the return of his ‘dead’ father ‘Dirty’ Den. He left EastEnders after two years to pursue theatre work, but returned to TV screens last year in Downton Abbey. His first role after EastEnders was as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, winning high praise.

Shrek The Musical, Leeds Grand Theatre, July 23 - August 17. Tickets go on sale today.