It’s a scorching afternoon in Dublin, though not quite as hot as the African savannah. Brian Gilligan is in a taxi on his way to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, where he will be playing the lead role of Scar in The Lion King from this week. The actor is only in Dublin for the day. The Disney stage production he is starring in is currently in Birmingham, where it’s coming to the end of a two-month sell-out run at the Hippodrome theatre, so Gilligan’s understudy is stepping into his clawed feet for the night.
An intense day of publicity has been planned – even taxi rides are interview opportunities – but Gilligan is thrilled to be back in his hometown for 24 hours and keenly anticipating The Lion King’s six-week stint here. Touring commitments mean Gilligan is based in Britain for a significant part of the year, but his young family are based in Malahide. He describes The Lion King as a career high, but the crown for his Dublin homecoming is the opportunity to “be a normal dad for a while” – to “do the school run, bring the kids to the park” – before heading in to work every afternoon.
When he was growing up, in the northside suburb of Artane, there was a degree of inevitability about Gilligan’s attraction to the stage. His mother, Maureen, was a stalwart of the amateur-drama scene. “She did Tops of the Town, the Gaiety variety shows, she was part of all that history.” She also owned a local stage school. As a child, Gilligan and his brother, Sean, would “go to work with mammy” at St Brendan’s Parish Hall. Eventually they became students, but much of their learning took place at home.
“With mum the nature of growing up in the house really was constantly having musicals played in the background. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Chess, Les Mis – they were the soundtrack to our life. We listened to them on repeat, and my brother and I went on to train musically. He was – is – an amazing pianist and musician. He runs the stage school now, too, which is cool. And I went down the route of training as a vocalist, a singer. We both played in the Artane Boys Band [now the Artane Band] but there was never that sort of competitive thing where we were vying for top spot. Performing was something we would come together and do. The house sort of had its own costume store, so we were always putting on a show as a means of doing something we loved.”
After Gilligan left school he studied at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. Pantos and a few straight plays followed, but it wasn’t until 2013 that his big break came, when he was cast as Billy/Dave in the premiere production of The Commitments at the Palace Theatre, in the West End of London. Getting the role was confirmation that he was making progress “in an elaborate, affirming and very real way. It was my first full-year contract and a West End show, and that transition process from being on the circuit in Ireland to being in the UK among the bright lights, the tall buildings and hundreds of thousands of tourists coming to see shows.
“So you are in this environment where you’re not just an individual any more: you are part of this machine, where there are dozens of theatres on your doorstep. And you are doing eight shows a week, sometimes 10, depending on the show, and you get a feeling for what it’s really like to be in the industry, how demanding it is, how much is required of you to do it full-time.”
The material – in the case of The Commitments an adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s seminal novel – also felt important. “I was living in London, but the story felt very close to home. It was this gritty, honest portrait of what it meant to grow up in a working-class community in the 1980s in Dublin, at a time when people were really struggling and they managed to make a community through music. That definitely resonated with me.”
Gilligan stayed with The Commitments for the duration of its West End run, stepping into the lead role for the UK and Ireland tour. It was an intense four-year experience, and when it ended Gilligan admits he felt bereft. “We finished on such a high, and maybe it was because the [musical] was so close to me. But when it finished I Ieft thinking, maybe if it hadn’t been for The Commitments I wouldn’t have been able” to make a career as a performer.
When Gilligan returned to Dublin, however, he found the culture for musical-theatre production had changed. He was cast in Jimmy’s Hall at the Abbey Theatre, then in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins at the Gate Theatre. The former – about an impoverished Irish rural town that builds a community through music and dance – resonated with Gilligan in the same way The Commitments had. The play toured to Limerick, Cork and Galway too, spreading its message of the power of performance to transform the lives of individuals and the collective.
Gilligan acknowledges the way that recent changes in both training and opportunities for musical-theatre performers in Ireland have made it “easier to see a pathway. It’s clear where the places you can train are. You have American College Dublin. You have Cork School of Music,” he says; both offer full-time undergraduate degrees in musical theatre. There are greater professional performance possibilities too. The Gate’s recent production of Fun Home, for example, featured an almost entirely Irish cast. Composers such as Shauna Carrick and Lauryn Gaffney are making Irish-themed musicals. Touring productions arriving at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre pride themselves on casting Irish leads in starring roles. Sarah O’Connor, for example, will play Glinda in Wicked next summer, while Gilligan’s turn as Scar in The Lion King adds emphasis to the home-grown possibilities for Irish talent.
Gilligan has actually been with The Lion King since 2019, initially as understudy for the actors cast as Pumbaa and Scar. The brilliant thing about being an understudy, Gilligan says, is “the education you get on the job. You are observing all the actors’ tricks, learning all the time.” One useful habit he picked up was to use the lengthy costume and make-up routine for the villainous Scar to help get himself into character. Over 30 minutes in the make-up chair, 30 minutes being dressed, “you are literally watching yourself being transformed”.
He concludes, before rushing off to his next engagement: “It’s like putting on your body armour. And at the end you’re not yourself. You are a lion with a human face. It’s magic.”
The Lion King is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin 2, from Thursday, September 28th, to Saturday, November 11th