What’s good for the gander

The spotlight is on Will Young when he appears in Manchester in a new one-man play. But the Pop Idol winner, actor, singer-songwriter and author prefers playing solo

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The night before speaking to Big Issue North about his forthcoming play Song From Far Away, Will Young has been to see Mother Goose in London. “It’s so good!” he enthuses, speaking via Zoom from his parents’ home in Hungerford while surrounded by a small pack of dogs. “I’m glad I went to see it because it really inspired me.”

“What drew me to this play was the darkness. It’s fun to play with that darkness, because it is all pretend.”

The panto might be a surprising point of reference for the 44-year-old singer-songwriter and actor who appears on stage at Home, Manchester, this month – in a one man show written by Simon Stephens and Mark Eitzel. The connection partly relates to the fact that Sir Ian McKellen, who stars in the new version of Mother Goose, once appeared at Home in his own one man show. Young learned this fact while chatting to the veteran actor backstage afterwards and came away reassured about the role. “I’m in great company.”

Song From Far Away premiered at the Young Vic in 2015 and is being revived at Home in a production directed by Manchester-based Kirk Jameson. The play revolves around Willem, a Dutch man living in New York who is estranged from his family back in Amsterdam. When Willem receives a call from his mother telling him that his little brother has died, he finds himself reaching out to his lost sibling via a series of letters as he tries to make sense of his own life.

It’s set to be a powerful, moving play about loss, family and relationships, and it’ll mean the spotlight is solely on Young. Is he daunted by the idea of being alone on stage?

“I’m not, actually. The only thing is the amount of lines to learn, to be honest,” Young says. “That’s a bit stressful but it’s a familiar stress. It’s a bit like I felt like when I was revising for my degree.”

Young picks his words slowly at first, possibly because he’s careful about what he’s saying and possibly because he’s a bit tired. He’s jet-lagged after a holiday in the Americas and that has kicked off the insomnia that he sometimes suffers from.

“I’ve just got to get down to it and make sure I don’t get to the point where I’m avoiding it because it’s so scary. I wanted to go into rehearsals pretty much knowing the play off the book, because then I can really play with the part.”

He gives a small laugh and admits that he’d mixed up his dates, thinking that the show opened in March.

“When I did The One Show [on BBC One in mid-January] they ended saying ‘the play is opening on 22 February’ and I was like: ‘Oh that’s very soon!’”

Of course, Young is more than used to being alone on stage anyway via his now long-established career as a singer-songwriter, which started when he won the first Pop Idol in 2002.

“I like the attention. I was always definitely going to be a solo artist and while I love being in a group and love being in a company for actors, that’s really fun… with a monologue you are talking to the audience and it’s quite a rare mixture of narrator, playing with character, and sort of playing other characters.

“There are a lot of other characters that come in and out of this piece through this vehicle of Willem writing letters and they provide a bit of lightness because there’s not masses of lightness with [Willem]. I don’t think my character’s got much of a sense of humour, which is a shame because I much prefer doing something that’s dark but has humour, and that’ll be a challenge. But the more I got into this role, the more I realised the characters he meets along the way – a taxi driver, an air stewardess, waiter, security guard – all these people provide the lightness.

“The character is quite shut down and it’s tricky to occupy that. It’s not like you have to be method with it but you still have to occupy that character. I don’t think I could have done it if it was two and a half hours long. It’s quite intense. But it’s a perfect length for what it is. It’s not overwritten. It’s brilliant writing.”

Will Young on stage with James Brown (Shutterstock)

One can understand any struggle Young might have with this piece, since it must feel close to home. His own twin brother died in 2020, following a battle with alcoholism and mental health problems, something Young explored in the Channel Four documentary Losing My Twin Rupert, screened last year. Although the subject of his brother is, in the words of the publicist who arranged this interview, “off the table”, it’s hard not to notice the correlation between this play and real life. Young has clearly drawn a line between fact and fiction.

He recounts how when he worked on the film Mrs Henderson Presents, his debut acting role, co-star Bob Hoskins warned him against the dangers of letting a character “occupy you”.

“I can’t remember what the role was that he’d done, but he was saying about a time when a character had really taken him over.” Young has clearly listened to this advice.

“What drew me to this play was the darkness in it. It’s fun to play with that darkness, because it is all pretend.

“I prefer playing other characters. It’s a lot less pressure than, say, writing. It’s just point and go and I really like that. It’s very liberating for me. In pop, I’m occupying a lot more roles. It’s quite nice not to have to sit in, say, the lighting meeting because it’s not my job and it makes me concentrate on what I can be really good at.”

The play is the latest in a string of roles on stage and screen for Young, but follows a period when he “got into a bit of a stagnant place with acting”. He went out to LA just before Covid hit and happened to meet a good agent and started getting good auditions. “My confidence came back, and I thought: ‘Oh, I can do this. People want to see me.’”

On returning home, he found himself a new acting agent in the UK and landed this role and “an Amazon job which I can’t talk about yet”. One assumes this isn’t a new career delivering parcels, but something on Amazon Prime which we’re yet to hear about.

“And part of it is just showing people that I’m available…” He interrupts himself because one of the dogs is whining. “She thinks it’s food time,” he explains before turning to the dog and saying: “Absolutely not!”

Back to acting. Song From Far Away isn’t Young’s first time treading the boards in Manchester. In 2007 he played Nicky Lancaster in the Royal Exchange’s production of The Vortex by Noël Coward. How does it feel to be heading back to the city?

“I love Manchester. This will be my third acting job there. I was at the Royal Exchange and then I did a very trashy Sky drama called Bedlam which was filmed near there. I’ve lived up in Manchester twice, both times for a number of months, and I love it.”

It’s clear Young is eager to find more new acting roles this year, putting on hold much of his music career in order to focus on it.

“I like doing so many different things and probably sometimes that can be to my detriment. Hence why I’m deliberately not doing any music this year, so I can be open to acting opportunities. It’s not like I’m stopping everything else to do acting, but all I know is that I really enjoy doing it and with acting you have to be doing it.

“When I’m singing, I can go into my little studio and I can write songs and sing them and no one can stop that. But you can’t act on your own. So working has got my confidence up and I am open to that this year.”

Then he adds: “I don’t think I want to be a pop star in my sixties.”

Really? Why not?

“No. No I don’t want to do that,” he insists.

What are some of his proudest achievements in the two-plus decades since that Pop Idol win?

“There are stand-out things that are like ‘pinch me, wow!’ such as singing with James Brown. Singing with Elton John – that was great. I was very proud of the whole album Echoes [2011]. I thought that was a really cool time in my career creatively. A brilliant TV special, great videos, great artwork, great music. I felt like I really took the helm with that. And I’m very proud of Cabaret [he played the MC in the West End in 2013].”

And then there’s his writing career. “I’m very proud of my mental health book as well, actually,” he adds, referring to the publication which came out last year, Be Yourself and Happier: The A-Z of Wellbeing. This followed a previous book, To Be A Gay Man, in which he explored gay shame, revealing the impact it had on his own life and how he learned to deal with it.

“Oh I was very proud of doing the podcast Homo Sapiens,” he says about the show he co-hosted with Chris Sweeney, which sets out to explore the world from a queer perspective. “I thought that was a really cool thing and I didn’t realise how much that was needed at the time, and that probably led to the book about gay shame actually.”

Young revealed he was gay in 2002, shortly after his Pop Idol win, stealing the thunder from a tabloid newspaper that was set on outing him. Since then, he’s been a loud and proud activist for the LGBTQ community.

“Recently I’ve been educating myself on transgender rights,” he says, and explains how he’s been trying to “initiate” a documentary about the issue, inspired by the book The Transgender Issue by Shon Faye.

“I’m not transgendered. I’m white, I’m male, I’m privileged, blah blah blah. There’s my caveat. But I wanted to see if I could get a series made that would debunk some of these myths about transgendered people. Because as an observer, I can see that people seem to make out that transgender people have got all the power in the world. It’s like: ‘Oh yes, transgender people will cancel you! They’ll do this and they’ll do that!’ But since when did transgender people have that power? I’m sure they’d love to have a lot more empowerment and control over their lives and I just felt it was so odd and not right.”

So far though, his attempts to explore the topic on screen have met with resistance.

“No one wants to touch it. No one will get near it. And that’s really interesting in itself. It’s so inflated as a conversation and often the media focus on such narrow areas and now it’s a morally fearful debate and politicised, and that’s quite terrifying to behold.”

Which brings us to a discussion about social media, where the debate about transgender rights often rages, and how hard it is for, especially, young people, to navigate this often hostile world.

“I don’t really do much of my own social media. I just can’t. I can’t see much positive about it, especially when I’m working with mental health charities for young people and all we talk about is how damaging social media is. And it’s so narcissistic, isn’t it? I mean it really is! When I’ve used it in the past – and I’m happy to admit it – I’m being so narcissistic, like: ‘Here’s me having gone to the gym!’

“There are people who can use social media really well and there are things that you can do with it,” he adds, admitting that he’s in danger of contradicting himself. A look at his own Twitter profile reveals that he has occasionally taken to the platform to raise certain issues, such as his disquiet when David Beckham, who happily courted the gay press once upon a time, decided to be the poster boy for the 2023 World Cup in Qatar, which has an appalling record when it comes to the treatment of LGBTQ people.

“People like Joe Lycett use social media really well and it does mean that you can maybe counteract things that have been said. You can go direct to your audience, to the world even, and correct things that aren’t true. But to be honest I don’t think it’s great for my mental health and that’s why I went off it, because I used to look at people and think: ‘Why can’t I be like them?’ It seems to promote comparisons, with most people coming off less than the other person.”

No matter how successful anyone is – and with eight albums, a string of acting roles and much more under his belt, Young is surely a success – there’s always going to be someone who you look at and compare yourself unfavourably against.

“It’s a dead end game – comparing. You never come off winning.”

Song From Far Away is at Home, Manchester, 22 Feb-11 March 

Will Young on the programme Supervet in 2020. Photo: Channel Four
Will Young on the programme Supervet in 2020. Photo: Channel Four

Who Let The Dogs Out?

Young is a keen dog lover and has three of his own, including two, Domino and Iris, that he rescued from a kill shelter in America while he was living in LA.

“They were an hour away from being put down,” he says. “It was love at first sight. I saw a picture of them and Iris was sitting on Domino in the back of a car and I just thought they look so funny and no one’s going to rescue them.

“They were an absolute nightmare at first. Domino kept breaking out and he was awful with other dogs. One time he broke out of the house in LA and every time I got near him, he’d run round the corner and pop his head back around and stare at me.”

His love for dogs doesn’t stop at adopting them. In 2021, Young handcuffed himself to the gates of “Camp Beagle”, a facility in Cambridgeshire that breeds dogs for use in animal laboratory research. He’s currently working with the Beagle Freedom Project UK, an organisation that campaigns against the use of the dogs in animal testing.

“They’re very organised and successful in America but now they’ve set up here in the UK,” he says, passionate about supporting them and seeing an end to use of the dogs in UK laboratories. “Yeah, that needs to change because it’s hideous.”

Is he going to take his dogs with him to Manchester when the play opens?

“I’m bringing the big one with me because I’ve been on holiday and before that I had another acting job and was touring so I’ve been away for a long time and I feel really guilty. He has a way of just looking at me with his big sad eyes, so I don’t think I can do it to him again.”

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