Have tutu, will travel... to Iraq
JON WELCH A 15-stone man in a tutu sounds like an unlikely forces’ sweetheart, but ballerina Madam Galina was a surprise hit with squaddies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now her creator, Iestyn Edwards, is bringing her to Norwich. JON WELCH found out more.
Once Dame Vera Lynn could lay claim to the tag of "forces' sweetheart". Later the mantle passed to opera singer Katherine Jenkins, but now the title belongs to a temperamental and rather tubby Russian ballerina named Madam Galina.
At least, that's according to performer Iestyn Edwards, the man who created the character and will be bringing her to Norwich Playhouse next week.
Iestyn, whose father and stepmother live at Drayton, near Norwich, has just returned from a visit to Afghanistan where he and other comedy acts entertained British troops.
Iestyn, 41, reckons the most accurate description of Madame Galina is: "The result of a drunken one-night stand between Tommy Cooper and Dame Margo Fonteyn".
There are also parallels with veteran comedy due Hinge and Bracket, says Iestyn, whose first performances were with his father Terry, a country and western singer still performing locally.
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Their set used to include a Jim Reeves duet, in which Iestyn played the part of a little boy. "Which, even then, I knew was fingers-down-the-throat," he says.
His father "absolutely loves" Madam Galina, says Iestyn.
He's less keen on some of the true family stories Iestyn incorporates into his act. "He gets a bit huffy when I use family stuff but I didn't ask to be born into a lot of eccentrics."
When he was 20, Iestyn was working front-of-house at the Royal Opera House and saw Swan Lake, which amazed him. He took lessons from a colleague, a former dancer, in the foyer of the theatre, often drawing an audience.
Iestyn enrolled on a singing course at the Guildhall School of Music, but soon realised that with a voice somewhere between tenor and baritone a career in opera was not a real option.
He realised he needed a niche of his own and began working on Madam Galina, picking up material by watching ballet rehearsals.
Iestyn made his debut as Madam Galina at a private party in Thorpeness, Suffolk, and was soon playing three nights at the Jubilee Hall in nearby Aldeburgh.
"On the first night I had 11 people. On the second night it was half-full. On the third night it was sold out - that was when Libby Purves and Bill Nighy saw it.
"Within two weeks of doing a village hall in East Anglia, I was on stage in a West End cabaret club in front of Jude Law, Madonna and Kate Moss."
Iestyn says a mix-up led to him signing with Combined Services Entertainment to perform for British service people abroad - he originally thought he was enrolling for corporate shows in London.
When he discovered the gigs would be in Iraq and Afghanistan, he decided to go anyway.
"There was no staying in 5-star hotels: I had to bed down behind the wire with the squaddies," he says.
Madam Galina's celebrity fans include Ruby Wax, Joanna Lumley and Janet Street-Porter - but how would a 15-stone man dressed as a ballerina go down with an audience of soldiers?
Iestyn admits he was a little nervous. "I was warned, 'They have a pack mentality. If one turns against you, they all turn against you'."
Iestyn was appearing alongside comedians Gina Yashere and Paul Tonkinson.
"I'm on last, waiting to go on in my tutu in front of 2 Para. I'm thinking, 'If they don't like me, this is it'. I looked at them, and they looked at me. Then they started to chuckle."
Big laughs came when Iestyn enlisted the help of a colonel to take off his flak jacket and ended up falling on him. "I cried with relief," he says.
Iestyn played 11 gigs in seven days in Afghanistan, being flown between bases in helicopters. He was pleased at the reception he got. "They have never had anything like me out there.
"It was an incredible experience. It was a laugh - you just get on with it. They like to see any civilians, so you have to smile and say hello to everyone."
Iestyn has even been asked to make a Madam Galina calendar for the troops.
While in Afghanistan, Iestyn met some of the same Royal Marines who caused controversy last year when leaked video footage of naked fights gave rise to bullying claims.
"They were perfect gentlemen. They said they chose to do it: it was not an initiation rite and they were not forced into anything."
Having met the Marines, Iestyn believes media and public criticism of them stemming from the video is misplaced.
"If the British public want them to do the work they're doing, they can't say anything about the way they play. "That's them letting off steam: they choose to do that. Who are we to say you can't let off steam? I can't imagine what it's like to run out into the thick of a riot."
He says the rights and wrongs of the war in Iraq are irrelevant when he's performing. "I'm not interested in the politics of it. Our service people can't say, 'I don't agree, I'm not going'.
"It doesn't matter what I think: I'm there to do a job and make it a little better for them."
Iestyn Edwards will be appearing at Norwich Playhouse on Thursday, June 22 in a full-length show entitled Anything for a Tenor / Ballet Star Galactica. Tickets, priced £10, are available from the box office on 01603 598598.