Matthew Croke is a textbook example of the slow-burn “overnight” success. At 29, he’s about to make his debut in a West End leading role, taking over the title character in Disney’s Aladdin.
“I’m not used to this, I’ve been understudying for 10 years,” Croke laughs when we meet at the Prince Edward Theatre, where Aladdin has been playing since last summer. And though that might be a slight exaggeration – he’s tackled a handful of main roles in that time – it’s not a million miles from the truth.
Croke caught the acting bug early, after attending a performing arts school when he was five. He followed in his older sister’s footsteps (she now runs her own school in their hometown of Sheffield). At 16, he went to Laine Theatre Arts. He graduated three years later, beginning a decade of steady but relatively low-profile work.
Aladdin is quite a way to announce his leading-man status. “My passion has always been musical theatre, allowing me to combine acting, singing and dancing,” he says. “Playing Aladdin is a dream, because I get to do all three.”
How does Croke feel about making his debut as a West End leading man?
It also means he steps into the pointed shoes and baggy trousers of a childhood hero. “I always used to want to put Aladdin on after school. It drove my brother crazy. And I actually played the part when I was about eight in a school production. Others dreamed of playing Tony in West Side Story or Fiyero in Wicked, but for me it was always Aladdin.”
The show he’s joining is a blockbuster spectacle, with epic dance routines and colourful costumes aplenty. But the moment Croke is looking forward to most – besides riding the iconic magic carpet, of course – is singing “Proud Of Your Boy”, a ballad that was cut from the film but proves a showstopper on stage. “It’s just an awesome song – Alan Menken has written something truly incredible.”
He’s also relishing joining two co-principals who have been with the production from the start: Trevor Dion Nicholas, who plays Genie, and Jade Ewen, who is Jasmine. He says they have both welcomed him and his fellow new cast members with open arms. “It’s a great bunch of people,” beams Croke, who is inheriting the role from fellow northerner Dean John-Wilson. “We’ve all gelled really well in rehearsals.”
Aladdin, which was first seen on Broadway in 2014, has proved a hit, though it still has some way to go to catch up with its record-breaking Disney stablemate The Lion King. What does Croke think is the key to its success? “The thing that surprised me when I watched Aladdin on stage was how they’ve totally managed to capture the magic of the film. The amount of effort from every single department really shows. The sets, the costumes, everything sparkles even more than the film.”
It’s all a long way to come for Croke, who has understudied principal roles in Wicked, Singin’ In The Rain and West Side Story, among others. So what could be next, now that his career has elevated to the next level? “Having an opportunity to get my hands on a new role and make it my own is definitely on my bucket list. But I remember going into this year thinking, ‘I just want to play a part, I don’t mind what it is’ – so any role is a dream.”
It’s a grounded attitude from someone who has worked his way up. He wouldn’t be the actor he is today, he adds, without the years of grafting in the ensemble.
With this in mind I’m curious to know what advice he’d give to other young actors out there waiting patiently for their big break. “Don’t let anybody else take away your belief in yourself,” says Croke, suddenly sounding rather like the character he’s about to play. “You will have knock-backs, but this doesn’t mean you’re not good enough or talented enough. It just means you weren’t right for that role. So my biggest advice is don’t lose faith. Anything can happen; and I know, because it’s happened to me.”