AS an ex-boy band singer Collin Baxter is used to the limelight – and the screaming girls – but how does co-starring in a little-known play in South Shields compare?
“It’s the best thing ever,” reckons the actor.
“This is just what I love – a part with so much emotion which touches people,” he says of his role in Visiting Mr Green, a poignant drama about the relationship which develops between a 29-year-old gay man and a pensioner opening tomorrow at The Customs House in South Shields and running until Saturday.
Returning to his acting roots after enjoying success in the early 90s with half-English, half-Dutch boy band Caught In The Act has clearly proved the right decision for Liverpool-born Baxter – full name Lee Collin Baxter – who initially trained at Guildford School of Acting, where he won Student of the Year.
When his career as an actor didn’t take off, the chance to join the band and live in Amsterdam seemed too good to pass up.
“I grabbed the opportunity,” says the now-41-year-old. “And I loved it – performing on stage, travelling the world.”
Over eight years, Caught In The Act – particularly popular in Germany – had four albums, 15 hit singles and 15m sales.
“But even while we were at the top of our game I was always missing the deeper, more creative side to my life,” he says.
“After a while I started to think, ‘it’s not really why I went to drama school’. I wanted to touch people.”
When the band broke up in 2000, Baxter was free to return to acting and he first played gay executive Ross Gardiner in Visiting Mr Green – opposite G Phillip Hope as an 86-year-old Jewish widower – in Germany in 2007.
Co-star Hope then formed Hope Theatrical Productions, investing money in the play which had a run at the Pier Pavilion in South Shields in 2009. Despite the fact the play by American author Jeff Baron was not commonly known – although it has been translated into many languages – those who saw it loved it, leading to its current run.
Audiences are in for a heart-felt drama which begins as a comedy but tackles understanding, respect and caring across generations.
“It’s an amazing story which touches on tolerance, growing old and religion – so many taboo subjects,” says Baxter.
The story has an inauspicious start, when Baxter’s character Ross nearly runs down the older man, Mr Green, and is charged with careless driving. But hostility gradually turns into friendship during weekly visits to carry our chores as part of community service.
The men bond when Mr Green discovers Ross is Jewish, like him, but then comes his reaction to the discovery his new friend is gay.”
Baxter adds: “Mr Green is this old, cantankerous Orthodox Jew who’s lost his wife and given up on life.
“And Ross has got his own issues. His mam and dad won’t accept he’s gay.
“They’re fantastic parts for both actors. There’s a comedy side and some really emotional scenes, and it’s so well written.”
Baxter, who now lives in Worthing, runs Arundel Jailhouse in West Sussex, a former prison turned entertainment centre offering everything from ghost tours – which he himself gives – to music nights. He’ll be performing roles in two plays, a romantic comedy and a comic farce, there in August.
As for his old band-mates from Caught In The Act, they no longer keep in touch but fans still ask him whether they’ll reform.
Baxter doesn’t rule out a reunion – if he was offered the money upfront, he jokes.
“Being in a boy band at 41, the humiliation must be worth something!”
Visiting Mr Green runs at The Customs House, South Shields, 7.30pm, from tomorrow until Saturday with a 2.30pm matinee on Thursday. Visit www.customshouse.co.uk or call 0191 454 1234.