A North East actor has landed one of the most coveted roles in theatre – but risks being upstaged by puppets.
Lee Armstrong, 24, has been cast as Albert in War Horse, the hit stage show which starts a year-long tour of the UK and Ireland in the autumn.
The Newcastle-born actor makes his National Theatre debut in the show, which reaches Sunderland Empire from April 30 to May 17.
War Horse, adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel has been a London fixture for six years.
Next year’s performances, coinciding with the centenary of the start of the First World War, will be especially poignant. Another production of War House is to open in Berlin, symbolising the shared sacrifices of both sides in the First World War. The show is famous for life-sized puppet horses, representing the animals who suffered with the troops on the Western Front.
Albert is the farm boy whose beloved horse, Joey, is requisitioned for war work and with whom he is later reunited in battle.
Lee first saw War Horse as an audience member in London.
“It blew me away,” he said yesterday at Live Theatre, Newcastle, where he is appearing in the play Brilliant Adventures.
“I thought it really pushed the boundaries of what you can do with really epic theatre. When I found out this tour was coming up I urged my agent to put me up for it.”
He found the four rounds of auditions “intense but enjoyable”.
Asked if he feared scene-stealing by puppet co-stars, he said: “I think it makes the job a lot easier because they’re so good. It makes it easier to build up a relationship with a horse when it is so believable.”
Lee, whose father is an electrician and whose mother works for the Inland Revenue, became interested in acting as a pupil at Gosforth High School. He said: “They had a very good drama department there with passionate teachers. They encouraged me to audition for the National Youth Theatre so I went down to London to do a two-week course.
“I remember being there with all these creative people around me who were up for anything and it just opened my eyes.”
Lee said it was his love of films that made him want to become an actor but he recalls seeing Patrick Stewart in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Tempest at the Theatre Royal.
After school he did a foundation course at the East 15 Acting School in Essex then spent a year doing various jobs, including working as a dustman, before returning to continue his studies a year later.
He left the course early when landing a part in a play by celebrated Scottish playwright John McGrath.
As well as various stage roles since then, he has been ‘killed’ in an episode of TV’s Inspector George Gently and played Mike Temple in Doctors. He said he was delighted to be on stage in his home city of Newcastle – in the current Live Theatre play – and to be returning to the region with War Horse.
He has come to appreciate the North East’s cultural opportunities since leaving for London five years ago: “When I lived here I didn’t know Live Theatre was here and I used to walk past the Sage just thinking it was a nice building.”
Now he is preparing to return to the region’s biggest theatre stage in a show thousands will flock to see.
“It’s a big step for me but I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “It’s going to be great.”