Are You Lonesome Tonight?
Simon’s first big break in theatre was playing the young Elvis in Are You Lonesome Tonight? The show, by Alan Bleasdale and produced by Bill Kenwright, was written as a drama rather than a musical and featured the older Elvis, played by Martin Shaw, during the last night of his life at Graceland, with flashbacks to his younger self and his glory days. The split level set, designed by Voytek, was piled high with Cadillac bonnets, which served as a platform for the band and for the young Elvis to perform on, and it helped the action swing between the past and the present, flicking from one memory to another. There were also scenes where the older Elvis addressed his alter ego, his still born twin brother Jesse, also played by Simon but wearing different outfits to distinguish him from the black-leather-clad young Elvis.
Simon had always admired Bleasdale’s writing, especially after watching The Boys From The Black Stuff on TV, and so he auditioned for the role. There had been a nationwide search for the young Elvis, but after singing several Elvis numbers they told Simon that although they really liked his voice they felt he didn’t look right for the part, as Elvis was quite chubby and Simon was quite slender with chiselled features. So it nearly didn’t happen:
Simon: But after the audition I didn’t give up. One of my best friends was in Eastenders so I went to Elstree, where they have students training in make-up, and I got them to do me up as Elvis; they even waxed out my eyebrows. Then I had some photos taken, but I cheated a bit and stuffed some cotton wool in my cheeks! We made up a collage of photos with all the scowling, lip-curling expressions and movements and sent it off with a caption ‘Who is this?’ and a telephone number. They rang and said ‘Who is it?’ – they didn’t know – and my agent said, ‘It’s Simon!’ So that’s what I had to do to convince them I was right for the part. It was good fun playing Elvis and I had the opportunity to sing all those great songs, wearing replicas of those clothes.
Are You Lonesome Tonight? first opened at the Liverpool Playhouse on 8 May 1985 and after a short tour arrived at the Phoenix Theatre in London on 13 August. The play received great critical acclaim with just a few reservations as to the handling of the story. However, the stand out feature of every review was the praise heaped on the ‘brilliant newcomer’ Simon Bowman:
‘THE FANTASTIC SIMON BOWMAN AS YOUNG ELVIS. This boy is so impressive he makes up for ‘The King’ not coming to Britain in person. He shoots out all the Presley classics in mega-watts.’ (Daily Express)
‘This is a heartfelt and rewarding piece of work, and in Simon Bowman, who plays the young Presley and does much of the singing, the show has a star of electrifying power and moody sexual insolence. Above all, Bowman lends to the play the quivering emotional magnetism of Presley’s music … a performing genius of explosive optimism.’ (Time Out)
‘But the real discovery of the evening is Simon Bowman’s Young Presley who, with pipe cleaners for arms and legs, gives a performance of such high vitality and bounce he makes the theatre feel ‘all shook up’. (London Broadcasting)
‘Simon Bowman is electrifying as the young Elvis, from the white boy with a black voice, through a tremendously moving duet with Shaw of ‘Loving You’ (aptly focused on his mother), up to the famous ’68 TV special. The title song is saved, appropriately, till the end, by which time Bowman’s voice, and even his appearance (in ethereal gold lamé) have uncannily come to represent the spirit of the King.’ (Observer)
‘As the younger Elvis, Simon Bowman splays his legs so far apart one fears for his equilibrium, wriggles his pelvis with unorthopaedic frenzy and produces that classic warbling sound that brightened the existence of a generation of fans.’ (London Standard)
‘Simon Bowman, as the younger, more vital Elvis, miraculously generates, in a re-creation of the singer’s famous 1968 TV special, all the excitement of the event itself. It is the best thing in this often compelling seriously minded piece of character analysis.’ (Sunday Express)
Are You Lonesome Tonight? went on to win the Evening Standard Award for Best Musical of 1985, in fact beating Les Misérables to the top spot. It was a pretty heady start to Simon’s career and after such success playing Elvis, if people wondered whether he could play other parts, he proved himself by taking over the role of Marius in Les Misérables while the original company were still in the show.