Birmingham Stage Company’s adaptation of David Walliams’ Demon Dentist is currently touring the UK and coming to the West End in December. We spoke to Sam Varley who plays Alfie in the show.
Can you tell us a little about Demon Dentist and your role as Alfie?
Our show tells an equal parts spooky, hilarious and moving children’s story of one boy coming face to face with a demon- and learning to face his personal demons along the way.
It’s a wild, fantastical journey with a beautiful family drama hidden at the centre of it, that really does appeal to audiences of all ages!
Alfie himself is an inspiring character to me because he is not a conventional hero. He an anxious, awkward, nervous and often helpless little boy who is terrified of his own failure, but he persists in the face of adversity because he knows it’s the right thing to do. I think there’s a little Alfie in all of us.
Demon Dentist might be the first theatre trip for some children. Do you remember the first show you saw, or the moment you fell in love with theatre?
I do! I was very lucky to have an incredibly nurturing primary school teacher when I was ten or eleven who recognised that theatre was something I might be interested in, but it wasn’t really on my radar back then. She told the headmaster I was off school sick, and sent me and my mum to a production of an S4K (Shakespeare for Kids) production of Romeo and Juliet. That was the first thing I ever saw and I instantly fell in love. That teacher has been to see almost every professional job I’ve ever done, and I won’t name her (in case I get her in trouble!) but I absolutely would not be in the career that I’m in if it wasn’t for her.
You’ve worked in the West End and on touring productions. How do the experiences differ and what do you enjoy most about touring?
It sounds simple, but the most notable difference for me is that in a touring production every stage you’re working on week by week is slightly different, so you have to keep on your toes and slightly adapt the performance to the space you’re in. For example, in one of our first performances, we were on a stage with quite a steep rake (the stage angled downwards towards the audience). As I came on for my first entrance, I spotted that the brakes were off on Alfie’s Dad’s wheelchair, and it was about to roll of the stage! I ran and grabbed the chair before continuing the scene. It’s rarely ever quite that extreme, but I find that little things like that help to keep the show feeling fresh every time.
I also really love being able to take a piece on tour because it means I get to travel to places I might otherwise never have seen!
Were you familiar with David Walliams’ books from your own childhood? How does it feel to be working with such well loved material?
I very much was! In fact, the copy of Demon Dentist that I used for research in rehearsals is the same copy I bought ten years ago when the book was first released, so I really have grown up with the story.
Although it’s an honour to be involved in something that was so formative for me, I have definitely felt an element of pressure to get it right as I desperately wanted to do right by the avid fan base of David’s books. The book is so rich in detail and there’s a huge amount to draw from as an actor which is ridiculously helpful. I’ve read the book cover to cover dozens of times by this point since my first audition for Alfie, and I still find new stuff that I missed previously every time I read it again.
Do you have a dream role or a production you’d like to be a part of in the future?
Creating a role in a new show like this one has always been on my bucket list, so playing Alfie has been and still is a genuine dream come true. In terms of future jobs though, as cliché as it seems to say, a personal hero of mine is Stephen Sondheim, so I’d love to work on something like Into The Woods, Sweeney Todd or Merrily We Roll Along.
What’s your favourite scene in Demon Dentist to perform?
It’s difficult to pick just one! I’m blessed to be working with a cast full of phenomenally funny performers that make every scene a joy. I’m a bona fide super-fan of every single one of them. If I had to choose, though – I do have a fight scene with Fang the cat, and as a lifelong dog person, that scene is pretty cathartic for me…
What do you hope audiences take away from Demon Dentist?
Demon Dentist is a weird and wonderful adventure romp that I challenge anyone to make it through without busting a gut, but underneath all that is the characters and the relationships they share. I’m sure many of the people coming to see the show will be able to relate in some way to Alfie’s experiences and know what it’s like to feel like you’re going through hell alone. What Alfie learns throughout the story is how to accept help from the loved ones in his life, which I think is such an important lesson for young people.
If one person comes out of the theatre smiling and feeling a little less alone, I’ve done my job.
Demon Dentist is currently touring until October 2023, with tickets for select venues available here.