Role takes Mark back to his roots; Mark Benton makes his musical theatre debut in Hairspray. He tells SAM WONFOR about warming to sixties tunes over heavy metal and finding a new appreciation for housecoats and heels.
That was the only other time in his 30-or-so-year career a part had demanded the likeable Teesside-bred actor opted for a dress over trousers.
"But that was as a Russian nurse in a turn of the century hospital, so a slightly different show," laughs the 47-year-old casting his mind back to his days at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, to give the prestigious institution its Sunday name.
"The thing (with drag) is you have to embrace it and just enjoy yourself. The minute you start thinking 'ooh, I can't wear this or that', you've lost really."
And go for it he has - housecoat and all - in the role first made famous by the unforgettable Divine in the 1988 John Waters film of the same name.
FUNNYMAN Mark Benton "I have full appreciation for any woman who wears heels. Mine aren't even high and it's agony... so any tips would be most welcome. But apart from that, I'm having a ball."
The stage musical of Hairspray was premiered on Broadway in 2002 and collected eight Tony Awards, with the West End incarnation opening in 2007 before being nominated for a record 11 Olivier accolades.
I wondered whether joining a show with such a gong-winning track record offered comfort or anxiety to Mark, who is smashing his musical theatre duck in a with an eight-month stint on the UK touring production, arriving in Sunderland tonight.
"Basically, I think I lucked out playing this part in this show for my first musical," says the actor, who has a well-trodden CV of theatre, TV and film work with best-known telly roles coming via a recurring double act with fellow North Easterner, Robson Green in ITV1s Christmas, City and Northern Lights comedy series; Murphy's Law with James Nesbitt and more recently as Chalky in BBC1 school drama Waterloo Road, which he has "just stepped off".
When the offer to play Edna came up, Mark was determined not to recreate a previous interpretation of the larger than life matriarch in the sixties-set story.
"I hadn't seen the show and never watched it on YouTube, purposely because I was doing the part and wanted to put my own stamp on it," he says of the character, who has been played in the West End by the likes of Michael Ball, Phil Jupitus and Brian Conley.
"I'd seen the Divine film years ago and had seen the new John Travolta version - kind of because the kids had it," he adds, speaking of the 2007 big-screen remake.
"I had to not listen when the team were making suggestions which had been tried before - unless it was really funny of course, then I'd just nick it," he laughs.
Star For any others who aren't particularly au fait with the show, Hairspray offers an inspirational tale of outsiders overcoming prejudices and presumptions via the medium of big hair, rocking dance moves and an irresistible soundtrack.
Set in Baltimore in 1962, it centres on the story of Tracy Turnblad, a big girl with a passion for dancing who wins a spot on a local TV dance programme against the odds and becomes a teen celebrity overnight.
But will it be enough to get her agoraphobic - and overweight - mum out of the apartment? "That's what makes it a great musical. It's not just a bit of fluff," says Mark. "It's really happy but it has a really serious underlying subject, segregation. It's set in 1962 when there was segregation on TV. On American Bandstand, they had Negro Day once a month... it's unbelievable isn't it? "The great thing is though that it's there and it's a central part of the show, but hopefully the message comes through in the show without ramming it down people's throat. All that music and dancing - it's a great way to make a serious point."
And that's coming from a self-confessed heavy metal fan who wasn't massively excited about the sound of the sixties score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
"Yeah, it wasn't my music, but when you've heard it so much... I've actually grown to love it. We all stand backstage dancing to other people's songs."
And it doesn't just have this effect on the cast, which includes former Eastenders actress Lucy Benjamin and X Factor runner up Marcus Collins..
"The audience's reaction - it's like a rock concert at the end," says Mark. "I've never experienced anything like it. You come off stage and everyone is on a high. It's such a joyous, uplifting show."
Just as well. It has to sustain Mark being away from his family on the south coast, including his three children, Archie, 15, Grace, 12, and Fig eight.
"The girls have been to see it three times already. They know all the dances which is wicked. This is my first tour for 20 years.
"But someone said to me before I started, if you start a show in a bad mood, you won't be in one by the end, and I was like 'yeah right'. But it's true. It's impossible not to get swept up in it."
." ? Hairspray plays Sunderland Empire from tonight until Saturday. Call 0844 871 3022, or visit www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderlan
FUNNYMAN Star Mark Benton
UPLIFTING A scene from Hairspray
DRESS TO IMPRESS Mark Benton as Edna Turnblad