John Owen- Jones is currently starring as Jean Valjean in the hit musical Les Miserables at the Alhambra. But what does the future hold for him? Jim Greenhalf reports.

By the time the curtain falls on the 93rd and final performance of Les Misrables at the Alhambra in 28 days' time, some 125,000 people will have seen it.

The cast, already having knocked out audiences in Southampton, Manchester and Bristol, will prepare to move on to conquer Edinburgh, Liverpool and then Dublin in the New Year. All except John Owen-Jones, that is.

He thought he'd be playing Jean Valjean on tour. He and his attractive red-haired fiance Teresa Chilton sold their small flat in Surrey so that they could spend more time together on the road.

But instead of tearing up audiences at Edinburgh's Playhouse Theatre in September, the 27-year-old actor from South Wales will be singing the role at London's Palace Theatre.

He leaves the Alhambra production two weeks early - his last performance will be on August 15 - for a month's break before resuming the role he'd always wanted to play, and actually first played at the Palace Theatre.

"It's like playing Henry V or Hamlet. A lot of actors want to do that because they are heavyweight parts. There's a lot less competition if you can act and sing because fewer actors can sing," he told me.

We were sitting in a little room off the foyer of Shipley's new Holiday Inn Express Hotel, which he had been invited to open. One unforeseen consequence of that was that he had to listen politely to a suited gentleman's unsolicited opinions of Andrew Lloyd-Webber's musicals. Les Misrables is the Alhambra's biggest show since 1994, when Lloyd-Webber's Cats had them purring in the aisles.

Although singing runs through the male side of the Owen-Jones family, John never considered it as a career until starting youth theatre at the age of 16.

He graduated from London's Central School of Speech & Drama with a BA in Acting in 1994. Within a year he was playing the role on which he'd set his heart - the youngest actor ever to do so.

"I went to London to do Les Mis. In fact I auditioned for the part and got it. I was this green kid," he said, waving his hands in the air as though sketching a line round the starry-eyed child he used to be. Now he's a seasoned pro, having devoted the last two years to the part.

It was in London that he met Teresa, a trained teacher from Croydon. She was filling in as a dresser in the theatre when they met three years ago. They plan to marry in July next year.

The hangers-on whom the theatre attracts tend to be mesmerised by the glamour of it all. They see only the effect of a part, not the hard work that goes into creating it and, above all, maintaining it.

By the time he leaves Bradford, John Owen-Jones will have played Jean Valjean the thick end of 80 times at the Alhambra, that's eight shows a week including matines on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The thought of going through that emotional mincer eight times a week makes me wince.

"You cannot think of it like that," John Owen-Jones declares with amiable emphasis. "You have to take each show as it comes. If I thought 'I have to do this show eight times a week' I would go mad. Some days you just forget you're acting and that's a good thing. You can think about a part too much; it's better to become a part.

"Peter Corry, who plays my nemesis Inspector Javert, and I compete against each other on stage. If he's having a great night I try to go one better."

Occasionally something extra special happens and he goes through that invisible wall which separates art from life - that realm where art actually seems more real than life. Fortunately, he doesn't waste time contemplating why this happens; he only knows that it does. The road to ruin - ostentatious acting - probably lies in trying to make it happen.

John Owen-Jones has signed up to play Valjean until May 1999 at least. He could go on playing it for the next ten years in all probability, for audiences the world over show no signs of tiring of the mighty Les Mis - proving that tragedy is not depressing but uplifting.

My guess is he won't. The other side of the security which comes from a nice long run is that an actor risks being typecast; he may spend the rest of his career struggling like a fish to escape the net he has made for himself.

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