Ronan Keating: ‘Acting the role of a singer does my head in’

The ex-Boyzone singer-songwriter talks about the challenge he faces taking on the lead role in hit West End musical Once

Singer-songwriter Ronan Keating, 37, has sold 40m records worldwide, first with Boyzone, then as a solo artist. Most recently, he’s been a judge on Australian X-Factor (mentoring this year’s winner, 15-year-old Marlisa Punzalan). But he faces arguably his greatest challenge this month as he joins the London West End cast of the Tony- and Olivier-winning musical Once to play the role of Dublin busker Guy.

“A musical is never something I thought I’d do,” he admits. “But it was the combination of great dialogue from playwright Enda Walsh and great songs. I just fell in love with it. I thought, I can do this. Now I have to say that I’m very anxious about the whole thing.”

He’s quietly been auditioning for film roles for the past few years, narrowly missing out on a part in The Hobbit. Last year, he landed the lead in Australian film Goddess, opposite Laura Michelle Kelly, which was universally panned. But when he was approached by Once director John Tiffany, who created theatrical hits Black Watch and Let the Right One In, he knew it was the right fit.

It must be second nature playing a singer on stage? No, he says firmly: “This sounds weird, and I’m not trying to talk about myself in the third person, but I’m not Ronan Keating on that stage. So acting the role of a singer slightly does my head in.”

In many ways, Once is the anti-musical. There are no flying sets and high-kicking chorus girls. The stage is a bar-room where the cast play fiddle, guitar, drums, accordion and mandolin. “That’s the brilliance of director John Tiffany,” Keating says. “It’s not overly executed or miked, it’s not in your face. At the beginning, the audience are invited on stage for a pint.”

Based on the low-budget 2007 film, Once explores unrequited love and life’s missed opportunities. “It’s that kind of Dublin mentality: you just have to grin and bear some things,” Keating says. But can a pop star, who became famous at 16, identify with his character who works in a Hoover repair shop? He laughs and says he worked part-time in a shoe shop before Boyzone took off. His mother was a hairdresser, his father a trucker. He grew up, one of five children, around north Dublin. “I understand it very well. I just hope I can do the role justice.”

Keating is currently in Australia where he’s been based for X-Factor. During the day, he’s rehearsing with Tiffany and the Melbourne cast of Once (the show opened there last month). In the evenings, he’s brushing up his guitar skills “until my fingers can’t play anymore”. He’s enjoyed the beach lifestyle, and is engaged to Oz producer Storm Uechtritz, but they are returning to live in Dublin to be near his three children from his previous marriage “and to get back to my roots a little bit”.

Before that, though, he has eight shows a week in a musical to perform. “I’m not doing Once to prove that I’m worldly or cultured. I just love the role.”

You sense Keating relishes a challenge. He was the first member of Boyzone to go solo. In 2011 he released an album with Burt Bacharach. “Being in a boyband, everyone has an opinion of all of us, and what we do. There was a time I fought with that. I’m OK with it now.”

After a lifetime in showbiz, theatre has been a revelation. “After 20 years in the public eye, it’s a brand new world.”

Ronan Keating joins the cast of Once on 17 November, Phoenix theatre, London WC2

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Liz Hoggard

The GuardianTramp

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