Jason Donovan grew up wanting to be a rock star in a band.
Transforming himself into Dr Frank N Furter, the cross-dressing mad scientist from outer-space in the The Rocky Horror Show musical, has come close to scratching that particular itch.
"I love doing Rocky Horror," he tells Weekender from London where he is starring in a West End production of Grease The Musical opposite fellow expat Peter Andre.
"It's a complete character with great songs and it allows me to be the rock star that I never was.
"I was a bit of a pop star and to a certain extent I fulfilled that fantasy but I always wanted to be in a band, you know? And as Dr Frank N Furter you're pretty much playing the role of a frontman in a rock band."
Donovan is coming to Newcastle in January for the Australian premiere of the 2024 season of Richard O'Brien's Rocky Horror Show. The beloved musical is celebrating its 50th anniversary and will show at the Civic Theatre for three weeks, kicking off on January 12. It will then travel to Sydney and Melbourne.
It's a major shot in the arm for the city's theatre industry.
Civic Theatre manager Leonie Wallace says the venue's status has been "well and truly cemented on the national touring circuit for hosting global acts".
"The Rocky Horror Show is celebrating its 50-year anniversary this year with a storyline many are familiar with, and we're delighted to welcome the fun and nostalgia of this iconic global production to our city's historic Civic Theatre," she says.
"The success of Come From Away's three-week extended run demonstrated the demand for Broadway and West End productions in Newcastle, with theatregoers travelling from across the Hunter and as far as Tasmania and Queensland to sample Broadway, smashing previous box office ticket sales records."
Donovan says he's "heard nothing but great reports" about Newcastle, so bringing Rocky Horror to the city "was a bit of a no-brainer".
"It's not unusual to want to take a show to as many people as one can, but I keep hearing Newcastle is an up and coming part of NSW and I thought [bringing Rocky Horror to Newcastle] would be a nice thing to do," he says.
"I don't have a say where the show goes, but I do have a say in where I go with it."
He asked for recommendations for places to stay in and around Newcastle, and spoke enthusiastically about his love of the beach and swimming. He also pondered why, in fact, he lived in a country not known for its beaches or swimming.
He grabs a pen and paper to write down my accommodation suggestions. "How do you spell Pokolbin?" he asks.
The big break
Donovan is a Melbourne boy who became a household name in 1986 both here and in the UK for his portrayal of the fictional character Scott Robinson on Neighbours. His onscreen romance with Charlene Mitchell, played by Kylie Minogue, captivated millions.
He won a Logie Award for Best New Talent in 1987 and in 1988 he was awarded the Silver Logie for the Most Popular Actor on Australian television.
In 1988, while working on Neighbours he released the single Nothing Can Divide Us and later that year recorded a duo with Minogue, Especially for You. In March 1989 he released the chart-topping single Too Many Broken Hearts, following it up with his debut album Ten Good Reasons and another chart-topping single, Sealed with a Kiss.
Donovan left Neighbours in 1989 - trading his famous mullet for an undercut - and moved to the UK in 1990. Albums, acting roles and tours followed, but Donovan ultimately found his calling in musical theatre.
He says he made the move to the UK in 1990 without a specific goal or plan in mind, but knew it made sense to capitalise on the popularity he had found with Neighbours.
"I had to follow those leads, grasp those opportunities. And the UK is a big market. So for me the move was driven primarily by the success of Neighbours but also by the opportunity to do some recording as a singer," he says.
"Stock Aitken Waterman, the biggest producers in the world, were here so in that sense the move was a strategic one."
What he didn't expect was to embark on a career in musical theatre.
"My dad was quite involved in musical theatre, so growing up it was part of my culture," Donovan says.
"When you look at it on paper, it's quite logical in the sense that I was an actor and a singer, and musical theatre combined those two aspects. But I didn't ever set out to be a musical theatre star, that's for sure.
"I love Australia but it's just been one of those things - work for me has tended to be more orientated towards the UK than it has Australia."
Donovan and his manager had "invested heavily in his live work" when he left Neighbours, he says, so making the switch from television to theatre was not the shock it might otherwise have been.
There's nowhere to hide on stage when you're performing live in front of an audience.
"When you're in the bubble of a TV show like Neighbours where everything is on camera and you have a second chance of doing everything, to do live theatre is the next step in expanding your craft," he says.
"It was scary - it still is scary - but it's something that you get used to.
"I've done 20 or so different shows now, and performing live is my bread and butter, whether it's theatre or concerts ... I even did a tour recently where I talked about my life. I've done plays.
"Every performer needs to perform live, or expose their art, otherwise there's no point to it."
He pauses, then adds: "Although I guess you could be a recording artist and not perform live, couldn't you?"
Donovan made his defining musical theatre debut in the lead role of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat on the West End in 1991 which also earned him an Olivier Award nomination. He has since starred in many West End musical theatre productions including Priscilla Queen of The Desert, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Annie Get Your Gun and The Sound of Music as well as the Australian production of Chicago in Melbourne in 2019.
"There's only two shows I have ever gone back to and done again, and Rocky Horror is one of those shows," he says.
"The other one was Joseph (and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) and that was a landmark show for me because it changed my life in a number of ways. Rocky also changed my life in the sense that I found a show that was almost the antithesis of Joseph."
Friends and Neighbours
I ask him about last year's much-publicised Neighbours: The Finale where the television series' most-loved stars from over the years returned to Ramsay Street for one last hurrah.
Donovan, Kylie Minogue, Guy Pearce, Margot Robbie, Natalie Imbruglia, Daniel MacPherson, Jesse Spencer and Delta Goodrem all made an appearance.
Donovan says it "felt like coming home, in a way" but was also "so brief".
"For Kylie [Minogue] and I, anyway, it was literally half a day of filming and a couple of videos for publicity content and that was it.
"When you spent four years of your life, 30 years ago, working on something, well, it means more to the fans than it does to us.
"But I'm not underplaying the weight of the moment either. Of course it was significant. It's just that so much time has passed."
People grew up thinking they knew you?
"Yeah they did. They do. They still do."
Donovan is easygoing and friendly. Polite and pleasant to talk to, and relaxed to the point of dropping the odd F-bomb here and there to emphasise a point.
He's very interested in Newcastle, and keeps asking if I think Rocky Horror will be well received here.
When I say yes, he replies: "You think so? You really think so? OK, now I'm super pumped."
He sounds eager to make a good impression back on home soil.
Donovan has three children and his eldest - Jemma - is pursuing an acting career. She played the role of Harlow Robinson on Neighbours for three years before her character left for London in 2022.
Yes, Harlow is Scott Robinson's daughter.
Her real-life grandfather (and Donovan's father), actor Terence Donovan, was also part of the Neighbours cast for a time. He was cast as Ramsay Street resident Doug Willis.
Jemma most recently appeared in UK soap opera Hollyoaks.
"She has been acting now for a number of years and she's professional, she's talented and she loves her craft," Donovan says.
"She gets a buzz from acting.
"It's a difficult road out there and I can only help her to make the right choices. As long as she's passionate about what she's doing in life ... that's all you can really ask for when it comes to your kids."
The Rocky Horror Show
Joining Donovan on the 2024 Australian tour is Stellar Perry (Magenta/The Usherette), Deirdre Khoo (Janet), Henry Rollo (Riff Raff), Darcey Eagle (Columbia), Blake Bowden (Brad) and Ellis Dolan (Eddie/Dr Scott). The Phantoms will be Josh Gates, Hollie James and Erica Wild, with Keane Fletcher and Seryan Burke-Low rounding out the cast as the Swings. Myf Warhurst will be the Narrator.
Written and created by Richard O'Brien, The Rocky Horror Show first opened in London in 1973 at the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs. Since then it has been continuously on stage, somewhere in the world.
In 1975 The Rocky Horror Show was transformed into a film called The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This film adaptation took more than $135 million at the Box Office and is still shown in cinemas around the world, making it the longest running theatrical release in cinema history.
"Richard O'Brien ain't no Mozart, I can tell you that, but what he did with Rocky Horror was to tell a great story that was unique to the times, and he told it simply, through music," Donovan says.
"This show, which is very much about being different, and accepting the differences, and being comfortable to be able to express yourself ... it resonates with everyone and has a great heart.
"It is a great role to play, and you know what? It's short. It moves quickly and every song punches, and that's great from the point of a view of a performer."