“Hey, it’s Alfie here. Sorry I missed your call – leave a message and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can”. This is the answer phone message that greets me when I try to call former Wales and British & Irish Lions captain Gareth ‘Alfie’ Thomas. Ten minutes pass and my phone rings, “Hey, it’s the Genie here – I’m able to grant you three wishes! What’s your first wish?”
If I didn’t know Gareth Thomas was nicknamed Alfie (after the Alien character in the American sitcom ALF), or additionally didn’t know he was set to play the Genie in the pantomime Aladdin at Theatr Stiwt in Wrexham this Christmas, I’d be pretty confused now. I’d probably hang up.
Instead, as I’ve been granted three wishes, I tell the Genie (sorry, Gareth) I only need one - Can I ask him some questions please? My wish is granted and the conversation becomes a little more sensible. Despite retiring from rugby in late 2011, Gareth Thomas has remained a fixture on our TV screens for a number of off the field endeavours. He made a cameo appearance as himself on the Sky One sitcom Stella, finished third in Celebrity Big Brother and was named Welsh Learner of the Year on the S4C programme cariad@iaith.
Thomas says his biggest challenge since retirement is looming and initially he wasn’t keen on treading the boards over the festive season. ”When I received the call from the company producing the show, my first reaction was, ‘Not a chance!’ The thought of being on stage struck so much fear into me.” This comes from a man who’s played rugby at the highest level, in front of packed stadiums across the globe and against some of rugby’s fiercest players. Is facing down the Haka less scary than performing in panto? Thomas seems to think so, “I’ve played rugby all my life - it’s what I’ve known. Putting on a performance on a rugby field is fine, but this sort of performance takes me completely out of my comfort zone.”
Despite his reservations, Thomas was convinced by his family to go for the part, “When I told my parents that I’d been offered the part of the Genie they spoke so fondly about their memories of going to panto growing up and, the more I heard, the more fun it sounded so I thought, ‘Why not? Just go for it!’”
Bred on an all-consuming diet of rugby from a young age, Thomas admits his experience of theatre is limited. He was never considered for any big parts in school plays, “I was always at the back of the stage or the kid who was asked to raise the curtain,” he laughs. The role of the Genie has inspired him to take more interest though, “I’ve never been to a panto so I’ve been watching videos online. I think the main thing is not to take myself seriously, which will be easy for me. I have, however, been to some West End shows recently such as Les Misérables. For me, seeing a performance on stage is so much more powerful than the cinema. It really captures the imagination.”
The panto at Theatr Stiwt will give Thomas the opportunity to revisit the town he lived in whilst playing for the (now disbanded) rugby league team Celtic Crusaders from 2010-11. “I have some great connections from my time playing for the Crusaders,” he says. “Although I’m not going to be spending Christmas back at home in Bridgend, I’m going to be spending it in a place that feels like a second home to me.”
Rehearsals for Aladdin get underway in December and Thomas is feeling relaxed, even though he hasn’t seen the script yet, “I’ve been encouraged to ad-lib at times and bring my own humour to the part of the Genie. When we did the media call for the show I could see how many talented actors and singers there were – that convinced me even more that the part was right for me. I’m going to be focused but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to have a laugh. I’d go insane if I didn’t.”
When Aladdin concludes in the New Year, Thomas will make his way to America to continue working on the biopic of his life with Hollywood actor Mickey Rourke. He’s cagey about revealing too much, but happy with how the project is developing, “I’m asked about this so much and it’s difficult to tell you anything new because it’s such a slow process. The last time I was in America, I wanted to stress the importance of how Wales and rugby is portrayed on the big screen. So far, we have Tom Jones, Joe Calzaghe, Ray Winstone and Vinnie Jones signed up. I want audiences to understand Welsh culture which is why we have a lot Welsh and British actors in the cast.”
Arguably, Thomas has garnered more notoriety since retiring than he ever did during his playing career. But does he miss the game? Thomas has mixed emotions, “I miss the camaraderie and the routine but, aside from that, nothing else. The thought of waking up in the morning and not knowing what the day is going to bring is what excites me now.”
Thomas wasn’t always this positive when he first hung up his boots, “Of course I worried like so many thousands of other players who leave the game every year. I’ve been lucky enough to go onto other things but some are not so fortunate. It’s hard to take when rugby says it doesn’t need you anymore. You build up great friendships with team mates and just as they’re coming to the peak of their careers, you’re starting at the bottom of the ladder again.”
It hasn’t taken long for Thomas to climb a new career ladder post-retirement, but, being a Genie, what wish would he grant himself? “As long as I don’t get booed on the first night of the panto I’ll be happy. If I do, it’s doing to be a long drive home!”