The child star waiting for his big break

Ilan Galkoff has just been picked for the London production of Adrian Mole the Musical. Michael Freedland met him and his proud parents


Ilan Galkoff is waiting for the inevitable. At 13, he knows that, before very long — although it could be some time — his voice is going to break.

This of course happens in the lives of every young boy. Most are delighted. The first signs of manhood have arrived. He can hold his head up high among his peers and wait patiently to start shaving. He might even think of impressing girls in a year or so. But, for Ilan, it is rather more than all that. It could be either a turning-point or a crisis.

Ilan is a singer. Not just any singer but one who has already appeared in a batch of West End shows and starred as the child lead in the world’s most successful musical ,which everyone knows as Les Mis. For six months, Ilan as Gavroche, the boy who dies on the barricades, heard the Queen’s Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue rock with applause. It wasn’t a totally unusual experience. It also happened at the Borehamwood and Elstree synagogue at about the same time — when he read the entire sedra and haftarah at his barmitzvah.

Clapping is unusual in shul. In fact, it is frowned upon. But when the boy soprano finished his performance, it seemed the only thing to do. It wasn’t just his parents and grandparents who were kvelling — his mother says she was embarrassed “and kept my hands firmly in my lap” — but everyone else. Even the rabbi smiled. “Usually, they just say, ‘shekoyach,’” says Ilan. “And that’s nice to hear, too.”

The truth of the matter is that he does have a remarkable voice and most of the Borehamwood congregants seemed to agree. They did when he was one of the two soloists with the Shabbaton Choir at the pre-Rosh Hashanah selichot service — although no one dared clap then. The week before his big day he gave a preview performance at his grandparents’ synagogue in Bournemouth and had the same reaction. But no clapping.

People say he sings like a finely-tuned bell. One shouldn’t say that to his face, however, because he clearly knows it himself. He tries to be modest but says he is “proud” of his talent. And it is quite a talent. It was why he was selected for a workshop run of a new version of Oliver in which he played Nipper, the youngest of Fagin’s gang. He is also something of a tap dancer — which is why he has been performing in the Royal Opera House’s production of The Nose, in which he plays… the nose. (I don’t really want to go into that one; see the opera yourself ) If that proves he has a nose for a good part, it is no more than the truth, although his teachers at the Sylvia Young Theatre School in Marylebone (he was previously at the Hertsmere Jewish Primary School) have had a lot to do with it.

His singing teacher, Lisa Fell, seems to be pleased with him. “She hums along when I sing some of my Hebrew pieces. She is not Jewish, but loves our melodies,” he says.

The moment he greets you, you have a pretty good idea that this boy sounds pretty good. Quite unusually, his speaking voice has the timbre of the one that pours out the songs.

Asked which came first, shul or the stage (He is, after all, following an old showbiz tradition — stars who began singing in synagogue choirs , from Al Jolson, through Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen, to Steve Lawrence and our own, much-missed Frankie Vaughan) he says that, like his famous predecessors, he is choosing the stage.

But, while he has no ambition to be a chazan, Judaism is very important. “I love going to shul,” he says. “I go every week.” Indeed, singing Anim Zemirot at his brother Rafi’s barmitzvah service was one of the reasons he started performing professionally. That — and saying to his mother, Suzanne that he wanted to try for the school that he has now attended for five years.

“I kept saying, ‘Mum, that’s the school I want to go to.’” She herself told me that it was also hearing Ilan sing songs from Annie and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Rafi’s party that made her think he had an unusual talent.

That could have something to do with her great-grandmother Irene Beran being an opera singer.

It could also have something to do with the now 19-year-old Rafi — they have a 23 year-old sister, Natalia, who is not a singer, but a retail brand designer. Rafi used to sing at charity concerts. He gave up when, wait for it, his voice broke. He is now studying music and business at Birmingham City University. “I loved performing and being in the spotlight,” says Rafi, ‘but I now want to go into music management. I leave the fame to Ilan.”

Ilan was given a half-scholarship to his school — part of it provided by the showbiz paper The Stage. “He pays the rest of the fees from the money he earns singing,” says his father, Simon.

Mum Suzanne doesn’t want to be thought of as a typical stage mother. She says: “It was not in my dreams for him to be on the stage. I just want to encourage him in anything he wants to do. He’s a very good boy — and he takes rejection very well. He’s been extremely successful, but he has been rejected so many times, too.” Not many mothers would say that.

Ilan is effusive when he talks about his career to date. He holds nothing back with the same sort of vitality he shows when he sings.

“I never get stage fright,” he says. It isn’t boasting. He just tells things as they are.

“Just for a couple of minutes before I go on, sometimes I get it, but then with the spotlights shining on me, you can’t see the people in an audience in front, so there’s no reason to be scared.”

But what if, when the bell stops ringing, it turns out that there’s nothing about his voice like the one that gets the applause today —in theatre or shul?

“I will have to wait and see,” he says matter-of-factly. “If I can’t sing, I’d like to be a graphic artist. I love art.”

“We’re not worried about that happening,”says Simon. “It’s inevitable. If his voice doesn’t come back, he will find other things to do.”

“Of course,” his son adds.

This interview was conducted before Ilan's latest casting -  as one of three Adrian Moles in the London debut of the new musical based on Sue Townsend's classic books. Looks like Ilan's still on top of his form. 

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