Leading man walks out after Shields' arrival in 'Chicago'

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When Brooke Shields took to the stage of the Adelphi Theatre for her opening night in Chicago on Thursday, everything was set for a glittering West End debut. Only one thing was missing - her leading man.

When Brooke Shields took to the stage of the Adelphi Theatre for her opening night in Chicago on Thursday, everything was set for a glittering West End debut.

Despite having a mere nine days to learn her script, the 39-year-old American star had breezed through rehearsals. Just in case of any slip-ups, no tickets had been made available to critics for her first appearance.

But as Shields stepped out under the spotlights to become the 16th Roxie Hart in the London version of the hugely successful 1930s drama, there was one thing missing - her leading man.

The show's producers yesterday confirmed that Michael French, the former EastEnders star playing the seedy lawyer Billy Flynn, had resigned hours before Shields's opening night.

The announcement followed claims that the British actor, who played the Cockney Don Juan of Albert Square, David Wicks, had stepped down after making unguarded comments about his co-star's talents.

A cast member said: "He was complaining all through rehearsals about Brooke. He was vocal and absolutely rude. Brooke's as nice as they come and she heard everything French was saying." French, who had starred in the BBC1 hospital drama Holby City before landing the lead role in Chicago last December, was replaced by his understudy, Simon Breen.

Representatives of French denied he had fallen out with his co-star and said he had left the production by mutual consent and was considering a number of television projects.

A spokesman said: "He wanted to pursue other things. He has been in the show for a while and felt it was time to do something else. There was no clash with Brooke Shields."

The producers of Chicago, one of the West End's most popular and profitable shows with ticket sales in its eight-year run exceeding £100m, issued a terse statement saying that the actor had resigned.

However, the news had not reached the show's ticket booking service, which yesterday still had a message billing French in his role as Billy Flynn.

The statement said: "Due to other professional commitments, the producers accepted his resignation."

The departure of her co-star is the latest hitch to the start of Shields's West End career. She was twice forced to delay the start of her three-month run as Roxie due to what producers called "extended filming commitments in America".

Reports from the United States said that the New York-born child star turned full-time thespian had been promoting her autobiography on Oprah.

Shields, who is starring as the same hard-hearted murderer played by Renée Zellweger in the Oscar-winning film of Chicago, admitted when she took on the role that she was not overly familiar with the play.

She said: "Much to my embarrassment, I haven't seen the film and I haven't seen it on Broadway. It's best to try as much as you can to have a clean slate when you are about to play a part. "I've only got nine days to learn the show. That's borderline criminal, but I have to go back to the States for promotional work."

The actress, who will turn 40 on 31 May, is the latest in a long list of stars to take on the physically demanding role of Roxie, including Denise Van Outen and Jennifer Ellison.

Shields, who started out aged11 months in a soap advert, has reinvented herself in recent years with a succession of Broadway theatre successes. But one reviewer, who managed to attend Thursday night's performance, was lukewarm: "Her singing voice is no more than adequate and her dancing skills merely presentable."

Stage door: Abrupt theatrical departures

Daniel Day-Lewis walked off stage while starring as Hamlet at London's National Theatre in 1989. He later revealed he had seen his own father in the famous ghost scene.

Sharon Osbourne quit the Vagina Monologues this month, three days before it was to open, stating her daughter Aimee was suffering from an undisclosed illness.

Stephen Fry quit the West End play Cell Mates in 1995 after it was slated. Helater said he had suffered stage fright.