Acting together

One night next month professional actor and singer Mark Connell from Felixstowe is stepping out on stage for his West End debut in Mamma Mia. Meanwhile back in Suffolk for his wife Rebecca Darcy the shows still go on as her job involves encouraging a potential new generation of performers.

Victoria Hawkins

One night next month professional actor and singer Mark Connell from Felixstowe is stepping out on stage for his West End debut in Mamma Mia. Meanwhile back in Suffolk for his wife Rebecca Darcy the shows still go on as her job involves encouraging a potential new generation of performers. Victoria Hawkins spoke to the couple who simply live, breathe and love the theatre

AS a newly married couple Rebecca Darcy and Mark Connell couldn't have much more in common with each other. Both born and bred in Felixstowe, they went to the same school from the age of 10 (though they didn't become an item until they were sweet 16). They also went to the same dancing classes, starred in local productions together and to the same theatre school.

And while Mark is now a working actor in the theatre - he's just gone into rehearsals for his West End debut in the smash hit Mamma Mia as this spring's cast changes - Rebecca is running two franchise branches of Stagecoach performing arts school for children, one in Woodbridge and one in Felixstowe.

Which helps explain why they've got 14 penguins and 17 white fluffy polar bear costumes in their garage, which they made (with a bit of help from friends and family) for her students' big production show last autumn. A show she and Mark co-wrote - one version having 51 parts so that all the children who go to the Felixstowe Stagecoach had a part.

It is the sort of performing arts classes that both Rebecca and Mark would have loved to have gone to themselves as children.

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When Rebecca was a little girl she showed real talent for dancing and appeared in shows put on by Stage Door Theatre Company and the like. “I used to dance every weekend and when I was about 12, I joined the London Children's Ballet Company which meant dad had to drive me to London every Sunday. We did a production of the Happy Prince there and that was my first real taster of what the theatre was like and made me want to do something like this as a career. I also went to Bury St Edmunds for lessons every weekend at the Reeve Theatre School and they did lots of festivals and competitions, such as the All England Dance Championships. So as a youngster there were lots of opportunities for us.

“I stayed to do my A-levels because I wanted to be sure I had something to fall back on and then went to Performers College in Essex for three years where I became a qualified teacher of dance.”

Mark's tale is very similar. “Though we went to different primary schools we met at Deben High School and we'd also meet at various amateur dramatic shows too. We probably met for the first time when we were about 10 but not how you would imagine, at school, but across a dance floor wearing leggings at dance classes.

“Dance was how I got into all this. As a child I was always taken to see Dennis Lowe's pantos and when I said to mum I want to go on stage and be in a pantomime she said 'you'll have to go to Apple Dance, that's the kids that they use' so I thought I'd give it a go and went along and really enjoyed it.

“I did lots of shows, then amateur dramatics followed and when I got to about 15 and had to decide what I wanted to do after GCSEs, I thought did I want to carry on at school? Not really. So I went on to drama school but I went when I was 16 and Rebecca didn't go until she was 18, so I was there for two years before her.”

Rebecca said: “I think with both of us, we were brought up by parents who took us to the theatre which is why we love it. My mother used to dance with Ipswich Operatic about 20 years ago too and in fact Mark's mum, who was adopted at birth in the Fifties, knew that her father apparently worked in London theatre - but that could have been in the box office!”

One of the jobs Rebecca successfully auditioned at college took her all the way to Bombay one Christmas and New Year. “They have these huge celebrations and one of the hotels wanted four girls to dance every evening in their Flames Restaurant, which was outdoors. They built a stage in the middle and you danced surrounded by flames. We did an hour show every night and I just loved it.”

Another gig took her to Monte Carlo to the prestigious Laureus Sport Awards, which are rather like the Oscars for sportsmen. As a “trophy girl”, she mixed with all the stars, one being Arnold Schwazenegger, whom she led on stage to get the Sport For Good Award. “You know on TV he looks big, up close he's bigger. I am only 5ft 1½ and just his arm was huge and when we came off stage, he said 'has anybody got any powder in here because the lights are really hot' he was getting really shiny. How about that? Make up tips from Arnie!

“Lionel Richie was performing in the same show and I was able to be a backing dancer for him too. It was a good experience because I was still at college and it happened to fall over my 21st birthday.”

At college Mark found himself jetting off to dance in China for a week. “Funnily enough it was about seven years ago. It was part of their bid for the Olympics and now suddenly it is 2008, and it is actually going to happen! It was one-off show with various countries doing different performances, a bit of dance or whatever and I was involved in doing a rock and roll medley.”

Other jobs he picked up then would include corporate bookings for upmarket events being staged at hotels like The Dorchester and Grosvenor in London. “They would have a group of dancers as warm up entertainment and such like. I was a dancer mostly when I was at college and I thought I was going to be a dancer but given my stature and height (I am 5ft, five and a half - you notice how low our centre lights are hanging!) but at college there were much better dancers than me.

“But I had an advantage because I could sing too, so I kind of thought I will go down that route a bit more and I now do musical theatre which is great. There more jobs available and it's also a longer career than dancing.

“The first job after I left was at the Cascade Review in Clacton doing a summer season and later I went into the Singing in The Rain UK tour with the West Yorkshire Playhouse and National Theatre Productions and lots of others.”

He's worked mainly with touring companies, through from Barnum to Miss Saigon and Peter Pan, in which he played the lead at The Lighthouse in Poole, with Matthew Kelly as Captain Hook. “That was about four years ago when I was about two stones lighter! I have also done Boogie Nights for a season, a couple of Cinderellas - one as Buttons, one as Dandini - and I have just finished the UK tour of Beauty and the Beast, playing a role called Lefou.

“That was meant to come to Ipswich and it would have been nice to come here but in 10 months we went everywhere but Suffolk. I even spent three weeks in November doing it in Athens in Greece and they are now planning to take the show to Dubai, Kuala Lumpur and New Zealand for nine weeks, which sounds exciting, so I was slightly disappointed that I went to Grimsby and York!”

And one summer he even spent a month getting naked every night when he played Malcolm in the Irish premier of The Full Monty in Dublin. His working life has meant a lot of travelling and living out of suitcases and working over most of Christmas. Boxing Day was spent on stage in Leicester and since that finished on December 30 he managed a few precious weeks at home before heading for a month's rehearsals in London.

It's a wonder they met very often when they were in different productions all over the country but the plan is now that Mark will also be based at home and commute.

Similarly when Rebecca graduated she joined Theatre In Education touring company, which is based in Scotland, and spent the first three years travelling all over the UK, working mostly in schools and mostly doing musical theatre. “I played Sarah Crew in A Little Princess, Cinderella in Cinderella and Lt Flare in Kosmic Krew, which is a musical written by the company, and I think nowadays children don't often go to the theatre so to actually take theatre into schools is great.

“Then the opportunity setting up a franchise of Stagecoach in Felixstowe came up and I decided to do that.”

Stagecoach was the brainchild of Stephanie Manuel. It all began when she found herself years ago ferrying her son, who is now in his 40s, to all his various acting, singing and dancing classes and she came up with the brilliant idea of little stage schools where you could enjoy all the disciplines in one place during one concentrated stint. Based at Walton-on-Thames, there are now over 550 independent branches worldwide and her son Paul, says Mark, is now an established and successful leading man. “He played Danny in Grease which must make him the oldest Danny in the world!” he said.

And, while Stagecoach is Rebecca's business, Mark actually works for her, teaching drama at the Sunday Stagecoach in Felixstowe as that is the only day he has been able to guarantee being at home because it's the only day he doesn't perform. “But I also do a little bit of mucking in at the office as and when required,” he said.

Rebecca bit the bullet, took out a loan and opened the Felixstowe arm in September 2006. “There was a huge response and it really blossomed and because I didn't want to get to the stage of turning people away, I opened one a year later in Woodbridge.”

Despite the fact the classes take place at the weekends, Rebecca says it's taking up most of her time now.

“Up until last term I worked with a child with additional needs full-time but I had to give that up because Stagecoach has taken over. I thought it would be lovely having extra time but I have filled it, even deciding what to do for the term takes up a lot of time. As principal I am not allowed to teach at my classes but I still teach drama for three hours on Thursday nights in Chelmsford, actually at another Stagecoach, which is how I first got involved. Then I teach dance in Ipswich on a Friday evening at Ipswich Stagecoach.

“It is a bit of a labour of love at the moment and there are huge expenses but we do try and keep costs down by doing as much as we can ourselves like making costumes, scenery etc. The rewards are really seeing what it does for the children,” says Rebecca, “we have had some with us for just over a year now and to hear from the parents how much their confidence has grown and just to see them blossom, makes it worth it.”

Mark is now working at the Prince of Wales Theatre having started the Mamma Mia rehearsals last week and boy, is his role complicated. He's been employed as a “Swing” which means he'll actually be learning seven separate versions of the show so he can stand in for seven other cast members as and when required.

“It sounds bizarre and it's a bit of a new challenge for me,” he said, “but basically if anybody is on holiday (and you all get four weeks a year) I will be covering for them, plus I have to cover for illness and injury - and people will get sore throats and injuries do happen - so you tend to go on quite a bit.

“So I have to learn seven roles of the male ensemble plus also understudy two of the principal roles! Don't worry I am not the only Swing, there are six of us, three girls and three boys so I won't be in the show every night but if I'm not actually on stage I'll probably be singing in the pit.

“But in theory you could be on for a different person six nights of the week so Rebecca has been looking for information about foods which are good for the memory.”

The hit musical Mama Mia, written by former Abba stars Benny Andersson and Bjorrn Ulvaeu, is now in its tenth year in the West End, so it's a great job to land and Mark's contract runs until June 2009, which provides a nice bit of financial security.

“It's my first time on the London stage and I though I would try commuting. The last train from Liverpool Street is at 11.30pm which should be okay, the most difficult part will be getting from Ipswich back to Felixstowe at ten to one in the morning. It's going to be a nice lifestyle being at home more. I can be here until early every afternoon and it works well with Stagecoach, so we may actually have some time to see each other.”

Mark and Rebecca, who are both 25, may have known each other for years but they've only actually been married six months and despite knowing loads of people in the business, including Lee Mead who won Joseph, it wasn't a terribly showbizzy wedding. “But we wanted to get married on a Saturday which meant a lot of our friends in the theatre who were working, couldn't come.”

It's not so much the glam and glitz as a love of performing which seems to galvanise these two. In fact fame, to them, is a bit of a funny old game. “I was in Miss Saigon with Lee,” said Mark, “and it's nice to see how well he's doing now but we see him just as being our friend. It's incredible really when you read headlines with “Heart-throb Lee…” and you thing that's just Lee, our mate. Rebecca opened a mag the other day and it said Lee's favourite dinner or something and you think, mmm… how life can change in just a year!”

n Stagecoach in Felixstowe operates a three hour session, which comprises one hour each of dance, drama and singing, at the Brackenbury Sports Centre every Sunday, while Woodbridge Stagecoach takes place on Saturday mornings at Woodbridge School Sixth Form Centre in Burkitt Road.

There are other Stagecoach franchises operating across the region including Ipswich, Chelmsford, Braintree, Bury St Edmunds, Newmarket and Sudbury. See www.stagecoach.co.uk for details. It claims to be the world's largest part-time theatre school and educates over 25,000 children.