Suffolk star and Queen legend hit the road
Suffolk-born West End star Kerry Ellis was so taken with playing The Apex in Bury St Edmunds earlier this year that she was determined to launch her autumn tour at the venue.
The former Stowmarket performer hits the road at the beginning of November with Queen guitarist and long-time collaborator Brian May and the pair are looking to raise awareness for the work of The Born Free Foundation – the charity, founded by Virginia McKenna, which seeks to preserve lions in the wild.
The tour has been squeezed into a busy schedule for Kerry, who is performing at the recently-re-opened Hippodrome cabaret venue in the West End this week – following hot-on-the-heels of Suffolk’s other West End star, Ruthie Henshall.
Life is a blur at the moment for Kerry. In addition to the Hippodrome gigs, she and Brian are recording their second album and she has a three-week engagement in Shanghai looming before she launches into their Born Free tour. Two days after that ends she goes straight into rehearsals for the new War of the Worlds show, alongside the Kaiser Chiefs’ Ricky Wilson, Jason Donovan and Marti Pellow.
“I’ve had a quiet couple of months doing some sporadic gigs here and there, I did a concert for BBC Radio 2 and now it has gone absolutely crazy. But I love being busy, so it’s not a problem”
Kerry was last in Suffolk in March, when she played a homecoming concert at The Apex to raise funds for the John Peel Centre in Stowmarket. It was her first visit to Bury St Edmunds for many years and she was overwhelmed seeing the concert venue. “The last time I was here this place was full of sheep and pigs,” she laughed as she walked across the former home of Lacey Scott auction house.
Inside the building, she was blown away by the acoustics and the intimate nature of the venue. “You can really get close and connect with your audience. It’s brilliant.”
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The Apex so impressed her that there was really no question where she would start her autumn tour. “It’s a fabulous place and it means that my friends and family don’t have to travel far to see the show. My Dad lives in Newmarket, my grandparents are down the road in Bacton, near Haughley, so it’s just perfect.”
Kerry Ellis first met Brian May when she landed the role of Meat in We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre. She went on to play Elphaba, the green-faced witch in Wicked, both in the West End and on Broadway before moving on to play Nancy in Oliver at The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
In between those musical theatre performances she recorded her debut album, Anthems, with Brian May and the pair went on a nationwide tour, the highlight of which was two sell-out performances at The Royal Albert Hall.
In the middle of all her other commitments Kerry and Brian are slipping in recording sessions where they can in an effort to get their second album finished some time in the New Year. She said everything is in a state of flux at the moment and the way the Born Free tour is received may influence the way that the album turns out.
“Brian is really rediscovering his love for the acoustic guitar at the moment and it’s lovely to hear him play that way.”
Talking to Kerry, you get the clear impression she is an ebullient person – ready to grab life by the scruff of the neck and give it a whirl. As the conversation progresses you find yourself being carried along by her infectious enthusiasm.
“This is very much an acoustic tour. The last tour we did together was massive and we had a rock band, backing singers and even a choir and orchestra at The Royal Albert Hall – it was very powerful – so this time it felt right to ring the changes and strip everything away and go back to basics.
“Brian loves the idea because he doesn’t get to play acoustic guitar very often. When we did our Anthems tour we did two songs acoustically, but Brian has always loved playing acoustic guitar. When he played with Queen during the Freddie Mercury era they always had an acoustic section and it was very popular.
“This time we do have a keyboard player with us but that’s it. Me on vocals, Brian on guitar and a keyboard player – it’s going to be simple and direct, doing what we do, and I think it will be a really intimate show – particularly in The Apex, which I absolutely love.”
This intimate feel to the shows would also influence the song choices. “It’s so seat-of-the-pants that we are still trying to compile a set list,” she laughs. “We are exploring the songs we really love to play. We are trying them out – some work and some don’t.” She pauses for a moment before adding: “The other thing we are doing is reworking some of the Anthems songs in new arrangements, so that’ll be fun. It’s been really interesting exploring that – just playing with different arrangements.
“It gives the songs a different appeal – just Brian’s guitar and me singing – very simple arrangements which highlight the beauty of the songs.”
The tour has come about because of their work with the Born Free charity which has been running in tandem with their album recordings. Shortly after The Apex gig in March, Kerry and Brian flew out to South Africa with Virginia McKenna to record a documentary about the plight of the lions in the wild. For Kerry it was an eye-opening experience.
“Going over there really makes you realise what a huge problem there is. It really brings home exactly how few lions are left in the wild. It’s a huge problem and it’s no exaggeration to say that children now being born may never see a lion in the wild. It’s absolutely tragic and we all need to do something about it.”
During their trip to South Africa she and Brian witnessed the transfer of two rescued lions to a new secure game reserve. “It was something that will stay with me for the rest of my life. We went with a team to move two lions to the Julie Ward Centre, which was much bigger and better for them. We had Brutus, a large male, who was rescued from the circus, and Marina, who was found outside apartment buildings. Can you believe that?
“At the Julie Ward Centre they have open space to roam and are as close to being wild as they can be. Brutus and Marina had to be darted with a gentle tranquilliser, and we watched and waited as they fell asleep. Brian, Virginia and I were all privileged to be in the container with the lions; and, just being with them on that journey, I can’t really describe the feeling I had. I felt truly overwhelmed by these powerful and beautiful creatures, plus on top of all that I was travelling with the founder of this whole project, Virginia McKenna – how amazing was that?”
Her initial involvement came about because Brian invited her to sing at a Born Free Foundation fund-raising dinner at London’s Savoy hotel.
“We decided it would be nice if we had a go at reworking the John Barry theme song Born Free. We contacted Don Black, who wrote the original lyrics, and he wrote us some new words, which means that this new version is unique – we performed it at that Savoy dinner and we are hoping to release it as a single to raise funds for the charity in the near future.”
It was as a result of that evening that Kerry and Brian were invited out to South Africa; and their work for the foundation has mushroomed.
“Brian and I are both animal lovers; Brian does a lot of work for our wildlife in the UK, promoting the protection of foxes and badgers, but going over to South Africa and seeing the desperate situation for the lion population really made us want to do something.”
She says that Suffolk audiences will be treated to a completely new show to the one that she brought to Bury in March.
Even though her friend and pianist and musical arranger, Craig Adams, is playing alongside her at The Hippodrome, he won’t be accompanying her back to Bury.
“I think he needs to get on with his own work – besides, I like working with different people. I find that who you work with brings out different aspects of your personality, so audiences get a different type of show. It keeps things interesting.”
Life is certainly interesting at the moment because Kerry barely has time to draw breath before Christmas.
Immediately before the Born Free tour she is flying to Shanghai for three weeks.
“The show in Shanghai is called Ultimate Broadway. It’s going to be a huge production.
“There are two singers from the West End, two from Broadway with a 60-piece orchestra, ten dancers and a local choir, and we are performing 13 shows in a couple of weeks.” In the New Year she will be appearing in a celebration of the musical Rent in Manchester before hopefully coming back to Suffolk to do a show with RAF Wattisham’s military wives choir at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich.
“It’s in the early stages but we’re talking to The New Wolsey about the possibility of doing a show in March/April.
“I am hoping that we can get something together with the military wives choir. I was last on stage there when I was part of the Wizard of Oz when I was nine, so it will be great to go back.
“Also, I love the fact that the New Wolsey is doing new musicals. It’s so important to get new work out there. It’s so important that writers and performers have the opportunity to try their work out away from the scrutiny of London.
“A show needs to settle, because it changes as soon as you put it in front of an audience.
“Working with Craig (Adams), who’s a new writer, has made me realise just how difficult it is to get something staged – to get new material into a theatre – so the fact that the New Wolsey is doing all this new work is fantastic.”
• Kerry Ellis and Brian May are playing by candlelight at The Apex on November 5.