West End star Kerry Ellis is in harmony with Wattisham Military Wives Choir

Kerry Ellis back in Suffolk

Kerry Ellis back in Suffolk - Credit: Archant

SUFFOLK-BORN West End leading lady Kerry Ellis is enjoying re-connecting with her home county. She made a flying visit to Sudbury to present a cup at the Sudbury Festival of Dance – an event she used to perform at herself as a youngster.

West End star Kerry Ellis back at the John Peel Centre.

West End star Kerry Ellis back at the John Peel Centre. - Credit: Archant

In two weeks she will be back in Suffolk, taking another major journey back to her roots when she performs two concerts at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich – the scene of her stage debut at the tender age of 12.

Kerry Ellis as Elphaba in Wicked

Kerry Ellis as Elphaba in Wicked - Credit: Archant

“There’s a real sense of homecoming. I took my first steps as a performer on the stage of the Wolsey when I was one of the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. It’s a lovely space: a really intimate venue. You can see everyone and everyone can see you.”

Kerry Ellis as Nancy and cast of Oliver!

Kerry Ellis as Nancy and cast of Oliver! - Credit: Archant

The former Stowmarket High School girl has really re-connected with her home county in the past 12 months, becoming patron of the John Peel Centre before playing a fund-raising gig at The Apex last March.

Kerry Ellis giving the thumbs-up tothe Wattisham Military Wives Choir at AbbeyFest last year.

Kerry Ellis giving the thumbs-up tothe Wattisham Military Wives Choir at AbbeyFest last year. - Credit: Archant

In fact she was so taken with the ambience and the facilities at The Apex that she persuaded her mate, guitarist Brian May, to start their Born Free tour at the Bury concert venue last November.

The Wattisham Military Wives choir rehearsing for the Kerry Ellis show at the New Wolsey Theatre

The Wattisham Military Wives choir rehearsing for the Kerry Ellis show at the New Wolsey Theatre - Credit: Andy Abbott

In addition to being patron of Stowmarket’s John Peel Centre she has also recently become patron of the Wattisham Military Wives Choir after watching them perform at AbbeyFest last summer.

Wattisham Military Wives with former choirmaster Michael Dann in the centre

Wattisham Military Wives with former choirmaster Michael Dann in the centre - Credit: Archant

She was so impressed by their talent and dedication that she accepted an invitation to become their patron. As with the John Peel Centre, Kerry is not content to be simply a name on a letterhead; she likes to be involved and so, when she had a gig booked at the New Wolsey, she invited the choir to join her on stage.

Brian May and Kerry Ellis playing a sold out event at the Apex, Bury St Edmunds.

Brian May and Kerry Ellis playing a sold out event at the Apex, Bury St Edmunds.

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Choir members Anna Lewis and Aimee Bruce said it was a huge honour but they are equally scared to death at the prospect of performing alongside such a vocal powerhouse.

Anna said: “I saw her when she played Elphaba in Wicked and she was amazing. She has an incredible voice. It’s going to be exciting and nerve-wracking to be up on stage with her.”

Kerry won a place at Laine Theatre Arts School at 16 and sang on cruise ships before landing the job as Martine McCutcheon’s understudy in the National Theatre production of My Fair Lady. McCutcheon had a long bout of illness, which meant that, in classic showbiz tradition, Kerry was on stage more often than the star of the show. One of the people who caught her performance was Queen guitarist Brian May, who encouraged her to audition for the role of Meat in Queen’s then-forthcoming musical We Will Rock You.

She won the part and was in the show for two years, before leaving to join the casts of Miss Saigon and then Les Miserables.

Her theatrical fame was cemented, however, when she became the first British actress to play Elphaba in the West End version of Wicked – an alternative look at the story of the witches in The Wizard of Oz.

Broadway star Idina Menzel opened the show for six months before returning to America. Kerry then took over and made the role her own for the next three years. She even crossed the Atlantic and played Elphaba on Broadway for six months.

At the end of her run in Wicked, she teamed up with Brian May again to record the album Anthems, which they performed together at The Royal Albert Hall – winning a What’s On Stage award in the process.

She also played Nancy opposite Griff Rhys Jones’ Fagin in Lionel Bart’s Oliver at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

It’s been a busy couple of years which has also included an acoustic tour with Brian May, raising funds and awareness for the Born Free Foundation, and the pair have recently started recording their second album together.

“Life is so hectic at the moment I don’t know if I am coming or going,” she laughs.

No sooner had she finished the acoustic Born Free tour at the end of November than she immediately went into rehearsals for a massive six-week tour of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, taking in arenas across the UK and Europe.

“It felt a little like panto. We started at the end of November and went on to the end of January. It was a big event, a huge hit, and it was just fantastic to do. It seemed to go so fast. If you blinked you missed it. It was an incredible experience.”

Kerry was cast as Beth, the preacher’s wife, opposite Jason Donovan as The Preacher. Marti Pellow was the sung thoughts of the journalist, while The Kaiser Chiefs’ Ricky Wilson was The Artilleryman.

“The cast were just wonderful, working with Jeff Wayne was lovely, and it was lovely to play those big arenas. We did the O2 and Wembley, as well as some big European dates and the Dublin O2. It was just fantastic. I really enjoyed it because it was just so different from what I normally do. It was a real experience.”

Surprisingly, it was some of the seemingly straight-forward things, which an experienced actor normally takes in their stride, which proved to be some of the trickiest hurdles to negotiate.

“At the beginning I didn’t quite know how to play it – it was difficult judging your performance – but I soon found my feet. Because you are in a huge arena, there was a temptation to project your performance and play to the back of the arena. But, if you do, then it will look wrong on the screens, so it’s safest to give a standard theatrical performance because then you have got a happy medium.”

She said there was great camaraderie among the cast and crew, which made the hectic tour over the extended Christmas and New Year period enjoyable. “Jason was lovely. He’s a great professional and made it fun every night.”

Since completing The War of the Worlds tour Kerry has thrown herself into a series of solo concerts, which will culminate in May with a dream-come-true show at The London Palladium.

In addition to that, she and Brian are putting the finishing touches to their second album and she is about to play the role of Mimi in an anniversary tour of Rent.

Yesterday, she and Brian played an acoustic set at St Pancras Station, launching the Tiger Tracks appeal for the Born Free Foundation. She says the wildlife charity is close to both their hearts and last year they were flown to South Africa to see for themselves the work that goes into keeping the lion population away from hunters and the growing urban areas.

Unfortunately, Kerry can’t be persuaded to give away any clues about the content of her new album. All she will say is that she is hoping it will be out sometime during the summer.

“The new album is nearly done. We’re just adding the finishing touches. I am incredibly excited about that. It’s different to the first one. It’s very close to being ready but I can’t really say any more until it’s done. Brian and I are going out on the road with the Born Free acoustic tour again and it would be nice if it was ready for that, but we’ll have to see what happens.”

Before then Kerry has got two nights at the New Wolsey Theatre and then six weeks later her date at The London Palladium. “It’s amazing that we have got two gigs back-to-back and they couldn’t be more different.

“The New Wolsey show is going to be small and intimate and then The London Palladium is going to be big and showbizzy.”

For Kerry, part of the fun of her solo shows is having the freedom to design a set list to suit the occasion. No two shows are ever the same. “The Palladium is quite an iconic place to play. I come from this huge theatre background and over the last four years I have toured and done my own shows – and toured with Brian – but it seemed the time was right to touch base again with my theatrical following.

“So we are going to have more of a musical theatre feel with the song choice and mix in some of the highlights of my career with some of the songs that I really love from theatre. Give it some glitz and glamour.”

Before then Kerry is eagerly anticipating a return to the New Wolsey and the stage that gave her a taste for performing. She is thrilled that the show sold out so quickly that a second date had to be added: “It was amazing. I feel so honoured that people want to come and see me. It’s going to be a fun night. A chance to sing a few of my favourite songs – I still haven’t finally settled on what I am going to do – but just as importantly have a chat with the audience.

“The thing that has really changed for me over the last few years is being relaxed enough to talk to an audience as me. As an actor you normally speak as a character, you are playing a part, but I really love being able to engage with an audience as me.

“When I did the Anthems show with Brian at the Royal Albert Hall it was still quite new to me but a couple of years on I hope I have developed as an artist and I can bring a relaxed quality to both the Wolsey and Palladium shows.

“As you get older and more experienced you stop worrying so much about how you come across or what people think. It’s all about confidence and overcoming those barriers. It was incredibly difficult at first but now I really enjoy it. It’s a part of the show that I love.”

She added that she is really pleased to be sharing the stage with The Wattisham Military Wives Choir, which will give the Ipswich concert a genuinely local feel.

I saw the Wattisham Military Wives in Bury during the summer and I was really blown away by them. They are a great bunch of women and they share a common love of singing. They all know and support one another. They all want to sing. It’s all about taking it back to basics. They do it for the love of singing and that’s wonderful.

“It’s going to be a great evening because they bring their own energy and their own music and, hopefully, touch wood, we’ll do something together.”

The choir was born out of the BBC TV series with Gareth Malone and was founded in Suffolk by Sally Wilkinson. Choir committee member Anna Lewis said: “We never thought it would be as popular as it has become. I think there is something like 100 choirs now around the country.

“It’s a chance for like-minded people to come together, do something together, have a sing and just forget that your husband/boyfriend is thousands of miles away.

“We’re not there to come home crying. The idea is to meet up with friends and enjoy ourselves.”

She said that last year was a real baptism of fire. “The choir was formed, we did a number of church fetes, the Suffolk Show, AbbeyFest, which was huge, we did recording for the Military Wives album Stronger Together, we had a couple of members perform with a larger Military Wives choir at the Classical Brits, then came The Poppy Appeal launch in Trafalgar Square with the Royal British Legion – which just blew everyone away.”

They are thrilled that Kerry has been so supportive. “To have someone like her be our patron is just fantastic. We are so pleased to be sharing a stage with her.

“She came to see us perform at AbbeyFest and was just lovely. She talked to us backstage, shared some of her warm-up techniques, talked about preparation before going onstage. It was great. It helped us overcome our nerves and allowed us to perform better.”

The New Wolsey show with Kerry Ellis is the start of their 2013 performing season, which will see another appearance at the Suffolk Show and a series of summer gigs at various local fetes and events.

n Kerry Ellis will be performing at The New Wolsey Theatre on March 17-18. Limited tickets for the March 18 show are still available. The Wattisham Military Wives Choir will be appearing only on March 17.

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