From the Wolsey to the West End

Life is good for Stowmarket-born actress Kerry Ellis. She has just finished recording a new album, produced by Queen star Brian May, which is due out in September, and is currently playing the demanding role of Nancy, opposite Griff Rhys Jones, in the stage classic Oliver, at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.

A lot has changed since we last met in July 2002. At the time she was a rising hopeful who had just landed a part in We Will Rock You at The Dominion Theatre, having made her name as one of Martine McCutcheon’s understudies in the National Theatre production of My Fair Lady. Because of Martine’s long-running illness Kerry had plenty of opportunity to make a name for herself as Eliza Doolittle both on the South Bank and again at Drury Lane, when the production transferred into the West End.

Kerry was auditioned for We Will Rock You on the strength of her My Fair Lady performance and went onto create the role of Meat in the Queen/Ben Elton penned fantasy rock opera. After two years in the Queen show, she then spread her wings in Wicked playing the lead role of Elphaba both in London and New York and now she’s befriending Oliver in Lionel Bart’s classic musical.

When I cheekily suggest that, having achieved most of her life goals already, she must be preparing for an early retirement, she flashes her trademark smile and says that she’s busily compiling a new list of goals.

“I keep saying I have to make my wish list longer because with each job I keep checking off items on my lifetime achievements list. I make myself laugh because sometimes it all seems so unreal. Things like wanting to perform at The Royal Albert Hall, I wanted to record an album, I wanted to perform on Broadway...I just keep ticking them off, it’s amazing. At times I think I need to have bigger dreams.

“But, seriously, if I ever stopped and thought about what I was doing I think I would freak myself out. For instance I was headlining at the Royal Albert Hall last weekend at A Night of A Thousand Voices... how amazing is that?”

The way that she gets round the other-worldliness of her success is to focus on the ordinary day-to-day tasks that gets her through the day. It’s not hanging out with Brian May or rehearsing with Griff Rhys Jones that anchors her, although she remains immensely proud of her achievements and her friends, but its the everyday things that have to be completed to get her onstage and delivering a world-class performance.

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“For instance today, I knew I was coming in early to speak to you, but I had to get to the post office and then go to the bank and I had to make sure, those things got done before getting to the theatre. They’re not glamorous but they are important, everyday bits that still need to be taken care of.

“Then when I’m here I’m thinking about costumes, the songs I have to sing, when I need to get changed – it’s all that which is going through my head. I think, when I’m 60 I’ll probably look back and think: ‘ Oh my God, I did all that.’ But, at the moment I think if I spent too long thinking about it all I would get slightly overwhelmed by it all. I love what I do. I get a real buzz put of it. So I just want to concentrate on the day to day realities and deliver a good performance every night.”

So what’s her secret at keeping a performance fresh? “It’s what you are trained to do. I was in Wicked for two-and-a-half years and you have to treat every performance as if it is the first. That’s where the training comes in. What I tell students when I run workshops is just focus on telling the story. If you stay in character and tell the story, it’s a simple as that.”

She says that it is difficult not to be bowled over by the speed at which her career has developed. She says that unlike the girls in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s search for Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz or her predecessor as Nancy, Jodie Prenger, she has come up the traditional route of drama school, smaller roles, supporting roles then leads. “It’s taken me 10-12 years to get where I am now It has been quick but I have developed my skills along the way.

“It has been a whirlwind in many ways but at the sametime I’ve had time to develop and grow. I don’t envy the girls in these current TV talent shows because the winner is projected onto a West End stage where they have for deliver a world-class performance, eight shows a week for a year or however long the contract is. Every night has to be fresh. Every night has to be treated as an opening night. That’s a big ask. That’s something I’ve grown into with experience. They are expected to do it from the word go.

“They are baring their soul to the nation. It’s a very hard thing they are being asked to do. They are not given the luxury of being able to find their way or make mistakes because they are on display from the moment of their first audition. They are very young, they are very talented, they have lots of enthusiasm but it’s a tough job, I wouldn’t like to do it.”

Kerry says that often talent isn’t enough. Experience and training are also important factors to make sure that the performer can cope with the demands of a long-running show. She says one of the benefits of a long journey to the big time is that it builds up your stamina and your performing muscles.

“The big question about all those people in the talent shows is what happens next? Are they going to get another part? Are they going to go on and have a career or are they just going to disappear? They have been thrown into the limelight but what happens when the media spotlight moves onto someone else? Are they going to have the resources or the training to make it on their own? I don’t know. Some may get even bigger, they certainly have the talent, but because they haven’t had the training you can’t tell. I worry that we may not see some of them again. I certainly wish them all the best.”

Kerry is certainly enjoying life in the West End. She admits getting a kick out of seeing her name on the marquee outside the theatre but she wasn’t always certain that she wanted to be a professional actress. As a youngster she says she was distracted by bewildering array of different interests.

The former Stowmarket High School student describes herself as a hyperactive young girl who loved the theatre but then she loved a lot of other things as well. “I always performed as a kid – I did local shows, local pantomimes. I had dance classes as every child does and everything else as well – swimming, horseriding, you name it I did it.

“Then it kind of got to that time when you are doing too much and you have to drop a few things. I used to swim a lot. I liked swimming and that was quite high on my list of priorities but I had to make some decisions about what I wanted to do with my life.

“In the end, it was always going to be dancing and performing. I carried on doing my classes through school, carried on doing shows and school plays. I did a couple of shows at the Wolsey and just went for it.”

She says that the first time she stepped onto a theatre stage was at the Wolsey Theatre in a production of The Wizard of Oz. After completing her studies at Stowmarket High Kerry, like Ruthie Henshall, attended Laine Theatre Arts School in Surrey.

She gained professional experience doing summer seasons while at college and then in 1998, just as she graduated from Laine Theatre Arts, landed a job on The Magic of the Musicals – Marti Webb’s tour celebrating the music of the West End and Broadway.

The tour came to Ipswich and fate must have been smiling on her because that evening Marti was laid low by illness and Kerry was required to go on in her place. She laughs now remembering her nerves at the time. “Because it was in Ipswich, I had all my home crowd there to support me, Mum, Dad, family and friends. They were all urging me on which was great.

“It felt strange because it was Marti Webb’s show but that’s been the story of my life really, going on for names. I did the whole performance in Ipswich. Dave Willets was singing opposite her on the tour and he was very supportive.”

Having successfully survived her baptism of fire, it was time for what amounted to a working holiday on the world’s largest cruise liner The Voyager of the Seas. “I was engaged as a lead vocalist. I sailed around the Caribbean for nine months, which was lovely. It’s a fantastic job. I was sailing around this wonderful place, in the lap of luxury and I only had to do two shows a week. I worked hard for those shows, but really it was nothing like working in the West End and the money was very good.”

She left the ship in Los Angeles and spent three months travelling across the US until her visa ran out. Then it was back to Britain and more Magic of the Musicals before auditioning for what was to become her big break My Fair Lady.

“I did that for 15 months – three months at the National and the rest at Drury Lane. My Fair Lady was incredible. It was a great step up for me. It was important not just in the type of show it was but also in getting my face known.”

She said developing a following over a number of years through a variety of shows was important for a performer. “You look at Ruthie Henshall. She came up through the traditional route like me, she even went to Laine Theatre Arts like me, and she has built up a very strong following. People go and see a show because she’s in it. So she has a lot of power in that way. She’s worth a lot to a show because she brings an audience with her.”

When I ask whether Kerry has a sense that she developing a similar following, she fires off an embarrassed laugh. “Oh, I don’t know. I do have a very loyal following. I gained a lot of support from Wicked and my opening night here in Oliver was mind-blowing. The support I had for that and various concerts has been tremendous and I’m very grateful. And yes, I suppose my following has been growing certainly with the videos from the album on YouTube.”

Mention of Kerry’s new CD Anthems and you can see the sparkle light up her eyes. It is clear that she is exceptionally proud of her debut album. “My first recording Wicked in Rock was more like an EP. I was going to Broadway and I wanted something to take with me. I have now signed to Decca Records and now recorded a full length album. Brian May has produced it and plays on it. We recorded it in Abbey Road with a 70 piece orchestra, then put a rock band over the top and Brian over the top of them. It’s just mindblowing. I don’t know how to describe the sound of it. It’s just epic. It’s widescreen music.”

She said that her friendship with Brian goes back to her days in We Will Rock You and she performed Defying Gravity from Wicked with him at The Royal Variety Performance in 2008. The songs on the album are an eclectic mixture of personal favourites along with new songs written by herself, Brian May and veteran lyricist Don Black who adapted the Bond film classic Diamonds Are Forever especially for Kerry.

The album occupies a special place in her heart but as for long term career goals her sights are very much set on the stage.

“I love theatre, it’s what I do. I am sure I will continue to do it for the rest of my life. I just look for good roles. Interesting parts to play, good songs to sing. Roles that move me. Look at Nancy, it’s a great part to play and presents its own set of challenges. She says that any actor can only work if the right roles are out there waiting to be claimed. “It depends on what’s around at the time. I’ve been quite lucky to play quite iconic roles, some very strong iconic women which has been a blessing to play because you have so much to work with. Look at Nancy. She has such a journey and such a story to tell. She has lovely moments with the children, she has quite a feisty relationship with Bill and she has a different relationship with Fagin which makes it really interesting to play.”

What of other ambitions? Is there anything she hasn’t done? “I’ll tell you what I would love to do. I would love to create a role from scratch, like I did with ‘Rock You’ . Although I do treat each role as if it is a new show, there is something special about creating a role - creating a character that no-one else has played before.”

Kerry is playing Nancy in Oliver at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane until October 2. Her album Anthems is available on CD from September 13.