West End star Kerry Ellis returns to Bury’s Apex to mark 20 years in showbiz
- Credit: Archant
East Anglian West End star Kerry Ellis is celebrating 20 years in show business with a tour that takes audiences on a trip down memory lane. Arts editor Andrew Clarke caught up with her to talk about life in the spotlight
For Suffolk-born West End star Kerry Ellis life has been an eventful blur. She’s played lead roles in the West End and on Broadway, she’s recorded and toured with Queen guitarist Brian May as well as having her own solo music career.
The former Stowmarket High School girl made her first professional appearance on stage at Potter’s Holiday Resort outside Lowestoft before being ‘discovered’ as Martine McCutcheon’s understudy in the National Theatre production of My Fair Lady. She then went onto originate the role of Meat in We Will Rock You, playing the role of Elphaba in Wicked from 2007 to 2009, before joining the Drury Lane production of Oliver, Cats at the London Palladium and starring in the UK premiere of the dramatic musical Murder Ballad.
This year Kerry is marking her 20th anniversary in show business with a new tour taking audiences on a musical memory tour, revisiting highlights from her career. 2018 has also seen Kerry break new ground playing her first non-musical role, Gwendolen Fairfax, in a touring production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
I caught up with Kerry to discuss the highlights of her career and together we were dazzled at just how quickly the time has passed.
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Earlier this year you were in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which was being touted as your first straight ‘non-musical’ role but in reality Murder Ballad two years ago was essentially a play with music.
“That’s right. It wasn’t that different. Murder Ballad was a serious role in a musical where this is a non-singing role in a comedy. It’s not a huge difference. It’s not as if I am changing my profession. I have really loved it. I regard it as a progression.
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“The funny thing is that I notice the differences more when I’ve been doing a concert at the weekend. You do a concert at the weekend. It’s all relaxed and chatty and then on Monday you are back doing the play and I find myself thinking ‘Where’s the music?’. I know it’s an obvious thing to say but you do notice it after you’ve been away but then you settle down and you’re back in the swing of things again and you don’t worry about it. But, I have to say I have really enjoyed it – getting lost in the story and then having some dates added because it was so popular was the icing on the cake. Doing a play was a challenge and that’s what I love.
You have an amazingly varied career. Has that come about by a conscious plan to have lots of different strings to your bow or is it a happy accident?
“I have been in the business for 20 years and you do need a challenge to keep things fresh. I love doing different things, my career is filled with variety – one day I’m doing a radio show, the next I’m doing a voice over, the next I am doing a musical, now a play… I love that variety and I think the older I get, and the more I look back on my career, I am really grateful that I have been so fortunate to have got the work that I have. I think you start to value things a little bit more.
“I get up in the morning and I think ‘Oh what have I got on today?’ It’s never predictable or boring. No two days are ever the same. I am lucky that there are days when I can take the kids with me and when they jump on me in the morning I can say: ‘ Guess where we are going today?’
“I worry about getting a routine for the kids, and getting some stability into their lives but I have had to accept that they are living a different life – so that’s become their normal. And I’m not the only one. Ruthie (Henshall) is a prime example and you have to find a way to preserve family life and make it work for you.
“The thing about this tour I am doing at the moment is the fact we are having a hard time keeping everything to time. We have a core set which anchors the show but because I have done so much, we like to change some things every night, put different songs in, and with 20 years worth of material to choose from, it’s hard to come up with one show that covers everything properly.
“So by changing the set list around each night, having different guests, it means I can address different parts of my career and talk about different things each night. It makes things interesting for me and hopefully the audience too because you never know what you are going to get.
How early did you know this is what you wanted to do?
“I think that I always knew I wanted to be a performer. I think from a child I knew exactly what I wanted to do and I don’t think anything has changed. I think I’m an over-active adult now. I think it’s just in our bones, we love it and we have to do it. It’s in you from an early age. I can’t explain it but it’s a need to perform. You live it every day and you have to love it to do it. Weathering the unemployment, getting up at crazy o‘clock to get to a job on time. Then having to drive back in order to do a show in the evening. And still being round 20 years down the road, it’s something worth celebrating, so that’s why I wanted to do this tour.
“When I was putting the show together we wanted to feature material from right across my career and some of my favourite songs. I love the variety that my current position offers me. Some people love long runs, and I have done that in the past, but currently I like short runs, fixed engagements, because it gets me home. It makes life work with a young family.
How important was Potters, did it help get you your place at Laine Theatre Arts?
“They happened at roughly the same time. I went to Potters on work experience but I already had my college place but I went back to work there for Christmas and the summer seasons. So I was getting professional training but I had somewhere to go and put into practice what I had learned at Laine and gain experience of working in front of a live audience. It was like it was part of my training. I am forever grateful for the opportunities they gave me and I made friends for life there and they still support new performers and young performers and they give a valuable opportunity to learn stage craft, to learn how to perform live.
How important is it being in the right place at the right time?
“I think there is an element of the stars aligning but I think you do also create your own opportunities. I am always on the phone coming up with new ideas, talking through new proposals, you do have to work at it. I am always looking for something new to do. I think you have to be proactive and put yourself out there. You can’t sit back and wait for the phone to ring.
How important was it to have worked with someone like Sir Trevor Nunn on My Fair Lady, right at the start of your career?
“Oh, so important. It was like a further period of training. I had just come of the Magic of Musicals show with Marti Webb and then went into this massive show directed by Trevor Nunn and working opposite Jonathan Pryce, all these amazing people, the company was incredible, and I was thrilled to be a part of it. Actually Trevor came to my first night of the 20th Anniversary tour at the Union Chapel in London. He sent me a lovely message afterwards saying that it was lovely to see me again and what a good time he had but he was the person who gave me that opportunity all those years ago. It was so important. Some days I have to pinch myself to make sure it is real and I’m not dreaming it.
Did you audition for understudy or as a member of the ensemble?
“A bit of both. I went in did some singing, dance, a bit of script, and so I knew I was in the running for an understudy and ensemble and I ended up being swing and a cover which was amazing.
And one night when you were covering Martine McCutcheon Brian May was in the audience and invited you to audition for We Will Rock You?
“It’s funny that since we have worked together for so long and have toured and recorded albums together, we still talk about that time when we first met. That inspired a whole new section of my career, that music element, the concert section, working with Brian, making albums and taking them out on the road. It’s been amazing.
We Will Rock You was your first long run in a show – was it difficult keeping your performance fresh for the 18 months you were in the show?
“It wasn’t difficult because I was young, I think I was 22 when we opened the show and I was just so caught up in the thrill of being in a major West End, we were working with Queen, we were working with rock stars, it was a young company, there was just so much energy in the show, it was just a blast. Also, towards the end I was starting to go into the studio with Brian and I was still new to the West End experience. I was loving my life. There was no problem finding the energy to do the show eight times a week because I loved it.
“I’ve been so lucky that I have appeared in virtually all the shows that really inspired me when I was young. I was in a run of fantastic Cameron Mackintosh shows Miss Saigon, Les Miserables, Oliver, all the shows I loved when I was growing up. Les Mis was the first show I ever saw. My parents took me up to London. It was the first West End show I saw, I played it in town, then I went on and had a part in the film.
“Then comes Wicked and I met my husband (James Townsend) at around the same time. I met him six weeks before I went to Broadway, so it was a bit crazy. The whole time I was in New York, he would fly out to see me every few weeks, it was mental. At the same time I was doing one of the biggest jobs of my life and so from that point it was about balancing your work commitments with maintaining a private life and it’s carried on like that ever since, more so now because we have two lovely boys.
“James and I have incredibly busy lives, he works in football with a lot of responsibility, and our schedules are not straight forward but we work hard at supporting one another and try to bring us all together as a family as often as possible. He’s brilliant at bringing out the boys to where ever I am.
“He brought them out to Belfast a couple of weeks ago when I was doing the play. We had 24 hours together and we make it work. It was lovely. I feel that I am very well supported. I can’t do anything without my family. I feel very fortunate. Having said that there are times when the best laid plans fall apart and we are tearing out hair out and we’re saying: “Well you’re going to have to go here, I’ll drive and meet you and pick up the kids or I’ll drive for 12 hours after a show to get home , so James can go to work, but, that’s life.”
Is working on Broadway different? Are audiences different?
“Not really, I think that there’s an element of the grass is greener. I loved my time on Broadway and I would love to go back and do it again, perhaps with my own show, but I loved being in Wicked on Broadway and because it’s such an interactive show and audiences love it, I didn’t notice much difference between the West End and Broadway. I would love to go back to New York and play Carnegie Hall but I would want to go back for a reason, so taking a show to Carnegie Hall would be a good thing.
How important is the concert/music element? You’ve done a lot of work both solo and with Brian May, how does that fit in with the life of someone who is making a living on the stage?
“I have always enjoyed having a career made up of a lot of different elements. It keeps life interesting. I would miss any of the elements if they weren’t there. I love working with Brian, we done lots of tours together, made three albums and I’ve also done solo work without him. What I love about doing a concert as opposed to acting in a musical is that I can talk directly to the audience, I can make contact, and I can sing a wide variety of songs, songs that mean something to me. I love that my band can play lots of different styles of music and that I can bring all that together.
And Brian is largely responsible for that. He taught me how to look at music differently and gave me new tools to play with. He introduced me to writing songs and how to mix a song in the studio. I think working with Brian gave me confidence to engage with an audience as me rather than as a character. Also that comes with age, after 20 years in the business I am a lot more comfortable with myself as a performer and as a person than I was when I started out. You are also open to the special one-off possibilities that live performance can bring. The last time I was in Bury with Matt Cardle we did a duet on Queen’s Who Wants To Live Forever, which was magical but also completely spontaneous, but that happened because we were having such fun on stage. That performance was unique to that evening and that’s what you have to be alive to – you have to make special moments happen.
Kerry Ellis will be performing her 20th Anniversary show at The Apex, Bury St Edmunds, on May 7 and at Norwich Playhouse on June 6.
PANEL: Kerry Ellis: 20 Years, 20 Memories
1998 - Graduated college and played Cinderella with Bobby Davro in Panto
1999 - First ever tour ‘Magic of the Musicals’ with Marti Webb and Davie Willets
2000 - Performed on the maiden voyager of biggest ship in world RCCL
2001 - First West End show, My Fair Lady and brought my first flat.
2002 - Originated first role Meat in We Will Rock You
2003 - Performed in front of 70.000 Party in the Park and the Royal Jubilee
2004 - Toured with Miss Saigon
2005 - Played Fantine in Les Mis West End - childhood dream
2006 - Moved home brought my second flat
2007 - Wicked - say no more
2008 - Met my husband at a wedding
2009 - Played Elphaba on Broadway
2010 - First solo album and tour - Anthems
2011 - Got married
2012 - Got a part in the Les Mis film !
2013 - Birth of my first child - Alfie
2014 - released KE album and toured
2015 - Birth of second child - Freddie , and performed in Verona with Brian, live on tv and in front of 50,000 people
2016 - One Voice tour with Brian across Europe
2017 - signed to Sony records and released ‘Golden Days’ with Brian May, started my own radio show with Encore Radio
2018 - First play and 20th anniversary tour