Interview - Red Concepcion (Miss Saigon)

Miss Saigon, the blockbuster musical, is back! Setting off on a tour of the UK and Ireland, the show is bound to capture the hearts of many first time audiences, as well as dedicated fans. An exciting cast of performers, old and new, has been assembled for this new tour, and amongst them is Red Concepcion. Hailing from the Philippines, where his achievements in musical theatre include the Aliw Award for Best Actor in a Musical and the Gawad Buhay Award for his performance as Adam/Felicia in Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, in his UK theatre debut Red will be taking on the role of The Engineer, the devious owner of the Dreamland bar and brothel where the events of Miss Saigon begin. As he prepares to hit the road, Red Concepcion speaks about his experience of the show, what the rehearsal process has been like, and what he hopes audiences will take away from it at the end.

Red reflects on his experience so far, remarking that the rehearsal process has been ‘a little overwhelming for someone who hasn’t seen the show, and who comes from another country, because obviously the process it very different, but very exhilarating’. It may surprise people to hear that Red has never seen Miss Saigon before. ‘It went to Manila but I think I was too young to see it, but I’ve been a fan of the music for a long time. It’s beautiful, beautiful music’, he explains, ‘When I was a kid it was very big in the Philippines so I think we listened to the cassette tape. I had the whole album and I used to listen to it a lot’.

In some ways it’s possibly advantageous to be coming into the show fresh. It’s undoubtedly an iconic role, and one which frequently divides audiences. ‘The whole show is kind of a cautionary tale about war, and what war does to people, and The Engineer, although he’s funny and whimsical, more than that I want the audience to see the show to be like “if I ever find myself in war, or in a country in turmoil, or unrest, I should not turn into that guy!” Because he’s very conniving, very scheming, to get what he wants’. However, just like the rest of the characters within the musical, Red identifies that The Engineer is a victim of circumstance too. ‘He kind of has this inherent hatred of who he is. He wants to be an American, so he’s got an inherent hatred of himself, but he’s also knows and admires himself for all his cunning and his smarts, so having those two things in one person, constantly battling is very challenging, but a good challenge to be explored.’
Red Concepcion in rehearsals for the Miss Saigon UK Tour
Photo Credit - Manuel Harlan
The new tour features cast members from the West End production of Miss Saigon, such as leading actress Sooha Kim, who previously understudied the role in London before taking the lead in a production in Japan. However, it also features a load of new faces. It’s not hard to imagine that for a production so big, and with such a reputation, the pressure to get things right would be high, but as Red explains, ‘the creative team is very supportive and you can tell than they want us to do good, so it’s a very gruelling process but also a very encouraging lovable atmosphere.’ Reflecting on his experiences in rehearsals so far he laughs, ‘whenever I feel like I’m about to get stressed, everybody’s so loving and there’s really no cause to lose your mind.’

Speaking more generally about Miss Saigon, it’s not a surprise to hear his favourite part of the show to perform is The American Dream. 'It’s a show stopper, it’s so fun to do, working on it with the choreography and with the rest of the cast, I just love doing it’. Undoubtedly The American Dream, an outlandish dream sequence of a song which features countless dancers flooding the stage, along with a couple of pretty big symbols of wealthy America, is a jaw dropping and memorable highlight of the show which allows the actor playing The Engineer to cut loose for several minutes. He notes however that his favourite part of the show to watch is in fact Morning of The Dragon. ‘They pull out all the stops and they’ve got an amazing cast of dancers, and they just kill it every time’. It’s a lesser spoken about but equally breath-taking moment in the show, which shows a parade in Ho Chi Minh City celebrating the third anniversary of the reunification of Vietnam. The moment acts as a time jump within the story, and is just one of many incredible moments of spectacle within the show.

It’s partly this element of spectacle that Red identifies as a selling point of Miss Saigon. He enthuses that ‘Miss Saigon is a modern classic. There’s nothing like it in terms of its scope and its scale, the music that it has, and the storytelling that it manages to do’. And what does he hope that audiences will gain if they buy a ticket? ‘They’ll be laughing, they’ll be enjoying themselves, and thoroughly entertained, but also it’ll open their minds about a lot of things, like race, and war… everything.’

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Interview - The Cast of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, Lee Hall’s smash hit musical play, has been entertaining, startling and moving audiences around the world since it debuted at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe back in 2015. Having played to audiences in places like America and Australia before transferring to the West End, the sweary Olivier Award winning comedy has a somewhat irresistible appeal.

Sitting backstage at the Duke of York’s Theatre, the cast reflects on the reasons why Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour has been so successful, and shares their own personal experiences with the play…
Frances Mayli McCann (Kylah), Caroline Deyga (Chell), Isis Hainsworth (Orla), Dawn Sievewright (Fionnula), Karen Fishwick (Kay), Kirsty MacLaren (Manda)
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan 
‘Everybody remembers that point in life of being a teenager on the precipice of adulthood, and not really knowing what tomorrow’s going to bring…’Frances Mayli McCann muses. ‘We found when we took it round the world, to Australia and America, that same universal story resonates.’

Aside from its relatable plot, what’s fascinating about Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour is that it’s a piece of theatre which portrays women in such a brutally honest light, showing both the good and bad in each of its six main characters. As Karen Fishwick puts it, ‘there are definitely no shows that represent women the way that we represent them, which is strange because we represent them in a very real way.’ Dawn Sievewright adds, ‘When we did the press night they did this really amazing thing where they talked to quite a lot of people in the business just after they came out, and women just couldn’t believe the sense of joy and empowerment. They can’t believe that 6 young women plus 3 women in the band do this, it’s actually ridiculous.’ As empowering and moving as the play is, it does seem ridiculous that it’s considered scandalous just because it features young women drinking, swearing and engaging in a few family unfriendly conversations. ‘People walk out of our show all the time. We had 18 people walk out in one night,’ Sievewright continues, ‘people think we’re pushing boundaries but actually we’re just telling normal stories.’

In a show featuring such a variety of different characters, all with such relatable issues, and realistic bonds, it’s interesting to think about how the actors’ personalities shaped the story. Caroline Deyga describes that ‘in the auditions they asked everybody, out of all of the characters, who they related to most, and all of us that are playing these parts, all said these parts, which probably says a lot about how much we relate to these characters, because we sort of felt drawn to them, and so did a panel of people that were auditioning us’. It’s also exciting to consider how the actors’ input in the initial rehearsal process will have shaped the show in its future iterations. Deyga enthuses, ‘that’s really exciting as well, that parts of you will always be in that character’.

As Kirsty MacLaren says, ‘As an actor you very rarely get a chance to come at a piece of theatre that’s a skeleton that you get to really invest in, and you get to play with, because normally you come in and the design’s already set and the script’s set, where as in this you got to come in and play as actors, you got to have fun every day at work and make this piece of theatre together’. That sense of creating a piece of theatre as a group is absolutely prevalent in Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, a play which focuses largely on portraying the immensely strong bonds felt between friends. Interestingly, although 5 of the 6 cast members have been working together from the very beginning of the process, Isis Hainsworth made her professional stage debut when she joined the show for its transfer to the West End. ‘Before I came in, I was so scared,’ Hainsworth expresses, ‘they’d been together for so long, and I’d heard so much about it and everyone said it was the best thing they’d ever seen, and I was like oh shit, but then I came in and I met them and they’re all super lovely, and made me feel at home’.  

But with so many critically acclaimed productions on stage in London right now, why should audiences come and see Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour above anything else? Caroline Deyga has a pretty persuasive answer… ‘It’s as much an experience as it is a piece of theatre. And if you get shocked by it and you walk out then that is an absolutely credible thing to feel. Sorry we made you think.’ She adds with a smile, ‘but to have that strong response to a piece of theatre doesn’t come along all the time, so come and take advantage of it while it is here!’ And isn’t that as good a reason to go to the theatre as any?

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Review - Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour (Duke of York's Theatre)

'Let's go f*cking mental!' scream the unruly catholic schoolgirls of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour as they're set free from the confines of their quiet hometown for the day. Ferried into Edinburgh for a choir competition, the rowdy friends shed their stuffy uniforms and embark on an unforgettable day of drinking and partying. Hooches are downed, friendships are tested, and each girl is confronted with the realities of their lives, and their futures beyond high school. 

The cast of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan 
Best known for writing the screenplay and subsequent stage adaptation of Billy Elliot, Lee Hall has adapted Alan Warner's book The Sopranos into an exuberant and uninhibited play, which bubbles with youthful abandon. Featuring a cast of 6, who play a multitude of different characters in addition to their named roles, and an additional 3 musicians, Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour is brought to life with relentlessly energy which it's impossible not to be totally drawn in by. 

It's so heartening to see 6 female characters on stage, all of whom have completely different, and perfectly defined personalities. Far from dainty school girl stereotypes, each of the choir girls of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour as feisty, fleshed out and relatable as the next one. It's almost cathartic to see such realistic depictions of young women on stage. 

In addition to Lee Hall's magnetic book, as a play with music Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour benefits from some spine tingling musical performances numbers, performed by the blazingly talented company. Most notably, their adrenalized rendition of ELO's Mr Blue Sky is so energetic, peppy and audacious that it's impossible to resist. 

Most notably though, is that what's so magical about the story is how unremarkable it is in the grand scheme of things. Yes, in real life it's unlikely that 6 school girls could fit so much drinking, chatting and emotional cleansing into one day, but the way the girls interact within the play, the antics they get up to and the struggles they face are far from unheard of in schools up and down the country. Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour portrays young women at their most unguarded, and subsequently each character feels completely real, each action totally justified. 

At times the play feels almost like a rock concert, with blaring music, frenzied choreography and performances which frequently border on manic. It's a full throttle hour and forty five minutes, which jolts its audience through hilarious highs and crushing lows, and never lets up, even for a second. Unmissable is most definitely the word to describe Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour. It's a swirling riot of unbridled teenage spirit which will have you laughing one minute and crying the very next. Grab a ticket, and get ready to go f*cking mental!

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Interview - Natasha J Barnes (Funny Girl)

Prior to her high profile stint in the Michael Mayer directed London production of Funny Girl back in 2016, rising star Natasha J Barnes may not have been a household name, but there’s a good chance that London based musical theatre fans had already encountered the actor. Having made her West End debut in the relatively short-lived London production of Spring Awakening, also directed by Mayer, Barnes’ previous musical theatre credits included Heather in American Idiot at the Arts Theatre and Svetlana in Chess at the Union Theatre. ‘I did every school play, local poetry competitions, anything I could get my hands on’ the actress expresses, explaining how her love of performing began at a young age. ‘The passion grew from there really, into Theatre studies a-levels, NYMT, YMT and open auditions. An open audition is how I booked Spring Awakening’.

It’s been 6 years since the fateful audition which catapulted Barnes into a professional career in the theatre, and now she is starring as Fanny Brice on many of the stops during Funny Girl's UK tour, sharing the role equally with actor Sheridan Smith. 

Barnes was cast in the ensemble of Funny Girl when it debuted at well-loved off-West End theatre the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2015. However, when the show transferred to the West End in early 2016 Barnes was called upon to temporarily replace Sheridan Smith, after Smith was forced to take a break from the show for personal reasons. Thankfully the public welcomed the up-and-comer with open arms, and Barnes received plaudits from audiences and critics alike. ‘The support I got at the Savoy was unbelievable, from the company, the press, the audience, my family and friends; it was completely overwhelming but it helped me to be bolder and develop my own version of the character’ explains Barnes, who recalls ‘that character evolved over that time into something that sat better inside me, and re-discovering that this year has been really exciting.’

Musical theatre aficionados are undoubtedly aware of how iconic the role of Fanny Brice is. Originated by superstar Barbra Streisand in both the 1963 Broadway production of Funny Girl, and revered 1968 big screen adaptation, the self-professed “greatest star” is a plucky protagonist like no other. ‘Barbra Streisand is a masterclass. Her voice has so many colours and the way she uses the dialogue and music is fascinating to me’ says Barnes who, like so many performers and fans alike, describes herself as ‘a massive fan’ of the 1968 film which introduced mass audiences to songs such as I’m The Greatest Star, Don’t Rain on My Parade, and People, the latter being Barnes’ favourite song in the show. ‘I love singing that song. It's a simple moment but such a defining, human part of the story’ she says of the song, which has become something of a musical theatre staple. In fact, the role of Fanny Brice has topped the dream role list of many a musical theatre performer, whether aspiring or accomplished. The character's life is filled with hope and joy, but besieged with tragedy and heartbreak too. Such an interesting journey, accompanied by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill’s music and lyrics, makes Brice a fascinating powerhouse of a role. ‘I still have moments during the show where somewhere behind the character I light up singing those melodies’ Barnes reveals.  

Natasha J Barnes and Darius Campbell in Funny Girl
Photo credit - Paul Coltas
It’s clear that despite the vocal and emotional demands of the show, as well as the logistics of touring, Barnes is having a great time working on the Funny Girl tour. Describing the touring experience, she says ‘the audiences are different at each venue, they bring a flavour of the community and culture in with them and relate to different parts of the show in different ways. It's always a fresh feeling stepping out onto the stage’. And as if she wasn’t busy enough already, her debut album, which Barnes describes as ‘very personal’ and ‘a step away from musical theatre’, is due to be released in September 2017 as well.

Theatre lovers will undoubtedly be rushing to their nearest tour venues to catch the 5 star production of Funny Girl as it entertains audiences up and down the country. In the words of the star herself, Funny Girl is ‘a slick, glittering, West End quality show with real heart and humanity at the centre of it. It's got laughter and tears and music and movement and it's a wonderful way to escape for the evening!’

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