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INTERVIEW: 10 Minutes with Emma Williams

The Olivier-award nominee andLove StoryandChitty Chitty Bang Bangactress is set to appear in a one-off concert of great musical theatre songs on 19 July,Momentous Musicals. Lucy Thackray caught up with her to talk exciting workshops, dream rôles and an unconventional start in theatre…

You’re in a show calledMomentous Musicalsat the New Wimbledon Theatre next week – are you excited?

Yes, I’m working with some guys I’ve worked with before like Daniel Boys, and I’ve done a few concerts with Rachael Wooding, and then people I’ve not had the opportunity to work with like Gareth Gates and Jonathan Ansell, so it’s going to be good fun.

It’s sort of a whirlwind tour through some of the biggest and best musicals, isn’t it – can you give us a sneak preview of anything you’ll be singing?

We haven’t actually started rehearsals yet – it’s always difficult trying to get everyone’s schedules together; but I think that’s what makes this kind of thing so special, you’re getting a team of performers who wouldn’t normally all appear together. But I’ll be singing something fromChitty, so part of my musical history I suppose, but also something fromThe Phantom of the Operawith Jonathan Ansell, which will be lovely because it’s not a rôle I’ve played. That’s the great thing about these concerts, you sometimes get to sing things that you would never get the chance to. It’s really good fun.

And there’s a featured ensemble of ArtsEd graduates appearing alongside you?

I believe so. I think that’s great, getting people who are coming out of training and into a show like this – it’s a great way to send them off into their careers.

You were very young when you made your debut in the original London cast ofChitty Chitty Bang Bang(as truly Scrumptious) with Michael Ball. How did that come about?

I was 18. I finished my A levels – I went to a normal school, I didn’t study drama – and I had a film coming out that I was very fortunate to make, so I was taking a gap year. I was going to study modern languages and interpretation – so similar to being an actress! And I was really fortunate, my second audition wasChitty Chitty Bang Bangand that was it, really.

Do you think it’s sad that that doesn’t seem to happen any more? Finding a brilliant unknown performer and putting them in a big show like that?

I think it was rare that it happened like that anyway – there are an awful lot of ‘Oh my God’ moments when I think about it. I managed to get a rôle in a film (The Parôle Officer) when I was 17, with Steve Coogan. The fact that an agent from ICM (now Independent Talent Group) turned up on set one day and decided to take me on, the fact that she was willing to wait for me to finish my A levels before signing me up – all of those things are crazy. The reason I got the audition forChittywas that my agent was having dinner with Adrian Noble’s agent or something, and said, ‘We’ve got this new girl on the books, do you want to see her?’ I went to the audition with the advice that, this is just to get you used to auditions – you won’t get the job. And I got the job. I don’t think I realised quite how rarely that happens.

You must have trained in singing beforehand to be able to cope with the rôle?

I trained classically as a singer. I had done my Grade 8 and was on the way to doing my Diploma in music, just learning with a singing teacher. I went to a local drama group, but never did grades in drama or anything like that or study it at school. I had wanted to be a dancer when I was young, and then an actress when I realised dancing wasn’t my forte. The sensible part of me said it was a difficult industry to get into, so I’d need something else – I called it my mattress plan, my thing to fall back on.

You’ve worked with Michael Ball since, as he co-producedLove Storyin 2010 – he seems like great fun to work with…

He is great fun to work with; he’s very silly and naughty and plays a lot of tricks. He’s the sort of guy that I have a lot of respect for, not only as a person but as a performer, so when someone like that is so down to earth and relaxed and fun to work with, it sets you on a good track. It says a lot that 10 years on we’re still friends.,

Have you seen hisSweeney Todd?

I have! I love the show anyway, but I thought it was brilliant, and Imelda Staunton was amazing in it. I played Johanna in it at the Royal Festival Hall when it reopened, and worked with some amazing people then as well – that was the show I did with Daniel Boys. It’s an incestuous business!

Do you think the public has become more aware of British theatre as social media has helped people to promote smaller shows?

I think social media has done amazing things for West End and off-West End theatre. I do think we need to embrace off-West End a lot more. We don’t have the same culture as Broadway and off-Broadway – it’s not a case of them being round the corner. Our smaller theatres are so spread out. You can get brilliant productions; the reason that they are on the fringe is that they demand a smaller audience and a smaller theatre, an intimate space, not just that they’re not multi-million pound productions. So many shows have their starts on the fringe or at the Edinburgh Festival. I workshop a lot of new material because I’m passionate about the creation of new work. I remember workshopping one show in the 10thyear of its workshops, and about five years after that it finally had a production – there’s a great sense of achievement when that happens.

Weren’t you in a workshop ofMatilda?

Yes I was, in the very,veryearly stages. I played Miss Honey very briefly, when they were still trying to decide whether it should be a production using children playing the rôles or whether they should use adults and embrace that they were adults being kids, or use young-looking adults… we had a lovely week of playing around with the material. I didn’t hear any of the music at that stage; I’d read some lyrics but not actually heard the songs. I loved the book and always thought it could be a great piece of theatre. With that team behind it, it couldn’t really fail.

What has been your favourite show to work on so far and why?

I had an amazing time onBat Boy: The Musical, because the team was so great. I thinkbecause we did struggle to sell seats it almostjoined us all together as a team, and because we’d come down together from Yorkshire to London, it created a bit of a family. And I did love it as a show. But the one that’s really been dearest to my heart wasLove Story, because I was with it for four years, from workshops to demo recordings to being part of the production. So often when you workshop something, by the time it gets to the production you’re far too old to play the rôle! There was something about that piece that just means so much to me – every rôle that you play means a lot, but I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so devastated when a show finished. It had its first UK amateur premier this week in Ipswich and it’s going to Philadelphia later this year, so it’s so lovely to see it have that future life.

Are there still rôles you’d love to play?

So many rôles. So many that haven’t been written yet, almost certainly, I love working on new material, but there are so many great rôles I’d love to get my teeth into. Having sung a bit of Cunégonde fromCandideat the Bryn Terfel festival the other day, I’d love to do that – it’s one hell of a sing. There are so many great rôles in Shakespeare for women that I’d love to have a chance to play and really break away from my comfort zone. I’d love to try Cordelia inKing Lear– just being in a production ofKing Learwould be amazing – when I’m older I’d love to play Lady Macbeth, and maybe turn things on their head and follow in the footsteps of Fiona Shaw and play Richard II. You need to challenge yourself, always.

What’s next for you afterMomentous Musicals?

Unfortunately nothing I can talk about at the moment, but there are projects in the pipeline; projects for other people and personal projects. But people can follow me on Twitter – I always say that when there are new things I’m doing, I’ll put it on Twitter.

Momentous Musicalsis at the New Wimbledon Theatre on Thursday 19 July. For more information visitatgtickets.com. Follow Emma on Twitter@Williamstweet.

Bottom image: with Michael Xavier in Love Story.

About The Reviews Hub - Features

The Reviews Hub - Features
Our Features team is under the editorship of Nicole Craft. The team is responsible for sourcing interviews, articles, competitions from across the country. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.