Monday, 26 November 2018

INTERVIEW: Gemma Sutton, soon to star in the title role in Aladdin at the Hackney Empire

Gemma Sutton is one of the most talked about West End leading ladies of the moment, having starred in numerous musicals over the years. She is now taking on the title role in the Hackney Empires 20th Anniversary Pantomime, Aladdin before heading off to the National Theatre to play Young Sally in Folles. Just some of her credits include Charity in Sweet Charity (Watermill Theatre), Angel in The Rink (Southwark Playhouse), Fran in Strictly Ballroom (West Yorkshire Playhouse, Princess of Wales Theatre), The Go-Between (Apollo Theatre), Louise & June in Gypsy (Savoy Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre),   Julie Jordan in Carousel (Arcola Theatre), Roxie in Chicago (Leicester Curve), Amber in Hairspray (UK Tour), Sally in Me and My Girl (Kilworth House), Enid & Understudy Elle Woods in Legally Blonde (Savoy Theatre) and  Laurey in Oklahoma! (UK Tour).

You have had such a varied career, performing not only all over the country but around the world too. What’s been your favourite place you’ve visited with work?

I enjoyed my 10 weeks in Toronto, Canada in 2017 with Strictly Ballroom as it’s a very friendly place and because we were there for a while we really got to know the city. I also had a very interesting three weeks in Cairo, Egypt doing the first western musical ever seen there - The Sound of Music. It was in a tent in the desert and they dug an orchestra pit out of the sand, so it was a memorable experience to say the least. 

You started your career understudying in shows before really making your name as a true West End leading lady. What have you learnt from starting out that way that you’re proud of? 

I learned a great deal from understudying as it really allows you to observe from the sidelines, watching amazing leading performers work both on stage and in the rehearsal room and also how to lead a company well. I think it’s really important that there is a nice atmosphere in the company, particularly for long runs, and you have a responsibly as a leading performer to help that along. Everyone has a different start in the industry depending on circumstance but working your way up does give you a grounding to know that longevity requires patience and graft.

Having seen you in Gypsy and then The Rink, it was wonderful to see you perform with such versatility. If you looked back on your career so far what would you say has been your favourite role(s) to date? 

Gypsy was thrilling because it was so well received and it was a great challenge to play both June and Louise during the West End run, and working with Imelda Staunton was a real privilege. I hold a special place in my heart for Julie Jordan in Carousel at the Arcola because of her complexity as a character and I had great fun playing Roxie in Chicago at the Leicester Curve as she is so full of mischief. 

Gemma As Louise & June in Gypsy at the Savoy Theatre
You famously played Louise and June in the Chichester transfer of Gypsy with the incredible Imelda Staunton, what was it like seeing the show from both of those characters point if views? 

It was a fun, satisfying experience because I really got to explore all the ways having a mother like Mama Rose may affect being a child of hers - the wanting to please, the rebelling, the struggle for identity, the longing for stability, the need for a father figure. Having started the show as June meant that I was always involved in all the table discussions during rehearsals where we explored the family unit dynamics - so it made my character work for Louise easier when the time came to prepare. I read everything I could about the real people the show is based on and being a someone’s daughter in real life means there’s lots you can relate to - but my mother is nothing like Mama Rose thankfully!

Both The Rink (Southwark Playhouse) and Sweet Charity (Watermill) may be featured in our Best Shows of 2018 article coming at the end of this year… Two very different shows in two very interesting spaces. How is it, for an actor, to adapt to these different spaces after playing long runs in traditional West End Theatres? 

That would be so lovely if they were - thank you! I love and (I’ll whisper it....) often prefer shorter runs in smaller theatres. There are lots of reasons for this - producers take risks on the type of shows as they know it doesn’t need to be a multi-million pound extravaganza, the pressure is off so you can really play and step well outside your comfort zone, you may get to work on new material, you get to collaborate with interesting artists and creatives and work in different ways, and more intimate venues give an opportunity for an acting style that allows you to play more naturalistically (if it suits the piece). Without big budgets it means you often have to think of creative ways to tell the story which is always a fun challenge for an actor.

Gemma in Sweet Charity at the Watermill Theatre
If you had to return to one show you’ve previously done, in any role, which one would it be? 

Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity at The Watermill was probably the most fulfilling job I’ve done as I really got to explore comedy, and I adored the actor- musician concept that the Watermill is famous for. Neil Simon’s script is a gift and she is such a complex character - her optimism covering all this deep insecurity about her lack of self-worth and confusion about what love really is. 

And do you have any dream roles you’d love to play? 

Sally Bowles in Cabaret is definitely on the list, Little Red Riding Hood in Into the Woods (although I’m probably too old now!) and above all - creating a character in a new show at the National Theatre - I love being involved in new work from the workshop stages as the collaborative nature of musicals fascinates me. 

You’re returning to Pantomime after having not been in one for a few years, how do you feel about spending your Christmas holidays playing Aladdin at the Hackney Empire? 

I can’t wait! Having worked at Hackney Empire in Blues in the Night in 2015 I have so many happy memories of the building and the lovely people here that make it so magical. It really is a family atmosphere in the building - there’s no place like it. I can’t wait to look out on the beautiful auditorium each performance. Also, my cat is very happy as it means I’ll be living at home over Christmas and so he’ll get lots of attention. 

The Hackney Empire are famous for their pantomimes, what are you most excited about for this one? 

Rehearsals have been a joy, we have giggled so much as we are lucky to have a group of people with genuinely funny bones who really understand panto - so I think I’m most excited for sharing that fun, humour and silliness with the audience. When Clive and Tameka are on stage it is mayhem in the best possible way. Aladdin is actually a really cool story too - it has a lot of twists and turns and in the wonderful Hackney Empire style. Our panto celebrates diversity and being a Londoner like no other, it has that extra little bit of magic to it.

What can we look forward to from the Empire’s Panto this year? And what extra special things will the 20th Anniversary year bring? 

Well I think the cast are brilliant - so many familiar faces that the Hackney Empire audiences know and love. There are great special effects, costumes and surprises, the choreography is bound to get everyone dancing in their seats, and the most thrilling thing that makes Hackney special is the music. We have a cracking live band, all the vocals are sung live and we have a mix of great pop songs - old and new, some great mash ups and also some fantastic original songs that really help tell the story and comment on the London we are living in today - so there really is something for everyone. 

Gemma in The Rink at the Southwark Playhouse
As one of the leading female actors in the West End right now, what advice would you give to other performers who may be trying to break into the industry? 

That’s so lovely of you to say - thank you. I mentor a few young people entering the industry as I remember that the help and advice I have been given along the way has really helped navigate me though an industry that is inevitably tough and intimidating at first.

My main advice is you just have to stick at it and be prepared for constant knock backs, knowing it is not personal. Getting jobs for me has been a mix of preparation, opportunity and a massive amount of luck. I’ve done every part-time job out there to support being able to still go for auditions and I still do various part time work now - once you accept that that is part of it all it somehow makes it easier. Take care of your mental health and sense of happiness whichever way that works for you - be it meditation, yoga, hobbies, supporting each other (particularly other women) and having strong friendships. It’s also worth considering that if it really isn’t helping you to be happy, do something else – life is too short and there are lots of other ways to use your creativity and talents, it just takes a bit of time to find them. I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves nowadays because of social media but it’s important to not measure success on what you see on those platforms as a lot of it is smoke and mirrors. 

Keep going, have faith in yourself and trust your instincts. 

Do you have any plans for the year after your run as the title role in
Aladdin at the Hackney Empire? 

I start rehearsals for Follies at the National Theatre in January, playing young Sally. I’ve wanted to work there for such a long time so I’m really looking forward to it. I’ll just have to remember to not slap my thigh in a panto fashion when I come onto the stage - it will be hard after having spent such a fun Christmas at the Empire doing it!

Aladdin runs at the Hackney Empire from Saturday 24 November to Sunday 6 January.
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