Wednesday, 21 August 2019

INTERVIEW: AJ Bentley, currently in Mamma Mia! The Party at the O2

AJ won Gary Barlow's BBC’s talent search Let It Shine, with his band Five to Five. From this, he embarked on an 18-month UK tour in The Band Musical, including an eight-week run in London’s West End. AJ Bentley plays Adam in Mamma Mia! The Party at the O2.

Mamma Mia! The Party is set in a taverna on the island of Skopelos, where most exteriors of the first MAMMA MIA! film were shot. Nikos and his wife Kate run this exotic and wonderful restaurant together with their family and friends. Told through dialogue and ABBA songs, a warm, romantic and funny story evolves and unfolds during the evening, taking place around the guests as they sit at their tables enjoying a delicious Greek meal. The evening ends with the main floor transforming into a 1970s disco, where audience members are welcome to stay to sing and dance to original ABBA recordings.

Mamma Mia! The Party is going to be an experience like no other, tell us a bit about the concept for this show.

Mamma Mia! The Party is an immersive theatrical dining experience, set on the magical island of Skopelos - the same island the Mamma Mia! movies are set. You arrive at ‘Nikos Taverna’ and immediately you feel like you’ve been transported to a Greek Island. During your evening you will enjoy a three course Greek meal, a three act show written by the amazing Sandi Toksvig and featuring the music of ABBA, and an ABBA disco at the end. The show happens around you... You’re not just coming to see this show, you are IN this show, and that’s what adds to the magic! 

Tell us a bit about the story that centres around the immersive experience.

The story follows an action packed evening in ‘Nikos Taverna’. Nikos and his wife Kate run the restaurant, with Nikos’ mother (Grandma) overlooking the action from her balcony. Nikos’ daughter Konstantina and Kate’s nephew Adam (who both work in the restaurant) have fallen for each other - much to the dismay of Nikos and Grandma who think Adam is just trouble. As the evening goes on, tensions rise and the story evolves whilst everyone frantically attempts to keep the restaurant running smoothly for the guests.

What can fans of Mamma Mia! expect from this show?

Fans of Mamma Mia! can expect a jam-packed evening of ABBA hits woven perfectly into an original storyline, with lots of food, drink, fun and laughter. And LOTS of singing and dancing!

What was your experience with Mamma Mia! prior to this production? 

ABBA songs are just a part of my life without even consciously making it so. I’ve been brought up on them. I love both of the Mamma Mia movies - a lot of the songs from both movies feature in this show. I’ve been to see the West End show too, which just leaves you with a smile on your face! The music is such good fun to sing and perform. Also to be working with Bjorn is an honour, so my main job is to do his songs justice (He hasn’t fired me yet, so I’m hoping I’ve passed!).

You are most known for winning the BBC and Gary Barlow’s ‘Let It Shine’ where they searched for the stars of the new Take That musical, The Band. What was your experience like on the reality TV show?

I had the time of my life on that show. It was such a surreal experience. Being on a show on the BBC, hosted by Graham Norton, being judged by Gary Barlow, performing with Take That and Olly Murs, performing live to millions of people at home and then eventually winning the show - that was just beyond my wildest dreams. Then the day after we won, we spent the day with Take That and Robbie Williams filming a TV advert for the musical. I had to pinch myself. I feel very grateful for the opportunity I was given and thankful that it has given me the chance to continue in this line of work. May the good karma continue! 

What pushed you to audition for the show originally? 

I’ve grown up watching those TV talent shows and being a Take That fan made this one perfect for me. Also I wanted to be in theatre, and move my career forward. I was in my third year of training in contemporary dance and although I love it, I just knew it wasn’t where I wanted to be. My mum sent me the link for the ‘Let It Shine’ open auditions, I went to it, and the rest is history! 

And after having completed the 18 month tour of the show, including a short run in the West End, how has the whole experience been for you? 

My experience on ‘The Band’ was so much fun. I loved the show, so that made performing 8 shows a week for 18 months a little less exhausting. I mean don’t get me wrong, it was pretty exhausting, especially moving from venue to venue, city to city every week or two and living out of a suitcase, it can be tough, but well worth it! Also I got to perform in some of the most gorgeous theatres and see lots of amazing towns and cities across the UK - and made my West End debut which was very special (especially as it landed on my 23rd birthday!) It’s an experience I’ll ‘Never Forget’.

After going on this very long journey with this particular project, do you have any special memories that really stand out?

I could name many things. One of the most amazing things about working in this industry is that you’re in with a chance of meeting and working with your heroes. People that you’ve grown up worshiping in a way. It’s a bizarre feeling. I can’t believe some of the things I’ve been able to do, and people I’ve been able to work with over the past couple of years. I’m flashing back quickly through everything as I’m writing this, and it really blows my little brain. I’ve met some people that will be friends for life, I’ve learnt a lot about myself and grown massively (not height-wise unfortunately) and just feel blessed to have been given the opportunity.

You come from a dance background, so what made you make the move into musical theatre?

Firstly, because I love theatre. I love to watch it and be a part of it. Theatre moves me in ways that I don’t usually feel in day to day life. I love to dance, but I love to sing and act, and theatre allows me to do all three!! 

What advice would you give to young people who look up to your career and want to pursue musical theatre?

I feel very lucky to call this a job, it’s the most amazing thing to do this for a living. But it can be tough. You can go for months, sometimes even longer without acting work and you have to find ways of coping, both mentally and financially! You need to be prepared for the rejection and the scrutiny. If you think you can deal with that, then I would suggest working hard on developing your acting, singing and dancing ability and constantly strive to better yourself - there’s A LOT of performers out there wanting the same job. You could audition for musical theatre schools and train this way (which doesn’t work for everyone- I didn’t train in MT but I do take classes regularly to improve on where I’m at). There’s no ‘right way’, you need to find your own way. Essentially do what you can to get yourself out there, meet people in the industry, make contacts and find ways to be seen. 

You have only just started with Mamma Mia! The Party, but do you have any dream roles or shows you’d like to do in the future?

In terms of theatre, the main thing for me is to keep developing and challenging myself as an actor and as a performer. No specific show springs to mind right now. I’d love to be in a musical movie (the Mamma Mia!’s/Rocket Man/La La Land/Bohemian Rhapsody/A Star Is Born)- those sort of films.

In terms of Mamma Mia! The Party, what are you most looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to every show being different. That’s the beauty of immersive theatre, we don’t know how each audience will react which keeps us on our toes show to show! 

And in one sentence, why should people come along? 

Because with all the bad things that are going on in the world right now, we will provide an evening of escapism, utter joy and entertainment... Oh and ouzo!
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