As Legally Blonde The Musical’s leading lady, Carley Stenson may live in a pink and fluffy world, but, as Matthew Amer finds, the girly veneer hides a steely centre.
It is all too easy to jump to conclusions when a TV soap star is cast in a West End musical. We’ve all had the same thoughts about how much of a boost they were given by their screen profile and whether those extra few column inches eased them ahead of a regular stage performer who has never been written about in Heat magazine or posed for a magazine.
Carley Stenson, who spent a decade as a regular in C4’s teen soap Hollyoaks – probably the number one contributor of young actresses to the pages of lads’ mags Nuts and Zoo – has had entirely the same thoughts and completely understands: “I’ve made those assumptions as well; I try not to do that now.”
The 29-year-old actress has been starring as Legally Blonde’s loveable lead Elle Woods since July 2011, stepping into the shoes of Sheridan Smith – who won an Olivier Award for her creation of the role in London – and reality show winner Susan McFadden, who had the unenviable task of following the critic-wowing Smith.
While Stenson may have breathed a sigh of relief at not having to hop into Smith’s intimidating pink boots, the pressure of proving herself to be more than stunt casting has laid heavy on her shoulders. Still, she’s not one for running away from a challenge or taking the easy route.
“I didn’t go to [drama schools] Mountview or LIPA,” she explains as we chat in her dressing room deep in the bowels of the Savoy theatre. “I got into Mountview and LIPA but I was in Hollyoaks at the same time. If you were given my opportunities, what would you have done? I think it’s a hard decision to make.”
Indeed it is, the conundrum of staying in a paying job, gaining experience and building a CV versus bona fide training but with no guarantee of employment at the end of it. You can understand why she stayed in the soap.
“If I would only get a job because I’ve been on the telly, tell me to go home now, because I don’t want to get it that way”
Of course, TV viewers and theatregoers alike didn’t know that she had been singing and dancing from a young age or that she had continued training in those disciplines while playing Steph Cunningham in the Chester-set show. We simply saw a young actress in a soap opera constantly made the butt of jokes about storylines and acting.
As her decade in the soap edged closer and she started to consider her options, Stenson put a challenge to her vocal tutors: “If I would only get a job because I’ve been on the telly, tell me to go home now, because I don’t want to get it that way.” They didn’t and now she is leading a West End show.
But she was not gifted the much sought after role, nor did she walk straight into the lead. Stenson auditioned and auditioned for a place in the supporting cast, understudying the lead, joining the show as Margot in October 2010.
The actress, who is bubblier than a tub full of Matey, made her West End debut in Legally Blonde and is extremely honest about her abilities when she first joined the production: “If I’d gone straight in as Elle, which I don’t think I was ready for, I wouldn’t have done it justice. If I had have been given it just off the back of the TV it would have been shocking, it would have been awful. You’ve got to work hard for a role like this.”
In fact, Stenson wasn’t deemed quite ready to be the first cover for Elle when she joined the show. She responded by requesting extra rehearsals and extra singing lessons to make sure she would be up to scratch. “You’ve got to keep learning,” she says. “You’ve never learned as much as you can, you’ve got to keep going. If there’s another role out there that I want to do and I’m not quite ready for it now, I’ll persist. If I’m not good enough in the end, I’ll go fair enough, hands up, but if there’s ways I can work on it I will do it and I will get there. I’ll be Shrek next,” she giggles.
In truth, there are few musical theatre roles that would demand as much of an actress. As the homecoming queen who ditches her credit cards in favour of books to snare the man of her dreams, Stenson is on stage for most of the show and sings in almost all of its numbers. It is, she admits, “knackering but amazing. I think it’s the best show out there for a female performer.”
While it might be a treat of a role, it comes with great responsibility. “Our director is always saying ‘It rests on you. If your energy’s low, everyone will go with the flow of you. If you’ve got a good energy, they bounce off you and you can lift the show.’ If you’re feeling a bit flat, you can really tell.” So, above her shelf of cosmetics and nail varnishes sits a shelf packed with remedies; ginseng, Barocca and lots of honey and lemon, “which my dentist hates”.
“It’s the best show out there for a female performer”
As Stenson leads Legally Blonde The Musical into its third West End year, it is one of the shows currently taking part in the Get Into London Theatre campaign, offering reduced priced theatre tickets across the capital.
For theatregoers considering taking advantage of the deal, the show has, she says, “bits for everyone and every age. You never have a minute where you can sit back in your seat and think ‘What shall I have for my dinner?’ You’re just constantly tuned to it because it doesn’t stop; it’s really fast-paced, in your face, loud and proud. I’ve never met anyone who’s come out and didn’t like it, because it uplifts you.”
“I try to see as much as I can,” she says of the London theatre scene. “I like taking someone to see a show and watching their faces.” If she didn’t have friends in half the casts in London, she’d be using Get Into London Theatre to “take my mum and my stepdad, or my dad, to go and see Ghost The Musical, because that’s wicked.”
But all is not rose – or maybe pink – tinted in the capital for this self-confessed “northern monkey”, as she admits, “I do miss being able to pull over and park or get in my car and move. Down here you have to give yourself 30 minutes to drive to the shops.”
The mundanity of her complaint only highlights Stenson’s grounded nature. Hers is not a soap star life of awards ceremonies, premieres and footballer boyfriends; she would rather be known as a great character actress whose name lies just out of your grasp than a famous leading lady. She had the merest taste of intrusive attention in her previous job and that was enough to put her off.
“I chose not to do the Nuts [photo shoots] and stuff like that. I think I did two the whole time I was on Hollyoaks. I guess with Hollyoaks you’re really fortunate because you’re not so in the public eye and people don’t like admitting that they watch it, so you don’t get a lot of attention like the other programmes do. I found it quite easy to control what I was in or what I wasn’t in or how I was snapped,” she explains.
That was until her then boyfriend and Hollyoaks co-star Ricky Whittle appeared on hit BBC entertainment show Strictly Come Dancing. When his profile rose, so did Stenson’s, and their break-up became fodder for the tabloids. “I had press outside my door at eight at night, knocking and asking, ‘Can I have a cup of tea. Do you want to talk about it?’ That was laughable. It shocks me that people would do that.” In hindsight, she wishes she had invited the press in and tried to discuss their relationships.
If nothing else, the unsavoury period served to prove to Stenson that the life of a paparazzi magnet was not for her. “Coming here I sat on the tube with rollers in my hair, a big hat over my head and no make-up on. If I wanted to be famous I would not do that,” she laughs. Blonde she may be, but there’s more to Stenson than pink fluffiness.