She has been performing in West End musicals since she was in her early teens, and in the past year alone she has notched up a starring role at the Open Air theatre, the lead in the Barbican’s first ever panto, Dick Whittington And His Cat, and been nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award – British theatre’s highest accolade. All this, and she is still only 22. Now, Summer Strallen is appearing in new musical comedy The Drowsy Chaperone, and she took time out from rehearsals to talk to Caroline Bishop…
It is nearly midday when I call Summer Strallen, and yet she is just in the process of taking her breakfast out of the oven. She doesn’t tell me what it is, though my late morning stomach rumbles make me conjure visions of hot croissants and jam, or potato waffles and bacon. Anyway, the young actress has no doubt been up late in technical rehearsals for The Drowsy Chaperone, so no wonder she has enjoyed a lie-in and a late breakfast.
It is hard work being one of the West End’s bright young things, but Strallen takes it all in her stride, after all, the theatre has been part of her life for as long as she can remember; her parents were both musical theatre actors, her aunt is actress and singer Bonnie Langford and her elder sister is the returning star of Mary Poppins, Scarlett Strallen. With all this acting pedigree in the family it’s not surprising she became an actress. But, she tells me, if it all goes wrong, she would go and work with animals…
Tell me about your character in The Drowsy Chaperone?
Strallen: The Drowsy Chaperone is a show within a show. There is a character called Man In Chair who is in his apartment in Manhattan listening to a record of [1928 musical] The Drowsy Chaperone. So the musical comes to life in his apartment.
My character is Janet Van De Graaff who is basically the star of Feldzieg’s Follies [a cabaret revue], who has decided to leave the Follies and get married to Robert Martin. Her chaperone is looking after her before she gets married. She [the chaperone] is a drunk basically!
There are so many different characters in it that are just hysterical. It’s just fun, a comedy within a musical. I get two fantastic songs, they are very funny as well. It’s all a bit of a mickey-take on 1920s musical theatre. It’s also got the [modern] twist to it with the Man In Chair who is from our era, you know; he commentates on it so you can understand it a bit more.
How have rehearsals been going?
S: It’s been great. It’s been very quick, we only had three weeks rehearsal so it’s all been quite crazy. We’ve had Casey Nicholaw, the original [Broadway] director and the choreographer, here, directing us, which is fantastic. We’ve just got it up and running, we are in technical rehearsals now, which is very long and slow.
How has it been working with veteran stage actress Elaine Paige [she was the original Eva in Evita in 1978]?
S:It’s been great, she’s absolutely wonderful. You learn a lot from these sort of veterans… we’ve also got Anne Rogers [who has starred in My Fair Lady] on it, absolutely crazy. You can’t beat an old pro really.
Do you hope to have as long a theatre career as they have had?
S: I’m sort of more interested in doing film and television really, because I’ve done 16 years of [musical theatre] already – even though I’m quite young – from just working as a child and stuff.
But you enjoy it?
S: Oh I love it. You can’t beat live theatre. Anything can go wrong, which is the part I hate, but everything can go right, and when you know that the audience is enjoying it, it’s an extra buzz.
So why do you want to get into film and TV?
S: Just to try something different. I might hate it; I might not get into it. It’s a difficult business to get into, I’m not going to say that I’m going to walk into TV and films, but if I was to be lucky enough it would purely be to try something different and to see if I’m good at it.
How have you enjoyed the last year?
S: It’s been fun, I’ve just enjoyed it as it comes. You have to take it as it comes and enjoy it, you can’t get too serious about it all, otherwise you do end up getting very stressed. I try not to think about it, and just enjoy it as much as I can.
How did it feel to be nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award [for Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical] for The Boy Friend at the Open Air?
S: It was an honour, you know. To be nominated with so many fantastic people… It is a difficult category because there are men and women in it. It was an honour and I was really lucky. It’s all down to luck. Also The Boy Friend was a fantastic [show], Maisie was a fantastic part for me. Again [it is set] in the 1920s – I must be quite good at that style now! I enjoy that, I really do, because it’s light and it’s not too depressing.
You’re from an acting family – has that made your career easier or more difficult?
S: Sadly, not easier. But I think people know the name more, because obviously Scarlett’s been around. If I was to go into an audition when I first started they’d say ‘oh is your sister Scarlett?’ But that was kind of it. I didn’t get any preferential treatment. You just do what you do in the audition and see what they think.
Is there more pressure on you to prove yourself?
S: Because I had been training as long as she [Scarlett] had, it would have been more of a disappointment to myself if I hadn’t been good. I can only aspire to what Scarlett is, she’s absolutely fantastic, an amazing artist. We always get the question of sibling rivalry, and there’s absolutely none to speak of, it’s hilarious. When we get out of doing work – unless we’re working together, which we’ve only done once when we were doing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – we are out of work mode when we see each other, we’re in sister mode, family mode.
Did you ever consider doing anything else?
S: When I was very, very young I wanted to be a vet. But I don’t think I was clever enough to be a vet. But I love animals. If I broke one of my legs and I couldn’t perform anymore I’d go and look after dogs or something in a kennel. Or do dog showing, that would be alright.
Speaking of animals, one of your early West End roles was in Cats. How was that experience?
S: Yes, with John Partridge, who is playing my love interest in The Drowsy Chaperone. We are very, very good friends, we’ve been friends ever since we did Cats together and it’s nice to be working with him again.
I was 16. I’d already done The Sound Of Music at Sadler’s Wells and Scrooge at the Dominion, so it wasn’t really my debut. But to do Cats was amazing, because my aunt [Langford] had been in the original cast and both my mother and father had been in the third cast. When my mother came to see it, it was out of this world to think that I was sat watching on the sound desk when I was about a year and a half old, when she was doing it. It was a very proud moment for both of us I think.
Did you grow up quickly being on stage so young?
S: Oh definitely. You’re working as a professional in the world, so to speak. I totally think that people who go to university are amazing, and extremely clever for doing that, and I wouldn’t say that they don’t grow up any quicker…so I don’t think it’s any different, it depends on the person really.
You’ve done a lot of musicals. Would you like to do more straight plays?
S: I’d love to. It’s getting easier to transfer now from musical theatre to plays, because I think people in straight theatre are realising that musical theatre people can act, so I think they are letting us in a bit more now, which is great. Yes I would love to.
Are there any parts you would like to play?
S: I don’t know whether Scarlett would want to, but I’ve always wanted to play Roxie or Velma [in the musical Chicago], with her playing the other part. I’d love that, it would be really wonderful for both of us. We would enjoy that very much, just a little three month stint!
What advice would you give to young people who want to follow in your footsteps?
S: Practise, practise, practise. Try and do as many amateur productions or if they are looking for children for shows, go to auditions, even if you don’t get it. It’s all about experience, and you know, when you’re going for jobs in the West End you don’t just get given them, you have to go for auditions and show people that you can shine out of a group of about 50. You have to practise doing that otherwise you go into your first audition and you’re like, oh goodness! There are some great classes in and around London as well – dancing, acting and singing lessons – that you can do to get into being with people who are as good as you. I think if you’re not sure about going to stage school then you shouldn’t do it. My father’s father was a brigadier in the army so discipline is a major thing for me. You have to have the discipline otherwise you’ll fall behind everybody else, because there are so many people who have that drive. It’s about drive and ambition really.
The Drowsy Chaperone is now previewing at the Novello and opens on 5 June.