Elena Roger was the toast of the West End last year following her performance as Eva Peron in the revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Evita. It is quite a leap from portraying one of the most controversial women of the 20th century to her new role as a stewardess in Boeing Boeing at the Comedy. Roger spoke to Jo Fletcher-Cross about the new challenges ahead and where to tango in London.
Elena Roger is trying to dust off an electric fan when I walk into her dressing room, but springs up and enthusiastically kisses me hello, apologising for the small, slightly airless room. Apparently when she was in Evita, her dressing room was one of the biggest in the West End “like a flat, a bit much, really”, but here at the Comedy she is in a tiny, grey room. It is a bit of a change from the grand boudoir at the Adelphi, but she has begun to stamp her exuberant personality on the dull surroundings. There are pictures of Buenos Aires on the wall, a photograph of her much-missed dog who is back in Argentina, and a Sindy doll dressed as a stewardess – a nod to her role as Italian trolley dolly Gabriella in the aviation-based farce Boeing Boeing.
Tiny dressing rooms aside, Roger is having a great time in her first play in London. “I’m really happy,” she smiles, “and the cast is wonderful, everybody’s lovely, they are all so talented, and the show is really funny. For me it is like relaxing, after having the show on my shoulders with Evita. I enjoy it every night.” While playing Eva Peron was a dream role for Roger – becoming the first Argentinean to do so – it was tough for her to perform in English. A play presents an even more difficult task, but one that she embraces completely: “It’s fantastic. For me, it’s a challenge, because I was learning the language all of last year doing Evita, and to be able to do a play, a straight play here is amazing, it’s really like a gift.”
Boeing Boeing is the story of Bernard, an English playboy in Paris with three girlfriends who are all air hostesses and don't know of each other's existence. Helped by his long suffering housekeeper Bertha, Bernard has devised a sophisticated timetable to organise his love affairs so they can each spend the night at his apartment whenever they stop over in Paris. Everything proceeds like clockwork until the arrival of the new double speed Super Boeing which changes the schedules of the airlines. Bernard's old school friend Robert arrives unexpectedly from England and unwittingly joins in a farcical whirlwind of mayhem and matchmaking. For Roger to be able to pull off the impeccable timing and precision needed in a language that isn’t her native tongue is astonishing.
"I was a bit scared. I thought, what if I can’t understand what everyone is saying?"
“I was a little bit scared at the beginning,” she admits, “because during a musical, you have the music to keep you going. In one way it’s difficult because you can’t stop and think about what’s going on, but you always have the music in the back. But in a play it’s all talking, and talking is not the same. Until I started to feel more fluent I was a bit scared. I thought, what if I can’t understand what everyone is saying?” Roger is far too professional to let a little thing like performing in another language stop her, though. “I am trained to really concentrate on what I am saying all the time, and I’m working with a vocal coach so that my English can be understood.” Her English seems excellent, with only one or two words escaping her, and her commitment is impressive. She clearly likes to push herself. “I am passionate about improving every day some little bits, and to try to make my character and my acting understood and everything better for the audience. I love it, it’s amazing for me to be able to work in that detail. I’ve never been bored,” she says.
It may seem odd that an Argentinean is playing an Italian in a French farce in London, but it somehow seems perfect for Roger. Her background is a curious mix of the exotic and the not-so-exotic: “I have Italian blood, Spanish, Basque French, my surname is from that way; and I also have a little bit of Welsh – my father was born in Patagonia, their surname was Jones. Very Welsh! So I have a little bit of something, everything.” Surprisingly for those of us who only know her for Evita, comedy also comes naturally to her. “I did some plays like this in Buenos Aires. At the beginning of my career I used to be really funny on stage. I did all the funny things, like in Beauty And The Beast I played the small, silly girl who is a little bit crazy, and then after that I did a lot of different musicals, comedy characters, so it’s not my first comic play.” It is difficult to think of two more disparate countries than Britain and Argentina, so it is somewhat surprising to discover that Roger considers both nations to have a similar sense of humour. “I find what I understand of humour and what the English people understand of humour to be the same,” she says. “That combination has to be there, otherwise I can’t do things that for me are funny.” She is particularly delighted to be in Boeing Boeing as it has been produced several times in Buenos Aires, most recently while she was performing in Evita in London.
The critics fell in love with Roger as Eva Peron, describing her as ‘simply sensational’ and ‘a great star’, but she isn’t too worried about what they are going to think of her in Boeing Boeing. “I try to do my best,” she confides. “It’s a lottery. It could be the day the critics come in that’s your worst performance, and that doesn’t mean you’re the worst actress.” After the pressure of being the leading lady, she is definitely enjoying being part of an ensemble again: “It’s lovely to work together. Of course in Evita, it wasn’t all on my shoulders, there were others, they were fabulous and really supportive and without them the show would have been nothing. But the thing is, I had the spot on me. They were all looking at me.”
Roger is very passionate about her contribution to Evita. It was a very important role to her, not just as an actress but as an Argentinean. “In a way, it’s like my story, Evita, it’s the story of my country so I feel a little bit of power in that, to be able to tell the story as I knew the story, as I had it in my blood.”
"In a way, it’s like my story, Evita, it’s the story of my country"
Having lived in London for over a year now, Roger is beginning to assimilate the English way of life, helped along in moments of homesickness by the discovery of pockets of a more familiar culture in the city. “I’m going to Club Milonga today,” she says. “It’s a place where you can dance tango, there are 20 here in London; there are a lot of people interested in our culture.” The early closing times of London’s pubs and clubs was also a bit of a shock, at first. “I think that Buenos Aires has a longer night. Definitely. Like in Spain – Madrid or Barcelona, you have a long, long, long night.” She considers it a small price to pay for the opportunity to work here. London was the first city she visited in Europe, on a trip with her sister 12 years ago. A few more visits followed, sometimes on holiday, sometimes working, performing in tango show Tango Por Dos. When Evita came up she was thrilled: “I thought, what could be better? To live in London for a year, working in theatre. It’s really great. And it enriches me.”
Although she is obviously having a wonderful time, being so far away from home is difficult, particularly for someone so tactile and passionate as Roger. “I miss Argentina. I miss my family, I miss my friends. I need, sometimes, to touch them, to hug them and to kiss them and to have a day with them, talking face to face. But, well, I’m here…the time will come.” There were more barriers to her feeling at home in London when she was in Evita. “The language stopped me doing things,” she says. “I was a little bit – theatre, home, theatre, home.” It wasn’t just her lack of confidence with the language that sent her home to bed early. The physical strain of such a heavy role meant that she had to be careful about what she was doing with her time: “When I was doing Evita I couldn’t do anything, because I had to be so focused on that. Now, I feel that I have more energy during the day, I can do more things, I can live a little bit more. I can go for dinner after the show, with the company. That’s nice.”
At the moment, Roger has no definite plans for after Boeing Boeing, but she is not short of ideas: “I would like to do more plays. Maybe a tango show. And I would like to make some films.” Staying in London would be something she would definitely consider. “I’m feeling at home here,” she says. “This is my second job so I feel like it’s good, but I would like to have more work here and be able to go to Buenos Aires and do some work there, and then come back here; to have two homes and improve all my things – my language and my accent and my acting. Everything. That’s my little dream.”
There is also the possibility of her bringing her own show to London. Together with director Valeria Ambrosio she devised Mina, Che Cosa Sei in which she starred in Buenos Aires. The musical, based on the life of a famous Italian singer, was a huge success at home, winning five awards in the Argentinean equivalent of the Laurence Olivier Awards, including Best Actress In A Musical for Roger. She is justifiably proud of the achievement. “It was like watching my little daughter or son winning,” she beams. “It was great, it was lovely. People loved that show in Buenos Aires.” Her Italian heritage prompted her to create the show; she lived for 15 years with her Italian grandmother. “I wanted to sing in Italian because I feel it is a lovely language, and I feel it so inside me, I am really passionate about it. I started to listen to all Mina’s songs and I thought, that’s amazing, and that’s amazing, and, well, maybe, I could do a concert.” The project soon became a little more ambitious, turning into a full-scale show, with only three weeks to create the whole production. But the gamble paid off. “People in Argentina – everyone doesn’t understand the Italian language, but they were amazed because they could enjoy the music and the singing and the visuals without understanding what I was saying. So that was amazing.”
Roger considers the possibility of presenting it in front of a London audience. “Maybe they wouldn’t like it…” she muses. “But I think English people love Italians. And it has good lighting, nice colours, nice staging, nice music, it’s not too long. It’s a nice show. I think that if you enjoy doing it, the people can enjoy it. So maybe, that’s the next thing…”
She casts a longing glance at the picture pinned to the wall of her beloved dog, who is being looked after back in Buenos Aires. It seems that she would like to spend a bit of time at home. But her ambitions will no doubt bring her back to London. She certainly won’t be sitting still and waiting for the phone to ring. “I have a lot of dreams. The thing is to keep doing things.”