Walking across Regent’s Park in the middle of a heat wave on my way to interview Charlotte Wakefield and Michael Xavier, I catch snippets of sound rehearsals floating across the green and, as the soaring notes of The Sound Of Music hit me, I genuinely have to stop myself from launching into a full on Maria moment. By the time I reach Wakefield and Xavier my professional journalistic non-twirling persona may have kicked in, but I can’t shake a twinge of jealousy towards the pair who get to perform Rodgers and Hammerstein’s story in this setting that, on a balmy evening, no amount of enthused marketing copy can do justice to.
The pair are far too lovely to stay jealous for long. With three Olivier Award nominations between them, a genuine intellectual and creative fascination with the story and an age gap considerably smaller than usually portrayed in the classic musical, they make for a truly interesting and appealing Maria and Captain von Trapp.
Affectionately bickering and making fun of each other throughout our interview in the al fresco theatre’s bar, the pair may not have auditioned together, but the chemistry was certainly there waiting. Catching them before an evening preview, they took time out to talk to me about walking in screen legends’ footsteps, the joys of working with 18 children and why falling in love on stage is easy.
How have performances been so far?
Xavier: Amazing. I think we’re all collectively delighted because there’s a great sense of positivity amongst everybody in this production that we’ve got something really special, that’s it a really different production of The Sound Of Music. Well, as different as you can make it within the parameters of the show. But it’s something really sensitively put together by Rachel Kavanaugh, our director. She’s just a genius at making the story and the relationships the most important thing.
Wakefield: It’s all about the story, it’s not about any frills. That’s what’s great about it, you come to this place where, as an actor it’s quite exposing – because the set is behind you and you don’t have a proscenium arch to frame you – it makes you make true decisions about what you choose to do. You have to be bold and Rachel’s been great in that she’s let us take risks and be big and be …
Xavier: [finishing her sentence]…free to explore it. It’s my second time working with Rachel now and she’s so good at allowing the actors to feel like they’re part of the creative process.
So do you feel like you’ve been part of the creating the final feel of this show?
Wakefield: It was like Rachel had built the frame for this blank canvas. The frame was there, but we filled it with her vision.
Xavier: I think that’s what Rachel is really clever at doing, making us feel like we’re responsible for bringing stuff to it, but actually Rachel’s got a very clear vision of what she wants.
What was your experience of the show before you came to it?
Wakefield: I grew up with it. I’ve always been into the big MGM musicals, but The Sound Of Music was one that I watched all the time. It’s one of those that was always on TV.
Xavier: I haven’t seen the film for probably 15 years now, so I don’t remember a great deal about it, but I never like to watch a film of a show I’m about to do because I never want to be influenced by how Christopher Plummer, for example, plays the role.
Wakefield: Me too. It’s so difficult not to remember Julie Andrews’ amazing performance, but I’ve had the opportunity to strip back the character, do research and have my own twist on the character. I’m probably at the younger end of how it’s been played before, it’s usually cast a little bit older, but I’m playing it as my age, which is 22, which is how old she was.
Xavier: I like the fact as well that they’ve cast the Captain younger because I think it makes the love story slightly more believable.
Wakefield: I’ve heard people saying it brings this kind of youthfulness and, if you can use the word when you’re talking about The Sound Of Music, sexiness. There’s a sexiness about it which is more believable than if you were to have someone that’s nearly 50 and someone who is 22.
You’re playing such an iconic pair. Did you have to audition together as part of the process?
Xavier: The funny thing was we didn’t. My flatmate and friend was saying to me ‘I’ve got a good feeling about The Sound Of Music’ and I’d had two auditions for it and I hadn’t met any of the potential Marias or read with them. I just said ‘there’s no way I’ve got the part because they would have brought me in’. Then the next thing I get a call from my agent saying ‘You’ve got the part!’.
Do you think that was a deliberate decision on Rachel’s part?
Xavier: I’ve worked with Rachel before so I think she knew what I could do. The job we did together was Love Story. It was really important that we had a connection emotionally and physically between me and the girl playing the other part, so she probably could see that I was comfortable with that and therefore didn’t necessarily feel like we had to meet up.
Wakefield: Yes, and also being from the background that I’m from, if you look at Spring Awakening…
Xavier: [interrupts] You’re always getting your kit off. She knew you were comfortable with that.
Gosh, how different is this production of The Sound Of Music?!
Xavier: You’ve got to come and see it! Ticket sales go up…
Wakefield: I think it’s because I’m from a modern musical background, and with that young element, I guess I must have just come across as being quite an open person. Working with different people, I don’t hold back because I don’t think you get as much from an on stage relationship if you don’t get to know the person. Me and Faye [Brookes, who plays Liesl] went to school together, but you went to the same high school [in Cheshire] as us as well, so I’ve always known of Michael Xavier, but our paths have never crossed.
Xavier [jokes]: There aren’t many people who haven’t heard of Michael Xavier.
That’s such a coincidence! Was it a performing arts school?
Xavier: It’s just a normal high school.
Wakefield: Danielle Hope went there too! I think there’s something like six or seven of us on the West End stage now from just a tiny little school.
Xavier: [jokes] Well actually I was the first, so I started the wave, I led the pack.
Had you seen each other’s work before working together?
Wakefield: I’d not seen you in stuff, but I’d seen videos and things…
Xavier: Oh ‘video and things’. I was young and needed the money [laughs].
Wakefield: No no [tells him off], because I had lots of friends in Love Story but never got to see it. And so, I had watched stuff and knew of you, because it’s hard not to know the Michael Xavier. We’ve both done Mamma Mia! as well so we have that connection.
Is it strange knowing you’re going to have to fall in love on stage with someone you don’t know?
Xavier: I’ve done it so many times, it’s not anymore [laughs]. When you do your first kiss it’s like ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to kiss this person!’
Wakefield: It is! We did our first kiss scene not very far into rehearsals and I’d only met you like two weeks before, so it is weird and it is a bit nerve wracking. But it’s just part of it. I’ve got my kit off on stage, I think I might be alright [with this]. And also we’re quite similar because of where we’re from and we’ve got a great friendship.
Xavier: We got on straight away which is nice, I think if you didn’t get on with the person you were with it would be… challenging.
Wakefield: You just wouldn’t get the same thing on stage, it would just be fake and that’s…
Xavier: What Charlotte’s trying to say is she’s in love with me. She’s not having to act.
Wakefield: That’s not what I’m saying! But it is great to get on with the person.
What’s it like working with the 18 kids in the show?
Wakefield: They are amazing. But it’s a challenge because, for example, if we’re rehearsing something with kids, I have to do it three times over because obviously we had to do one team and then the next.
Xavier: It is exhausting for you isn’t it, with all the Do-Re-Mi’s.
Wakefield: This show is so physical for me. If I’m on stage I’m physical and if I’m backstage I’m doing quick changes then running all the way round, so I never really get a chance to sit down. This is also so different from anything I’ve ever done vocally. I did Mamma Mia! for two and a bit years, I had a week off from finishing that in the West End to starting a Rodgers and Hammerstein top soprano. Going from playing Sophie, which is pop belt, to high soprano was the biggest challenge I’ve ever had in my life.
How are you both finding the challenges of the weather?
Wakefield: It’s almost been too hot, if we can complain. I wear a lot of thick, heavy costumes. The costumes are great, Peter McKintosh is a genius. Even down to the detail of the wedding dress and the detail of the Nazi uniforms, the historical detail that has gone into the making of these amazing costumes…
Xavier: He doesn’t let things go, Peter. He’s really anal about everything and it really pays off because the costumes are fantastic.
Wakefield: Then you add the elements… the other night you were singing Edelweiss and I was sitting there, watching you, but thinking…
Xavier: ‘What am I going to have to drink at the bar?’
Wakefield: No! Thinking ‘This music, under the stars in London, that’s crazy’. You just don’t get that opportunity to perform such a beautiful production in such an amazing setting.
I’ve spoken to people who have come up after the show and people have said ‘I’ve just had a gorgeous night’. And it’s not necessarily about the drinks they’ve had before or just the show or…
Xavier: [interrupts enthusiastically] The barbeque!
Wakefield: It’s the whole experience from arriving at Baker Street Station, walking through the park, getting here, having your barbeque, starting the show, the lights coming up as the sun goes down; it’s not just a show, it’s a theatre experience.